Sarah Orne JewettSarah Orne Jewett & the Ghost Story
with a note on her influence on H. P. Lovecraft

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

"The Foreigner," one of Sarah Orne Jewett's finest short stories, today recognized as an important adjunct to the American classic The Country of the Pointed Firs, remained uncollected for over sixty years. It languished in the August, 1900 issue of The Atlantic Monthly until David Bonnell Green included it in The World of Dunnet Landing published by the University of Nebraska Press in 1962. Afterward it was added to the Penguin Books & W. W. Norton editions of Pointed Firs, besides its inclusion in Professor Bendixen's Haunted Women in 1985. This story, so long in obscurity, is today admitted into the ranks of Jewett's most important stories.

Green, speculating how it could be that such a fine story waited so long for recognition, said "the supernatural element may possibly have embarrassed editors & prevented them from collecting 'The Foreigner' along with Dunnet Landing stories."

Inasmuch as the story is connected to Sarah's classic Firs, for which the majority of associated tales were already gathered, by Willa Cather, as early as 1919, the prejudice against supernatural literature, which Sarah experienced during her career, would seem indeed to be at the heart of that one story's long neglect. Her several other weird tales, lacking that special connection with so important a work as Firs, have been afforded even less of a chance of achieving recognition.

The prejudice has carried into the present day, for, in spite of the growing reawakening of public & scholarly interest in Sarah's stories, her supernatural pieces remain largely overlooked. Green himself underestimated the importance of the supernatural in Sarah's work, stating that she "seldom introduced the supernatural into her stories, although she was greatly interested in it." He even makes the excuse for "The Foreigner" that it is "far more than just a ghost story." As Poe's work is more than horror? Well, certainly. It is great art as well.

The fact is that the supernatural is pervasive in the work of Sarah Orne Jewett, although generally kept slightly at a distance. "Miss Tempy's Watchers" infers communication between the deceased woman & the two women sitting watch over her. Miss Tempy, even from beyond the veil, is able to patch up the old grudge between her surviving friends. One of these friends, Mrs. Crowe, may well have been named in homage of ghost story writer & psychic researcher Catherine Crowe, whose writings were wildly popular in the 1850s. The story of "The Queen's Twin" is so wrapped into extraordinary coincidence that ghost story anthologists Seon Manly & Gogo Lewis included it in one of their collections of women's supernatural writings. Even the recurring figure of Mrs. Todd in the Dunnet Landing stories is generally viewed by the narrator as a personification of nature, her use of herbs as witchcraft, her magic being wistful, naive, & working only good. Although these examples aren't entirely to be interpreted as supernatural, elements of the weird are nevertheless imbedded in each. In a letter to Mrs. Annie Fields, a lifelong friend with whom Sarah was deeplky in love, Sarah wrote regarding the mysticism of Swedenborg: "I keep a sense of it under everything else."

So, even supposing Sarah had never written such stunning outright fantasies as "Lady Ferry" & "The Gray Man," it would still need to be said that the supernatural plays through the majority of her work in a subtle but important manner. Why scholars have insisted on denying the obvious is due to the rigid academic attitudes against weird tales. To reinforce their misstatements, her most wholeheartedly fantastic stories have had to be left out of print throughout our century. The publication by Ash-Tree Press in 1998 of Lady Ferry & Other Uncanny People redresses this long neglect, challenging academe's prejudices against supernatural writers other than the holy trinity of Poe-Hawthorne-Irving, two of whom were strong influences on Sarah Orne Jewett, & among whose ranks she aspired to belong.

Her first, & painfully rare collection was Play Days (1878) written for children, especially young girls. Among the fantasies can be found "Yellow Kitten," a fairy tale about a talking cat & some spools that come to life, & "The Shipwrecked Buttons", a winning tale of buttons on a toy boat trying to get ashore in a puddle. "The Ghost Kitten" is about a false ghost, since the kitten turns out never to have drowned; it's interesting that cat-lover Mary E. Wilkins Freeman later wrote an almost identical story, "The Ghost of Seventoes."

Among these children's fantasies there is one story really for adults, "Beyond the Toll-gate," one of Sarah's own choices of her three best stories ("Lady Ferry" & "The Gray Man" being the other two). Though not supernatural, it includes much of Sarah's personal sentiments about "the unknown." The young protagonist has come to believe that the nearby toll-gate, through which she has never passed, is an entrance to paradise or fairyland. When she eventually obtains enough pennies for the toll, she sets out on her child's quest for a spectacular country, & is not entirely disillusioned. The ultimate theme, that there is something otherworldly even in what we discover to be commonplace, places this story at a level of sophistication equal to & exceeding Sarah's most mature writing. Having never been reprinted since its 1878 publication, I could not resist including this important story in the collected ghost stories, though it is the only tale among ten that is not overtly weird.

