Sarah Orne Jewett, The White Heron, and Other Tales from the Country of the Pointed Firs


Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1966


In her lifetime Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) is considered to be one of the best American short story writers. That an author’s works achieve such great success shortly after their publication and still secure a spot on a list of books deemed relevant to a national or even world literary canon, is rather unusual. Many works of so-called world literature become famous only long after their author’s death. Jewett, who grows up as the daughter of a country doctor on the coast of New England, publishes her short stories mainly in well-known magazines like Harper’s or The Atlantic before they are published collectively in an edition like the one at hand.


The title of the story collection, “Tales from the country of the pointed firs”, and “The White Heron”, one of her best short stories, both point to the central themes of her creative work. The “white heron” points to nature, a key motif in her stories, often contrasted by the processes of increasing urbanisation in the second half of the 19th century. The “country of the pointed firs” is the coast of New England, and Jewett’s literary works are an attempt to capture the region and its people, its landscape, traditions, dialects, and peculiarities. In the context of American literature this style is known as “local colour”. The individual stories are also referred to as “sketches”, which are similar to the short story but less plot-driven and, as the name says, more resembling a characteristic little drawing. Some contemporary critics are almost surprised to note how well they like her stories. Because, in spite of their lack of plot and suspense, they find them extremely charming.


At the heart of Jewett’s stories are common people like you and me, their relations with other people and the world they inhabit. What also interests Jewett apart from the contrast between urban and city life, between civilization and nature, is the art of friendship. Her literature creates moments of connection between fictional characters but also, now and then, moments of transcendence, which reach beyond the text and include the reader. So Jewett writes in a response to a fan letter, encouraging her addressee to continue reading: “You will always have the happiness of finding friendships in books, and it grows pleasanter and pleasanter as one grows older. And then the people in books are apt to make us understand ‘real’ people better, and to know why they do things, and so we learn sympathy and patience and enthusiasm for those we live with, and can try to help them in what they are doing, instead of being half suspicious and finding fault.”


by Teresa Teklić


Signet Sunflower Foundation