A laudable, if cautious, attempt to reclaim the literary status of an important American author from successive waves of neglect and politically charged reinterpretation. Placing Jewett firmly within the pantheon of late 19th century intellectual society, Blanchard (Margaret Fuller, 1978) blends biography and textual analysis to reveal a life of apparently astonishing balance. Born in 1849 in the comfortable and bucolic town of South Berwick, Maine, the daughter of a broad-minded physician, Jewett managed the difficult feat, notes Blanchard, of gaining fame and fortune ``simply by going her own way and doing what she liked to do.'' Although she was past 40 when her most enduring work, The Country of the Pointed Firs, appeared, Jewett, despite crippling bouts of rheumatoid arthritis, began publishing in her teens. At 32 she established her extraordinarily successful liaison with Annie Fields, widow of publisher and Atlantic Monthly founder James T. Fields, and thereafter shuttled happily between her beloved Maine and the highbrow salons of Boston. While giving ample play to Jewett's singular achievement of creating a life and art that constantly sustained and reflected her intellectual and spiritual interests, Blanchard, in her meticulous portrayal of the world of educated 19th-century women, skillfully demonstrates how unexceptional her subject's life appeared within its heady environs. Similarly, her probably asexual relationship with Fields, seen by many as ``perhaps the classic `Boston marriage,' '' was unremarkable in an era of flowery ``romantic friendships'' between accomplished, independent women who rarely had the option of combining work and family. By the same token, Jewett's literary themes—notably the importance of community, a Transcendentalist reverence for nature, and a realism leavened by optimism—were addressed to and embraced by readers of both sexes. Persuasively argued, this spirited work falters only in its failure to measure Jewett's achievements against the best, rather than the whole, literature of her time.
Read full book review >