SARAH ORNE JEWETT (1849 – 1909) set her books in the fictional towns of Deephaven and Dunnet Landing; Dunnet Landing is based clearly on South Berwick, Jewett’s birthplace. Critics have suggestedthat she wrote sequences of related short stories, vignettes stitched together tentatively as novels; they rely little on plotting and concentrate on a sense of place – the small seaports and inland terrain of the southern sea-coast of Maine. She wrote sympathetic portraits of life in her locality, its hardship and its isolation, certainly not sentimental. So much of her writing is autobiographical and incorporates her childhood experiences. Jewett would accompany her father, a local doctor, on his rounds when he visited the local fishermen and farmers, and she was made to recuperate from illness by walking long hours in her locality. Her first short story was published when she was 19; her first book, Deephaven, was published in 1877. From 1881 she lived mostly with the writer Annie Adams Fields after the death of Fields’ husband in what at the time was referred to as a ‘Boston Marriage.’ From the late 1870s Jewett’s writing had been reviewed widely – favourably by Dean Howells, for instance – and her writing career had some momentum when it was cut short suddenly in 1902: she sustained serious injury whilst travelling in a carriage. She was to be a major influence on the writing of Willa Cather, who she met in 1908, and who was to edit Jewett’s work after her death.
The Country of the Pointed Firs was published in 1896, serialized early in the year in The Atlantic Monthly. It is considered to be Jewett’s finest book. Many describe it as a novella accompanied by short stories related in theme. Editions now tend to follow Willa Cather’s order of sequence used in the book’s 1923 edition. Cather thought it to be a masterpiece that would stand the test of time; Henry James thought it was a “beautiful little quantum of achievement.”