Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs

The Country of the Pointed FirsThe Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One recurring theme of my reviews is that classic literary works often defy or exceed their traditional historical categorizations. The -isms of literary history are a necessary organizing system: they help us to locate books in time and context and to recognize common points of artistic and thematic emphasis in distinct eras. Without some generalizations, we can’t think at all; on the other hand, we can’t let generalizations do all our thinking for us. Since one purpose of art is to surprise and enliven, the best works are often those that cannot so easily be herded into their appointed places by the literary historian.

The Country of the Pointed Firs, a novella of 1896, is a good example of how works are often doing something other than their historical designation, their customary -ism, would suggest. Anyone who has heard of Sarah Orne Jewett at all has heard that she belongs to the broad category of “realism,” and is usually relegated to the subcategory of “regionalism.”

Her most famous work, The Country of the Pointed Firs, does bear out these labels. Narrated by a vacationing writer from the city, the novella is set during one summer in a small fishing village in coastal Maine. Our narrator carefully records the manners and mores of the villagers, as well as the landscape, seascape, and flora of the country. Jewett’s concern for the lives of ordinary people, her precision in description, and her verisimilitude in dialogue all make this a work that exemplifies both realism’s rejection of Romantic flights of fancy and regionalism’s interest in often vanishing ways of life far from the economic and urban centers of American society after the Civil War.

Toward the novella’s conclusion, the narrator is on her way back from a family reunion and comments, “The road was new to me, as roads always are, going back.” A wistful newness disclosed by retrospection is the novel’s emotional keynote. The narrator, about whom and about whose metropolitan life we learn little, spends most of her time in the village with its elderly citizens. She lives with an old herbalist named Mrs. Todd, whose eccentricities furnish much of the novella’s gentle comedy, but she also spends time with old sea-captains and fishermen.

In an early comic-Gothic episode, the possibly senile Captain Littleplace tells her a story of an Arctic expedition so haunted and mysterious that I thought the pointed firs were about to give way to the mountains of madness when the sailors encounter “blowing gray figures that would pass along alone, or sometimes gathered in companies as if they were watching.” A much later episode shows her visiting the elderly widower, Mr. Tilley, whose fastidiousness and grief help draw the plotless narrative to its emotional climax: “‘I can’t git over losin’ of her no way nor no how. Yes, ma’am, that’s just how it seems to me.'” She also hears, at the center of the book, the tale of “poor Joanna,” a woman of an earlier generation, who, spurned in love, retreated to a remote island and lived in seclusion for most of her life.

Though Jewett’s tone is superficially light at first, almost like that of the literature of tourism, the narrator comes not to condescend to but to sympathize with these old villagers: the intensity in love and labor of their vanished time, their deep knowledge of land and sea, their seafaring cosmopolitanism to rival the metropole’s as their travels bring them objects and ideas from far away, and their connection to sources of meaning and value that urbanites never experience. The narrator is impressed by the camaraderie and affection that exists even among inhabitants of various coastal islands:

[O]ne revelation after another was made of the constant interest and intercourse that had linked the far island and these scattered farms into a golden chain of love and dependence.

But the gradual disappearance of this community, and the sense that a larger set of human values is evanescing along with it, accounts for the novella’s gathering tone of elegy. The narrator hints, again and again, that this seaside village and its inhabitants, while quaint, also open onto lonely eternities:

There was a patient look on the old man’s face, as if the world were a great mistake and he had nobody with whom to speak his own language or find companionship.

Jewett’s desire to honor this vanishing culture takes her beyond realism. The narrator at regular intervals deploys a literary technique that we associate not with realism but with modernism: what T. S. Eliot, explicating Ulysses, called “the mythic method.” Jewett orders her present-day subject matter by correlating it with ancient precedents. We may at first find Mrs. Todd a charming and humorous old lady, but the chapter where we first meet her ends this way:

She stood in the centre of a braided rug, and its rings of black and gray seemed to circle about her feet in the dim light. Her height and massiveness in the low room gave her the look of a huge sibyl, while the strange fragrance of the mysterious herb blew in from the little garden.

Likewise, later on, after Mrs. Todd tells the narrator about her unrequited love while they are on an herb-gathering expedition, the narrator observes:

She looked away from me, and presently rose and went on by herself. There was something lonely and solitary about her great determined shape. She might have been Antigone alone on the Theban plain. It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this countrywoman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.

In a later instance of the same mythologizing motif, the narrator says of Mrs. Todd: “She might belong to any age, like an idyl of Theocritus.”

