Exploring writerly lives through literary pilgrimage
–By Robin McCarthy
I return home to Maine in August for one of the last weeks before the semester begins back in Michigan, before the berries go by and the snow starts to fall and the miles between where I grew up and where I live become more difficult to cross. On the day we leave Maine, there are things to acquire; pint of berries from the field, whoopie pies and Italian sandwiches in the manner only a Maine gas station can make them, glass growlers to fill with favored small-batch IPAs.
With these things packed into the Honda Civic that has now looped it’s way between the nation’s coasts for over 260,000 miles, my boyfriend and I drive west across the interior of the state and then South on the interstate. Leaving Maine is my least favorite activity, although I’m too old for homesickness like this, and I know my absences are largely temporary. And so I am happy to stop for a while in South Berwick, just on the Maine side of the New Hampshire state line, to parallel park in front of Sarah Orne Jewett’s childhood home, to eat the first of the squirreled-away sub sandwiches on the bench outside.
I can’t gauge Jewett’s notoriety outside the state, but in Maine, she is one of the great regional writers, one of the first women to portray rural femininity in a manner that was more honest than saccharine, one of the masters of writing about place. Jewett wrote in the late nineteenth century and her stories are quiet vignettes, often featuring elderly characters, set in small Maine towns. When I was a kid, we read Jewett’s short story, “A White Heron,” in middle school as part of a Maine studies curriculum. The Country of the Pointed Firs, perhaps her signature novel, is more a series of vignettes and quiet moments than a novel at all, and seems almost too quietly lovely to be based on actual experience.
But you have to understand where Jewett grew up. She was the one of three daughters of a country doctor raised between a large eighteenth century Georgian house owned by her grandparents and a smaller Greek Revival built next door by her parents. The large white houses are situated stately in the center of town, and today, the older of the two homes is preserved by the nonprofit “Historic New England,” and the smaller house next door serves as a visitor’s center. The town is marked by green gardens and lilacs, large square homes and steepled white clapboard churches. The streets are wide and it’s easy to imagine South Berwick on a holiday advent calendar, little doors cut out of the brick Odd-Fellows Hall for a treat placed inside. Jewett writes of another town, fictionally located further up the Maine coast, like this:
When one really knows a village like this and its surroundings, it is like becoming acquainted with a single person. The process of falling love at first sight is as final as it is swift in such a case, but the growth of the friendship may be a lifelong affair.
It’s certainly possible to see place as a character in Jewett’s writing, to feel the way setting must have influenced how she experienced the world.
Despite her devotion to her home, Jewett’s life was far from contained. She traveled widely across the U.S. and Europe, and split her time between Maine and Boston. She developed close friendships with Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields and his wife, Anne, who tied Jewett to the late nineteenth century writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Willa Cather, Henry James and Harriet Beecher Stowe. After James Fields’ sudden death in 1881, Jewett and Anne Fields remained close companions for the rest of their lives. Much has been made of the relationship between the two women and speculation that they may have been lovers.
What we can know for certain is the esteem in which Jewett held Anne Fields, and degree to which she valued deep friendships with a variety of women. Jewett’s stories often feature intense relationships between women, often of different generations, whose lives are more complex than the romantic domestics represented in much of Victorian literature. Jewett’s women plant gardens and care for livestock and sail boats, while also conveying a quiet devotion to land and community and sensitivity to the meaningfulness of their labor.
Jewett’s own home is at odds with the country folks she describes in her stories. The house is imposing, and it shows few signs of disrepair despite its age, a fact due in no little part to the restoration efforts of both the Jewett family and the efforts of a nonprofit preservation society.
The house was built by a wealthy privateer in 1775. Like the homes of many privateers during the time, the primary objective in building the home was to showcase the owner’s wealth. It’s a large two-story home with old windows and intricate molding trimming each room. Walking through the house, a tour guide mentions the man who “built” the house, and it’s difficult not to reason that what she means is the man who paid for the house to be built. What’s more impressive, perhaps, than the wealth, is the craftsmanship; the intimate attention to detail necessary for the ornate detail work, the curve of the staircase long before modern saws, sanders and lathes. As we move through the front rooms of the house, which are notably more ostentatious than the rear rooms because of they were used for entertaining guests, I am conscious of the space between wealthy land owners and the craftsmen they employ, of Jewett seated at her desk in this home writing about working class locals.
The house is impeccable in its furnishings; a library of books not original to the home but likely to have been the writers Jewett followed, portraits on the walls of her closest friends. There is a desk in the hall on the second floor beneath a window that looks out of Portland Street, and it is there, the tour guide tells us, the Jewett penned 2500 words a day, often writing two or three letters before beginning on her fiction for each day..
And Jewett’s writing does read something like correspondence, brief glimpses into the status quo of a treasured place. Walking through the house, visitors are aware of Jewett’s favorite things; the extent to which she valued travel, gardens, art, friendship, riding horses. There are artifacts of these quiet adorations around the home, and Jewett’s writing feels similar; careful, curated placement of the things about her home she cherished the most.
Jewett is often referenced as an influential creator or regional work, that her sense of the local color is what gave her writing merit. Her success was largely limited because she was a woman writing about female characters in a place that, while unique and perhaps difficult to imagine, was undeniably true to her experience along the Maine coast.
When the tour is over, I linger a moment to walk through the gardens. It’s August in Maine, warm and bright and humid and I am loathe to leave. In the shadow of a house nearing its 250th year, however, it’s a little easier to drive south on the interstate, to buy into the mystical movement of time through this removed place, to believe that it might all be waiting for me when I return.
Robin McCarthy is a writer, teacher and student in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She studies fiction in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University and is an editor for the literary magazine Passages North. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Green Mountains Review, and NPR.