Posted by: zhiv | May 25, 2010

Maine Novels: The Pearl of Orr’s Island, Harriet Beecher Stowe

I broke one of my rules, such as they are, after finishing this book. It was the middle of the afternoon and I didn’t feel like writing it up yet, so I dipped into some of my Stowe materials to read a little bit about it. In doing so I quickly learned about the composition of this novel, which is fascinating, but I’m afraid that the knowledge infected my own critical impressions.

Let me start, then, by going back to why I was reading this book in the first place. It’s a Maine novel, and perhaps one of the first. I can’t say exactly where, but I’ve seen it mentioned a number of times as an important predecessor to The Country of the Pointed Firs and much of the other work of Sarah Orne Jewett. And it’s easy to see the connection, how Pearl is a story of maritime New England, and a Maine novel through and through. If one wants to boil it down to its essence, to what it accomplishes that is significant and not generic religious fiction, the strongest element is certainly its firm placement in its Maine setting. This is richly described and well-paced, filled with brisk mornings in the cove where Captain Kitteredge builds boats, and lots of quiet moonlight on the water, along with tramps through the woods. The intimate knowledge of the landscape that Jewett uses to such strong effect is there, or the beginnings of it at least. Also present is the intimacy of the small community. There aren’t a lot of people in this remote world, but we know the ones who are in it quite well.

Jewett was able to marshall these effects with exquisite delicacy and mythological echoes in Pointed Firs, but it’s best to first read Pearl backwards from Jewett’s earlier attempts and books, Deephaven and A Country Doctor. The old sea captains telling their tales and the women making themselves busy, while possessing great local knowledge, all the primary matter in Deephaven, are there in this story. Deephaven, written in 1877, is elegaic, set when the seafaring economy was largely past and existing only as stories. Pearl was written in 1861-62 and first conceived in the early 50’s, and it marks a time when the old captains of the late 70s were still active, sailing the world and making their fortunes. The opening sequence of A Country Doctor, Jewett’s more conventional novel and a rather successful female bildungsroman (which Pearl isn’t, unfortunately), is even more strongly reminiscent of the opening of Pearl, as both plot out and dramatize the birth of a motherless girl child. Pearl doubles down on this, when a young boy, Moses, is washed up on shore, clasped in the arms of his drowned mother after a nighttime shipwreck. A third child, Sally Kitteredge, grows up nearby, creating the triangle that gives the book its basic energy and conflict.

Stowe got off to a great start in setting up a slightly twisted brother and sister (they are but they aren’t) dynamic that seems headed down the same road as The Mill on the Floss, aimed squarely at the female bildungsroman. Mara Lincoln is smarter and more thoughtful than her decidedly male “brother,” Moses Pennel, and the local minister Mr. Sewall takes notice of her and guides her education. This is where critics are disappointed, where Stowe breaks off what could have been an important 19th century novel and study of female identity. But I’ll save the discussion and effects of the break for a moment. What happens is that the story jumps ahead and briskly plays out a conventional melodramatic plot that is laced with a strong dose of religion. Moses returns from his sea voyages and his pride won’t let him declare his love for Mara, so he flirts with Sally. At the end of a long summer, when Moses is building his own ship, everything is set right and Moses and Mara declare their love for each other, making their wedding plans for Moses’ return. But Mara is too light and spiritual and pure to live in this world, and her strength to live ebbs slowly away. Moses makes it back in time for a long goodbye as Mara goes to “a better place,” and then he heads out on another voyage, to try to forget. He returns and marries Sally Kitteredge, with Mara looking down on them both from heaven.

It should be mentioned that Moses’ story allows Stowe to explore material that isn’t found in Jewett, but which seems to be echoed in Captains Courageous. Moses heads out as a boy to fish on the Grand Banks, and he goes on another long voyage soon after, traveling the world. It’s in this section that the break in the novel occurs. Mara has gone to finishing school in Boston in the interim, and she even has a suitor, one Mr. Adams, who follows her back to Orr’s Island, making a brief appearance that serves to send Moses into his flirtatious relationship with Sally Kitteredge for the summer.

The novel works well enough on its own modest ultimate terms, but these do seem to be unnecessarily limited. Stowe is very good at what she does, and it’s interesting to read her study of her three primary characters and their conflict, even if it is routine. Stowe has a strong ability to generate religious sympathy with melodrama, and it should be acknowledged. The disappointment stems from the way in which she is an acute psychologist, how well she draws and understands characters like Moses and Sally, but they merely serve to generate Mara’s religious apotheosis. And Mara herself presented an opportunity to examine female identity and desire and much else in the real world, rather than reducing her to a pure spiritual flame.

I’m curious to study more about how the book works for itself, but it’s time to notice the odd and unfortunate circumstances of its composition. I just typed out my previous post (from February) about Stowe joining Annie and James Fields on the voyage back to America, along with the Hawthornes. JT Fields made a deal with Stowe to write an Italian novel, Agnes of Sorrento (a book about which I know nothing at this point), to be published in The Atlantic. But she was already committed to writing a New England story for another magazine. This intended “story” was The Pearl of Orr’s Island, which had first been conceived in 1852–I have to find out more about that part. So Stowe started writing The Pearl right when she got back to America, hoping to do it quickly. The interesting thing is that the characters and setting took hold of her and came to life, and she became absorbed by the childhood of Mara, Moses, and Sally. The short story, with its original simple plot, turned into a novel. She got as far as Mara’s education, set against Moses’ first trip to sea and fishing the Banks, when she had to break off to go write the promised Italian novel for Fields (and Thackeray’s Cornhill too, I think).

And then the war broke out. There’s an involved story of Stowe’s family during the Civil War, which I covered quickly and can’t remember well enough to digest here. But it’s easy to see that the slaughter and death of thousands of very young men must have had an effect on the conclusion of The Pearl of Orr’s Island that Stowe chose to write, when she returned to it. Mara’s world was circumscribed into sacrifice and spirit, and the story is the celebration of the death of innocent youth in its purity and idealism. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe had written a book about Christian self-sacrifice and “life among the lowly,” and when she returned in the midst of the national crisis to her Maine novel she abandoned its intriguing exploration of female identity, and cut straight to the sad tale of dying young. Kind of hard to blame her, given the circumstances, and I guess it goes to show how accidents and chance can get in the way of creating a great book. Stowe had already written one extraordinary, crucial novel, which was destined to suffer latter day critical neglect, despite its phenomenal popularity, because of its mixture of Sentimental Fiction and race. If she hadn’t sailed home with the Fields, which was apparently a rather sudden decision, and made the deal for Agnes of Sorrento, The Pearl of Orr’s Island might have been a very different book, one that could have established a different feminist slant for American fiction at an early date. And this might have changed Stowe’s reputation, and revised the view of 20th century critics of American Literature. Stowe apparently came that close to writing a New England, highly personal version of Mill on the Floss (1860), right in George Eliot’s wake, and her intense absorption in her old story must have been the result of reading Eliot’s novel. I’ll have to look into that a little bit more. Instead the book served as a quiet but powerful influence on an important, quiet but powerful writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, herself neglected for a long time.

I wouldn’t recommend this as the first Maine novel that anyone might read, but it’s an interesting and relatively satisfying book as one moves past the first part of the list, and its original grasp of the tone and setting is impressive.


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