September 3rd – Sarah Orne Jewett

“Find your quiet center of life and write from that to the world.”

Sarah Orne Jewett

Sarah Orne Jewett was born September 3rd, 1849, in South Berwick, Maine. She lived her entire life in Maine, and was a foundational figure of American regionalism. Her short stories, novel and poems depict life in the seaport towns there. Her father was a country doctor, specializing in diseases of women and children, and he took her on his rounds where she learned about the people and the places throughout their area. As a child she developed rheumatoid arthritis, and as a treatment was encouraged to take long walks, which helped her detailed observations of nature. Jewett studied at the local Berwick Academy, but was often home because of her ill health, reading from the family’s. 

Jewett published her first short story, “Mr. Bruce” in The Atlantic Monthly December 1869, when she  was twenty. With the encouragement of William Dean Howells, Jewett turned her stories into the book Deephaven (1877).  Her novel The Country Doctor was based on her experiences with her father, although the protagonist is a female who chooses to become a doctor instead of getting married. A White Heron (1886) also deals with a woman turning down marriage in favor of a medical career. These were published at a time that the first female doctor in the US, Elizabeth Blackwell, was still alive, and most medical schools were not accepting females. Jewett is best know for her novel The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) and also for her poetry, published posthumously under Verses (1916).

Her novels center around independent women who focus on their personal lives and passions. 

Jewett was closely associated with writer Willa Cather, who dedicated  her 1913 novel O Pioneers! to Jewett. 

She was also close with writer Annie Adams Fields and her husband, editor, James T. Fields who was editor of The Atlantic Monthly. When James died Annie and Jewett lived together in what was called a ‘Boston Marriage.’ Annie was 15 years her senior, and Jewett lived with her until her death. She said that in Annie she found “friendship, humor and literary encouragement.” 

Jewett was dedicated to her writing. She would sit and write sometimes an upwards of 10,000 words a day on a novel, or a complete magazine sketch, and generally kept up a writing schedule of 2000-4000 words a day five days a week. Between projects she gave herself time to explore and relax – “For months, maybe, she reads and rides and rows till she has something more so well worth saying that pen and paper must come into play again.” 

On her 53rd birthday she was in a carriage accident that ended her writing career. In March 1909 she was paralyzed by a stroke, and died after another stroke on June 24, 1909. 

In 1994 a biography by Paula Blanchard, Sarah Orne Jewett: Her World and Her Work was published, as well as a collection of Jewett’s best-known work Jewett: Novels and Stories

Lesson from Jewett

Like the heroines in her novels, Jewett pursued her passion without apologies. She lived what was at the time an unconventional life, but it worked for her, and allowed her the creative space to write. 

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