As with her toll-gate story, Sarah's other choices of her best work were not met with broad editorial or critical favor. She wrote to Annie Fields in 1883, enthused about the developing pages of "The Gray Man," & when the story was eventually received without fanfare, she said again, "I believed in that story so that I would have published it if I had to set the type," & then with an artist's resignation, "If I can only feel that I am on the right road, in one sense I am satisfied." With "The Gray Man," in which Death comes to live in a haunted house, Sarah was far more than "on the right road." It wasn't the first time she'd been pushed aside from it, however.

More alarming still was the earlier fate of "Lady Ferry," among the finest stories from Victorian America. When shown to her most important editor, William Dean Howells, he flatly rejected it & demanded that she adhere to a far more rigid realism. He was willing to damn one of her best stories in order to instill obedience in an author he intended to shape a particular way. That story of hauntings & abnormal longevity had to debut as a previously unpublished story in one of Sarah's collections. We may assuredly presume that she would have written a greater body of overtly weird tales had she been allowed the editorial freedom of, say, a Henry James.

Sarah believed in ghosts, afterlife, & mental telepathy, & asks in her correspondence with Annie Fields, after seeing the ghost of her friend Celia Thaxter the novelist, "where imagination stops & consciousness of the unseen begins, who can settle that even to one's self?" She pleaded for a less realistic type of story that she splendidly likened "imaginative realism," believing a degree of undermining of the strictly rational was essential to good storytelling. Had she been encouraged to elaborate these theories about short story art (as both Poe and James elaborated theirs) she would certainly have been far more influential as a theoretician. She gave great thought to the theory of fiction yet only in private letters hinted at the depth of her intellectual grasp of her art.

This concept of "imaginative realism" can be said to have anticipated the magic realist fiction of the following century. The thing that sets Sarah's supernatural writings so far apart from the regional ghost story as given by Stowe, Freeman, Slosson, Wharton & the rest, is that she was not writing essentially a ghost story. "Lady Ferry" is about immortality, "The Green Bowl" about telepathy & magic, "In Dark New England Days" about witchcraft, "The Landscape Chamber" about a curse, "The Gray Man" an allegory of Death. Such range of theme is extraordinary when one looks at what the majority of New England tales of the supernatural were about between the 1870s & 1900. Others wrote basic ghost stories, pure & simple, & quite good ones too; but Sarah ranged widely for her weird material.

Additionally, Sarah took imaginative realism to mean a degree of ambiguity absent from most New England ghost stories. Most of the writers of the day believed implicitly in ghosts & made their ghosts explicit creatures. Sarah, too, believed in them, but wanted whatever supernatural element she selected to be more mysterious, less definite, than was typical of the ghost stories by other New England women writers. "A Sorrowful Ghost," therefore, might be a projection of guilt & psychosis, & the ghostly visitors to Lady Ferry's cottage, despite the physical evidence of the shoe buckle found later, was potentially the dream of a hypersensitive little girl.

Sarah was best at portraying women of all ages & varying stations of life, but she was well known in her day for her dear old Captains as well. Unlike her women, who were of all kinds, these elderly eccentric captains tended to be undifferentiated. Yet the recurring archetype was repeatedly well-drawn, the perfect reflection of the declining, impoverished, history-laden ports of late 19th Century Maine.

Three of the captain stories are supernatural. All three were worked into chapters of novels. Deephaven, published in 1877, is more a series of connected sketches than a true novel. These sketches had begun to appear four years earlier in The Atlantic & William Dean Howells encouraged their eventual appearance in something of novel form. The chapters entitled "The Captains" & "Cunner-Fishing" stand on their own as a short story & novella, the latter a bit long for inclusion here. In both pieces, the couple from the city, Helen & Kate, during their stay in Deephaven, encounter captains who are inveterate tale-spinners. Captain Lant of "The Captains" & Captain Sands of "Cunner-Fishing" both believe in telepathy & have adventures to relate proving the existence of such mysterious communication.

As Sarah believed in telepathy, many of the ideas of these captains are really her own. In a story not otherwise supernatural, so excluded from this collection, entitled "Confessions of a House-Breaker," the narrator (obviously Sarah herself) leaves her house in the middle of the night to stroll along the dark countryside (and it's thrilling to realize Sarah personally enjoyed wandering through abject darkness in just this manner!). At one point, the narrator becomes acutely aware of a friend far off in her bed, sitting up wide awake, thinking of our midnight stroller. It is this same mystic communication that allowed Captain Lant to witness a cruel event that happened far away, & allowed Captain Sands to be warned by his wife, from considerable distance, of impending trouble.

