Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Edition: The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories (Signet Classics)
The Country of the Pointed Firs was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896. Chapters 1-7 appeared in January, 8-11 in March, 12-15 in July, and 16-19 in September. The eventual book publication included some additions, including the two final chapters. Due to the success of Country, Jewett published a few more Dunnet Landing stories over the course of her lifetime. Country is widely considered to be Jewett's best work and has earned her a place in the canon of American regionalism, a late nineteenth-century literary movement in which authors detailed the history, topography, customs, and lives in a particular locality.

The novel opens with the narrator revisiting the coastal town of Dunnet in Maine where she had been two or three summers ago which she describes as "unchanged" and with "the same quaintness of the village with its elaborate conventionalities." She lodges with a Mrs. Todd, an eccentric herbalist and widow who had for a long time been in love with someone other than her husband, a man above her station that she had been unable to marry. The narrator is a writer, and in order to get work done, she frequently takes herself away to an old schoolhouse. One time, after the funeral of an old woman named Mrs. Beggs, the narrator is interrupted at the schoolhouse by one Captain Littlepage, an old, retired sea-captain who many regard as a bit "flighty" in his advanced age. Captain Littlepage makes an audience of the narrator, telling her a story about when he was once shipwrecked while on their way to Fort Churchill on the Hudson Bay. There, he was rescued at an old missionary station, where he lodged with a man named Gafett, who told him a story about how his own ship had been wrecked, after he and his men met with some strange encounters in the arctic. They had seen a foggy town beyond where ships usually ventured, with foggy-shaped men: Gaffet posited that it was a sort of purgatory for souls crossing to the next world. The story clearly affects the narrator, though she is inclined to view his story as apocryphal.

One morning, the narrator agrees to accompany Mrs. Todd to Green Island, where her eighty-six year old mother lived. They take a boat out, catching a haddock fish on their way. The narrator spends some pleasant times at Green Island, meeting the bashful but gentle William, Mrs. Todd's brother, in addition to her mother the gracious hostess. They make chowder together, drink tea, and at Mrs. Todd's suggestion, they sing some songs. It seems that there is evidence of some strain between Mrs. Todd and William's relationship; the sister is much more sociable and living at Green Island wouldn't be enough for her, as pleasant as it is. At Green Island, Mrs. Todd shows the narrator some old daguerrotypes of her family and also shows her a spot where she and her husband Nathan frequented during their courtship. Nathan had been lost at sea before he could find out that her heart had already belonged to someone else.

A visitor named Mrs. Fosdick, whom the narrator describes as like a "strange sail" come upon the horizon, arrives at Mrs. Todd's. Though Mrs. Fosdick proves inconsiderate as far as her not giving exactly when she was going to arrive, she is an old girlhood friend of Mrs. Todd's. Together, they reminisce on old times and tell the narrator a story about "poor Joanna." Joanna was a cousin of Nathan Todd's, who decided after being jilted by her young lover to live all alone on an island called Shell-Heap Island. No one could convince her to live elsewhere, and she made do all alone, with friends sometimes sending her some gifts. Mrs. Todd recalls visiting her once soon after her marriage to Nathan. Joanna received her kindly, but reiterated her commitment to staying on the island as a kind of penance for having committed sin of being apart from everyone else. Sometime after Mrs. Fosdick's visit, the narrator, out of curiosity, visits the place of Joanna's old dwelling on Shell-Heap Island. There, she muses how in everyone "there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness."

In the third section, the narrator tells of going on a "great expedition" out to the Bowden family reunion. Mrs. Blackett, Mrs. Todd's mother, has come for the occasion. Together, the three women ride out on a country road over to the Bowden family reunion. The reunion is a grand affair, showcasing the "hidden fire of enthusiasm in the New England nature," an occasion for sharing old family anecdotes, history, and touching base with old acquaintances. The narrator is impressed particularly with some baked goods with "elaborate reading matter" on them pertaining to the Bowden family. Leaving the reunion, the narrator feels as if she has been amongst old acquaintances as well and muses on how "it is the old who really value such opportunities [as reunions]; as for the young, it is the habit of every day to meet their comrades--the time of separation has not yet come."

The final two chapters tell of the narrator getting to know an old fisherman, Elijah Tilley, near the end of the summer. He isn't used to much company after his wife died eight years ago, and up until that afternoon, the narrator and others had found men such as himself inaccessible and secretive. The two end up becoming friends, however, in the brief span of the afternoon. It is soon time for the narrator to depart for the summer was over. Mrs. Todd doesn't allow for an emotional goodbye, but takes care to put together all of the narrator's packages neatly, including with them a coral pin which she was supposed to have given Joanna years ago during her visit, but which Joanna refused. Joanna had told Mrs. Todd to wear it and to remember her by, for the "love of both of us" (referring to Nathan and herself).

The Country of the Pointed Firs is classed as an exemplary piece of local color fiction or regionalism, genres which are generally thought of as builders of national identity after the trauma of the civil war. Such works often detail the diversity of the American landscape, sketching out the customs, landscapes, and peoples of a particular local area, often referring to these locales with a sense of reverence, nostalgia, and sentimental feeling.

Characteristic of local color fiction, Country has no sense of an unfolding plot, but reads more like a series of sketches, and certainly the narrator embodies much nostalgia for the kind of community which she describes. According to Willa Cather later on, Jewett had referred at times to her work as the "Pointed Fir Papers" and "sketches," but not ever as stories. These designations are important because they give the sense of the work as a kind of archival account of a particular area at a particular time--in this case, the dying, maritime coastal communities of Maine. Jewett's narrator's goal in compiling this archive of her summer amongst the inhabitants of Dunnet is not, however, a project to revive or bring back a way of life which she comes to have so much affection for. The community's valuation of old acquaintances, tradition, old family stories, and the imaginative accounts which come out of a wandering maritime life deeply strikes a chord with the narrator, but she does not seek to carry these values back to her city life. As she steams away from Dunnet after the summer, she makes a point of how the Dunnet coasts were "lost to [her] sight." Indeed, it seems that it is Dunnet's isolation, its difference and disconnection from modern city life that makes it special for the narrator. The story of Joanna might serve as a kind metonym for Dunnet: Joanna's story is more precious for the fact that she had chosen to remain alone until her death. Captain Littlepage's account of the isolated arctic town, or the life of Elijah Tilley might be additional metonyms that convey a similar sense of affective power which adheres in isolation. Looking at Mrs. Todd from a distance as the narrator departs, she finds her "mateless and appealing," ascribing an almost mystical sense to her apartness and wholeness, though unmarried and disconnected. As an "archive," these "papers" mimic this contradiction of affective cohesiveness and isolation: they tell of a deeply moving experience, but at the same time the "past-ness" of this experience isolates it from the world to which the narrator will return.

It is interesting, finally, to think about this kind of archival account of New England in relation to earlier, pre-civil war ones like Hawthorne's. Hawthorne's accounts (see entry on Twice Told Tales) are less nostalgic and instead posit a kind of living history, in which ghosts of the American past continue to haunt the present. Stories are passed on from generation to generation; an assumption of historical continuity underlies them. Nostalgia (as opposed to continuity) in Jewett's post-civil war era work posits a break with the past. This important difference suggests Jewett recalibrates contemporary America's relationship to New England, the place of its origins, as one which values yet definitively breaks with the past.

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