Sarah Orne Jewett
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
THERE is but one familiar portrait of Miss Jewett. It has been so often reprinted that many who have seen it, even without seeing her, must think of her as immune from change, blessed with perpetual youth, with a gracious, sympathetic femininity, with an air of breeding and distinction quite independent of shifting fashions.
This portrait is intimately symbolic of her work. It typifies with a rare faithfulness the quality of all the products of her pen. In them one found, and finds, the same abiding elements of beauty, sympathy, and distinction. The element of sympathy — perhaps the greatest of these — found its expression in a humor that provoked less of outward laughter than of smiles within, and in a pathos the very counterpart of this delicate quality. The beauty and the distinction may be less capable of brief characterization, but they pervaded her art.
Her first published work appeared, when she was only nineteen years old, in this magazine. Her last considerable book had its serial publication here; and the greater number of all her stories, from the beginning to the end, first saw the light in these columns. If Miss Jewett placed a value upon associating thus with life-long friends, — and the loyalty in her voice when she spoke of “ the house ” bore witness that she did, — the Atlantic itself understood no less clearly what it was to count her as a constant contributor ; for her work embodied in a peculiar degree the elements which every serious editor of an American magazine must find related to the complete fulfillment of his purpose.
In the first place, this work of hers, in dealing with the New England life she knew and loved, was essentially American, as purely indigenous as the pointed firs of her own countryside. The art with which she wrought her native themes was limited, on the contrary, by no local boundaries. At its best it had the absolute quality of the highest art in every quarter of the globe, And the spirit in which she approached her task was as broad in its scope and sympathy as her art in its form. It was precisely this union of what was at once so clearly American and so clearly universal that distinguished her stories, in the eyes of both editor and reader, as the best — so often — in any magazine that contained them.
Her constant demand upon herself was for the best. There were no compromises with mediocrity, either in her tastes or in her achievements. It was the best aspect of New England character and tradition on which her vision steadily dwelt. She was satisfied with nothing short of the best in her interpretation of New England life. The form of creative writing in which she won her highest successes — the short story — is the form in which Americans have made their most distinctive contributions to English literature; and her place with the few best of these writers appears to be secure.
If the familiar portrait typifies her work, it is equally true to the person herself. The quick, responsive spirit of youth, with all its sincerity, all its enjoyment in friendship or whatever else the day might hold, was an immutable possession. So were all the other qualities for which the features spoke. Through the recent years of physical disability, due in the first instance to an accident so gratuitous that it seemed to her friends unendurable, there was a noble patience, a sweet endurance, that could have sprung only from an heroic strain of character.
What she was cannot perish from among men, for her books ensure the tangible continuance of her spirit. If it is to be an immortality, we are doubly fortunate who saw its beginnings in her mortal life. What the books are, she herself preëminently was.