No doubt this incipient modernism helps to explain Willa Cather’s love for this novella. She judged, reports the back cover of the edition I read, that The Country of the Pointed Firs “ranked [with] Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…as one of the three American works most likely to achieve permanent recognition.” Cather alludes, in My Ántonia, to Virgil just as Jewett alludes to Theocritus; and we might see Cather as standing in relation to Jewett as Virgil stands to Theocritus, with each later writer refining the earlier one’s pastoral poetry to praise those who live in, with, and by nature—and who are, by virtue of their proximity to land and sea, closer to the gods.

When the narrator joins a procession of the guests at a family reunion, she reflects, echoing Keats’s “Grecian Urn” this time, on the immemorial rituals of human community:

[W]e might have been a company of ancient Greeks going to celebrate a victory, or to worship the god of harvests, in the grove above. It was strangely moving to see this and to make part of it. The sky, the sea, have watched poor humanity at its rites so long; we were no more a New England family celebrating its own existence and simple progress; we carried the tokens and inheritance of all such households from which this had descended, and were only the latest of our line. We possessed the instincts of a far, forgotten childhood; I found myself thinking that we ought to be carrying green branches and singing as we went.

This is a cold pastoral in the end: the narrator’s sojourn concludes with the summer and she goes back to “civilization.” Like the pastoral poets Theocritus, Virgil, and Keats before her, Jewett has only the consolation and keepsake of her art.

Meanwhile, what remains in my memory from this book is less some patronizingly quirky anthropological information of the sort connoted by “regionalism,” but a tone and vision both more archaic and more modern at once, as when the narrator visits the grave of the self-exiled hermit, Joanna:

I found the path; it was touching to discover that this lonely spot was not without its pilgrims. Later generations will know less and less of Joanna herself, but there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over,—the world cannot forget them, try as it may; the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance. This plain anchorite had been one of those whom sorrow made too lonely to brave the sight of men, too timid to front the simple world she knew, yet valiant enough to live alone with her poor insistent human nature and the calms and passions of the sea and sky.

This is an example of the realism that is rarely spoken of by the literary historian: the writer’s realistic appraisal of our ability to endure the endemic hardships of the human condition in whatever region we may find ourselves.

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Willa Cather, My Ántonia

My AntoniaMy Antonia by Willa Cather

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Willa Cather’s 1918 novel, My Ántonia, places itself in the history of world literature about two-thirds of the way through, when its narrator, Jim Burden, goes to college and contemplates the career of Virgil:

After he had faced the bitter fact that he was to leave the Aeneid unfinished, and had decreed that the great canvas, crowded with figures of gods and men, should be burned rather than survive him unperfected, then his mind must have gone back to the perfect utterance of the Georgics, where the pen was fitted to the matter as the plough is to the furrow; and he must have said to himself, with the thankfulness of a good man, “I was the first to bring the Muse into my country.”

Disclaiming epic heroism, modeling poetry on manual labor, consecrating in pastoral literature a new patria, Cather announces her desire to go beyond mere regionalism or local color writing, like that of her mentor Sarah Orne Jewett, and inaugurate instead an austere American classicism. In this intention, she is akin to her modernist contemporaries (especially Pound and Eliot) despite her surface-level smoothness and realism.

My Ántonia begins with a nameless narrator encountering her old small-town friend Jim Burden on a train; both now professionals in New York City, they like to reminisce about their prairie youth, among the Bohemian and Norwegian immigrants in Nebraska, now that they are middle-aged. Jim reveals that he has written a “formless” manuscript, a memoir of his relationship with a Bohemian girl named Ántonia. On a “stormy” afternoon, the “romantic” Jim delivers the manuscript to the narrator—it is the novel we are about to read.

Divided into five episodic sections—it is really a cycle of two novellas and three short stories, its plotlessness and fragmented structure also joining it to modernism (cf. Ulysses, Cane, To the Lighthouse, The Sound and the Fury, etc.)—the novel is Jim’s account of his own life insofar as it has touched Ántonia’s.

The first and longest section, “The Shimerdas,” tells of how Jim, having lost both his parents, is sent from Virginia to the rudimentary settler society of Nebraska in the late nineteenth century to live with his grandparents. There, he meets the titular immigrant family, with whose oldest daughter Ántonia he develops a special rapport. The early passages cast the initially unpromising prairie as a natural utopia where man and woman and nature may join. Here are Jim and Ántonia (and her sister Yulka) in the wild:

We sat down and made a nest in the long red grass. Yulka curled up like a baby rabbit and played with a grasshopper. Ántonia pointed up to the sky and questioned me with her glance. I gave her the word, but she was not satisfied and pointed to my eyes. I told her, and she repeated the word, making it sound like “ice.” She pointed up to the sky, then to my eyes, then back to the sky, with movements so quick and impulsive that she distracted me, and I had no idea what she wanted. She got up on her knees and wrung her hands. She pointed to her own eyes and shook her head, then to mine and to the sky, nodding violently.