As an aside, it is evident that Helen & Kate of Deephaven, like Frances & Kate encountered in the supernatural tale "The Green Bowl," represent Sarah's ideal, if partially furtive ideal, of a romantic pair. That Sarah was lesbian is hardly to be doubted. Her unpublished love poems preserved in the Houghton Library of Harvard University are written exclusively to women, especially to Annie Fields. Subliminally lesbian couples recur throughout Sarah's works, as toward the end of her novel A Country Doctor when two girls express their desire to live together in the manner of the famed "Ladies of Llangollen," the most celebrated lesbian couple of the nineteenth century. Sarah also carried on an extensive correspondence with the "out" lesbian Violet Paget, known to enthusiasts of first-rank ghost stories as Vernon Lee, even visiting Violet's lesbian commune, in 1900, in Italy.

Many years after Deephaven, when Sarah composed her masterwork The Country of the Pointed Firs, she made many improvements on her method of connecting stories into a novel. Though the setting is now Dunnet Landing rather than Deephaven, & the narrator is a lone traveler rather than in company with another woman, we are shown many of the same characters & settings, with greater clarity. These include another of her decrepit, endearing captains to whom the supernatural is a fact of life. "Captain Little Page & the Waiting Place" is actually a pair of chapters from Firs which together form a single tale, one of Sarah's most impressive short stories. It's more focused than the series of vignettes that make up "Cunner-Fishing," & better developed than "The Captains," which can be read almost as a warm-up for Captain Littlepage's adventure which, somewhat related thematically to "Lady Ferry," gives the reader to thoughts regarding the meaning or likelihood of immortality.

Praised by Rudyard Kipling, Rebecca West, M. R. James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Le Gallienne, Edward Garnet, William Rose Benet, Gladys Hasty Carroll & Thomas Bailey Aldrich, the focus of many scholarly studies, & a direct influence on such writers as Willa Cather & Mary Chase, Sarah Orne Jewett was also influential in the writings of New England's famous horror writer, H. P. Lovecraft, who set stories in such mythic coastal towns as Arkham & Dunwich.

Dunnet Landing is the most famous non-existent town of Maine & reminds us of Lovecraft's Dunwich, Massachusetts. The influence of regional fiction from the nineteenth century on American horror writers has long been underestimated, though many of the ghost stories of August Derleth are frank imitations of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman & Sarah Jewett. The idea of a totally invented town was well established among the New England regionalists, & it is safe to say there never would have been a Dunwich or an Arkham had there never been a Deephaven or a Dunnet Landing. There has never been in this century any real remnant of Maine as Jewett knew it; for the old way of life was decaying even in Sarah's youth, & her stories served as reminders of the best that was lost. The fact that we all still have alive in our mind's eye an image of tallships, seafaring trade, & rustic coastal villages, is an American cultural inheritence preserved for us foremost in Pointed Firs. So it must be admitted that there exists no New England writer after Jewett who was unaware of her work — probably directly, certainly indirectly — & that includes both Lovecraft & Maine resident Stephen King. Folklorist Faye Ringel detected similarities (perhaps influences?) in King's characterizations of eccentric, older women that placed him "squarely in the line of descent from Sarah Orne Jewett." As for Lovecraft, he may well be regarded as the last of the great New England regionalists; & as is typical of the last of any important movement in art or architecture or literature, "last" implies decadence, in the sense of repeating all earlier themes & modes to splendid excess.

Sarah created her mythic town & peopled it with reticent, strange characters, particularly her old sea captains, as symbols of the cultural and economic decay that New England suffered with the loss of vital sea trade. This reticence & decay, at odds with the romantic views of village life propagated by writers before Jewett, allowed Lovecraft to see the very short leap into the paranoid cultism of his fanciful New England rustics. What Jewett did for pathos, to convey loss of stability in New England life, Lovecraft imitated for an altogether different purpose.

Sarah's final years were unproductive as she lived in pain due to injury. She became, in the end, as we all must, as decayed as her old captains, as eccentric as her village widows. But she was never forgotten, unlike many an author who falls by the way. Until the very end, admiring pilgrims made the journey to her home to visit with the grand dame of American regional writing. Perhaps the present volume will add to Sarah's legions of admirers, lending added longevity to the eerie Lady Ferry, the other uncanny people, & Sarah Orne Jewett herself.

   

The above essay is excerpted from the introduction to Lady Ferry & Other Uncanny People, the Complete Supernatural Stories of Sarah Orne Jewett, edited & with an introduction by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, & a preface by multiple Nebula & Hugo Award winner, Joanna Russ. The book is some while out of print, but check the Catalog link in the navigation bar below, as I've squirrelled away a very few copies still for sale.

   




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