Date of this Version
J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists, Volume 2, Number 2, Fall 2014, pp. 331-365.
Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896) has long been central to literary critical debates about the nature and character of American literary regionalism. In the early 1990s, some New Historicist critics aligned the emergence of the literary movement with the rise of tourism as two means by which urban elites defined themselves as a socially and racially privileged class in the postwar nation. In an influential analysis of the mutually reinforcing development of the literary marketplace and class and cultural hierarchies, Richard Brodhead describes regionalism in Cultures of Letters (1993) as evidencing “an elite need for the primitive made available as a leisure outlet.” In giving “exercise to a sophisticate-vacationer’s habits of mind,” Brodhead writes, regional fiction “rehearsed a habit of mental acquisitiveness strongly allied with genteel reading.” With a privileged urban vacationer as its narrator, Firs “builds the class logic of vacationing” into its very structure, Brodhead claims, pointing to the way that the unnamed narrator, who is also a publishing author, can arrive in the fictional community of Dunnet Landing, Maine, and “command someone else’s home as a second home for her leisure ... with a confident exercise of her rights.” Then, over the course of a summer, she turns the intimate life stories of the residents into her own “sympathetic possessions” that she abstracts and exports out of the place. Feminist critics, most notably Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse in Writing out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture, have vigorously contested such readings of women’s literary regionalism (including Jewett’s works), characterizing regionalism as “subvert[ing] . . . those assumptions the dominant discourse considers unassailable.” Jewett’s social and cultural position and her place in the field of cultural production as defined by the Atlantic Monthly and other highbrow literary magazines are central to readings of Firs aligned with Brodhead’s. In this context, the cultural politics and literary form of Firs appear to be nearly inevitable, even overdetermined, with Jewett uncritically reproducing her own position of social privilege in the figure of the narrator. Our contribution to these debates about the cultural politics of Firs is an edition of an unpublished manuscript chapter of Jewett’s book, in which she crafted an ending featuring an economically powerful rural heroine no longer subject to the tourist’s command. This manuscript has been available at Harvard University libraries since the 1930s but has not, until now, been properly identified. It provides persuasive evidence that Jewett thought critically about her representational practices as a cosmopolitan author depicting rural people for a national audience, as well as about the closely related issue of her book’s genre, another long-standing concern of Jewett criticism.