“Oh,” I exclaimed, “blue; blue sky.”

She clapped her hands and murmured, “Blue sky, blue eyes,” as if it amused her.

American and European, human and animal, word and gesture, eye and sky—all blend here in a Wordsworthian or Emersonian unity of all things. In this fusion with his world, Jim is richly compensated for the loss of his family and homeland.

Such pastoralism is high artifice in disguise as artlessness; it is the yearning of the city mouse for a simplicity the country mouse never actually experiences. Virgil knew this as well as anyone, and Cather knows it too. Over the course of the long first section, nature shows itself to be no “nest” for human beings. On an excursion, Jim and Ántonia encounter a snake:

I whirled round, and there, on one of those dry gravel beds, was the biggest snake I had ever seen. He was sunning himself, after the cold night, and he must have been asleep when Ántonia screamed. When I turned, he was lying in long loose waves, like a letter “W.” He twitched and began to coil slowly. He was not merely a big snake, I thought—he was a circus monstrosity. His abominable muscularity, his loathsome, fluid motion, somehow made me sick. He was as thick as my leg, and looked as if millstones couldn’t crush the disgusting vitality out of him.

Jim later implies that the snake is the devil (“the ancient eldest Evil”), while the psychoanalytic critic will see a phallus; both interpretations are too crude and literal, but the snake is akin to the devil in revealing that not all of the universe means humanity well and akin to sexuality in showing nature to be an overmastering and devouring force rather than a benevolent womb. One of the novel’s many interpolated stories echoes this theme, when the dying Russian immigrant Pavel tells of how, back in the Old Country, he sacrificed both bride and groom to a pack of wolves pursuing a bridal party across the snowbound landscape. And this section’s central event, the grisly suicide of Mr. Shimerda, is not one simple pastoral can accommodate. Jim’s grandfather’s solemn Protestant piety (he says of the Catholic Mr. Shimerda’s religious practice, “The prayers of all good people are good”) does not quite apply to the realities of the world.

The second section, “The Hired Girls,” moves the action three years ahead and from country to town. Leaving behind pastoral regionalism, the novel becomes a “revolt from the village.” As he passes through adolescence, Jim grows more and more disgusted with the life of small-town America:

This guarded mode of existence was like living under a tyranny. People’s speech, their voices, their very glances, became furtive and repressed. Every individual taste, every natural appetite, was bridled by caution. The people asleep in those houses, I thought, tried to live like the mice in their own kitchens; to make no noise, to leave no trace, to slip over the surface of things in the dark. The growing piles of ashes and cinders in the back yards were the only evidence that the wasteful, consuming process of life went on at all.

To this self-inflicted impotence, he contrasts the liveliness of the titular “hired girls”—Ántonia and a number of other young immigrant women from the country now working in domestic service or hospitality in town. Jim judges these to be “real women,” in distinction to his pallid, vapid, neotenous female classmates. Yet Jim never goes beyond dancing and kissing with the hired girls, neither Ántonia nor her formidable foil, Lena Lingard. Lena was also a barefoot country girl when Jim first encountered her, but she has become a figure of fashionable and urbane eroticism. She represents to him an engulfing sexuality from which he flees, but he also cannot choose the comparatively sexless Ántonia, with whom he has shared only innocent and childish energy. Cather makes this clear, in her subtle way, by contrasting the women’s dancing styles:

To dance “Home, Sweet Home,” with Lena was like coming in with the tide. She danced every dance like a waltz, and it was always the same waltz—the waltz of coming home to something, of inevitable, fated return. After a while one got restless under it, as one does under the heat of a soft, sultry summer day.

When you spun out into the floor with Tony, you didn’t return to anything. You set out every time upon a new adventure. I liked to schottische with her; she had so much spring and variety, and was always putting in new steps and slides. She taught me to dance against and around the hard-and-fast beat of the music.

This section of the novel ends with a frightening encounter with the town debt-collector, the cruel and dissolute seducer and rapist Wick Cutter, his almost ludicrously suggestive name implying the overall failure of the sexual impulse in the novel.

Subsequent chapters—all three of them much shorter—are a falling off. Though Jim is bound, like his creator, for the east and the city, he returns three times to the scenes and persons of his youth. One year after “The Hired Girls,” he almost marries Lena Lingard, now a successful clothier; two years after that, he comes back to hear of Ántonia’s abandonment by her fiancé and her delivery of a child out of wedlock; and twenty years later, he travels back to greet Ántonia’s enormous family on their successful farm. Eulogizing her children as “an explosion of life” and herself as “a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races,” he realizes that they have shared “the precious, the incommunicable past,” which is, the novel everywhere suggests, infinitely superior to the degraded present.

The novel has other pleasures besides nostalgia. I love the characters’ deadpan way with death, as when Ántonia describes the suicide of a tramp who threw himself into a thresher and concludes, “and the machine ain’t never worked right since”; this is more convincing than anything else in the book of the superiority of laboring, immigrant, rural life to the oversensitivity of the urbane.* And the novel’s episodic nature is fragmented even further by all the oral tales Jim is privy to, from the aforementioned horror story of the Russian bridal party to the interpolated account of how some of the immigrant girls got rich in the Klondike, like a tantalizing little précis of a Jack London novel as re-written by a feminist. The tale-telling motif, like the Virgil allusions, links the novel to much older traditions.

Cather’s renovation of pastoral is worth remarking too. The landscape of pastoral usually involves the Greeks’ and Romans’ Mediterranean sunlight or Shakespeare’s and the Romantics’ “green and pleasant land,” not the flat plains of middle America. Cather invokes their cultural emptiness early on—

There seemed to be nothing to see; no fences, no creeks or trees, no hills or fields. If there was a road, I could not make it out in the faint starlight. There was nothing but land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made. No, there was nothing but land—slightly undulating, I knew, because often our wheels ground against the brake as we went down into a hollow and lurched up again on the other side. I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction.

—and to watch her fill them with significance is to see literary history in the making.

But nostalgia is the novel’s keynote all the same. Jim’s (and Cather’s) nostalgia is powered by the novel’s depiction of endless missed connections. Jim’s life is erotically incomplete, as his inadequate marriage, described on the first page, attests. Yet he could never have consummated his love for Ántonia; she may be a mine of life, but he has consistently described her as androgynous and sexually self-sufficient, and he moreover associates her with the pre-sexual pleasures of childhood. But when raw desire in the form of Lena Lingard presents itself, he talks a big game in his narration (“I knew where the real women were”) but flees all the same. Sexuality, like the rest of adult life, is fallen. Only childhood’s nest of nature is pure and true, never mind that nature is also the disgusting snake and the devouring wolf and Lena’s sultriness.

Critics may like to explain the novel’s portrayal of inevitable sexual failure with reference to what they presume to be Cather’s closeted lesbianism, but this is insulting (as if to say that lesbians could not love!). Think rather of what sexual renunciation meant to Cather’s literary models: James, Flaubert—and Virgil. The artist in their view may pay tribute to the worker and the mother, the soldier and the lover, but at the cost of becoming none of these. Art is the fire that purges the desire out of which families and nations are made. Every real poet is not Aeneas planting his flag but Dido burning on her pyre.
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* Politically, the novel could be said to endorse the conservative case for immigration. The populist or nationalist cases against immigration, whether left or right, are based on claims that immigration harms the current populace economically or culturally, while the left-liberal case for immigration holds that individual and collective identity is sufficiently fluid and malleable to render the very concept of the nation untenable. Cather’s view is rather that America’s founding stock is enervated—either shut up in piously hypocritical small towns or mired in the complex triviality of the cities—and in need of quite literal new blood. Jim Burden himself, presumably a scion of Virginia planters, is portrayed as a great financial success and a participant in the country’s economic advancement as a lawyer for “one of the great Western railways,” yet he is caught in a childless and loveless marriage to a New York society hostess described as a kind of 1918 version of Lena Dunham; no wonder his only solace is his reminiscence of “the real women” of the immigrant communities with whom he used to dance the Nebraska nights away. Accordingly, Cather suggests, this enfeebled old order needs the refreshment of a people more vital in both labor and love if the country is not to sink into decadence. Note the implication that multiculturalism—like the very concept of culture itself, with its underlying organic (“cultivation”) and religious (“cult”) meanings—is inherently conservative.

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If you would like to support my work, you might please buy, read, and review Portraits and Ashes or The Ecstasy of Michaela (or even just pledge via email to exchange a free ebook for an honest public review). Thanks for reading!