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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 195-226

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Regional Artifacts (The Life of Things in the Work of Sarah Orne Jewett)

Bill Brown

The true history of our race is written in things.

Otis T. Mason, Curator, Bureau of Ethnology,
US National Museum

"I thank you very much for your kind note and your beautiful piece of quartz which I shall treasure very much" (Letters 108). 1 In 1897 Sarah Orne Jewett wrote this expression of thanks to Irving Mower, curator of Maine's geological exhibit at the World's Columbian Exposition four years before. Much as she admired the quartz, she was apprehensive about accepting the gift: "I cannot quite bear to rob your collection of such a fine thing or to rob you of your pleasant associations with it. A collector has a peculiar affection for such treasures, as I very well know" (108). Yet this knowledge hardly quelled her own attraction to the quartz. She resolved the ambivalence by considering the "robbery" a long-term loan: "This shall live on my desk as long as my conscience will let it and perhaps a little longer, and I shall never see it without remembering the kind thought that sent it there" (108). The successive dislocations of the quartz—wrested from the ground and into the international exhibition site, into Mower's private hands, then on to Jewett's desk—obviously produce the object's value and meaning. Once representing the geological state of Maine, the quartz comes to represent, by way of new "associations," the generosity of Mower and the history of a friendship. Not geology, then, but anthropology, history, and biography become the relevant modes of explanation for the memento: not the natural, but the social and humanistic sciences.

Were I to reexhibit the quartz today, contextualized with some such knowledge of its provenance, but situated as a bit of realia to round off an exhibit of Jewett's study (her study constructed [End Page 195] as a kind of period room), what sense would you make of this piece of rock? You might say that it represents Jewett's habit of collecting (restrained for the era, really, for someone of her class—think of Mark Twain's house in Hartford or Sigmund Freud's study); perhaps her fetishization of gifts; perhaps her sense of touch; perhaps—"living" there on her desk, along with a silver dish of old-fashioned peppermints, a box of matches, and a glass lamp, but there right beside the inkwell—her commitment to incorporating material objects into her sketches of coastal Maine.

But has my mise-en-scène thus mortified the quartz, drained it of any material vitality, its very shimmer dulled by being subjected to an archeological epistemology where its role, within this too harmonious scene we call history, is never to be itself but always, always to represent something else? And if the remaining relic can be thought to suffer such a fate, the fate of dislocation, what of the absent author herself and her location within this materialized scene of writing? Here Jewett is metonymically conjured up by these things that she consciously and unconsciously touched. And here she is incarcerated in the material sediments of her occupation, into the scene of writing.

But a desire to so situate this writer expresses the converging impact of history and anthropology on the field of literary studies, which has profoundly regionalized Jewett's regionalism. "Like the country folk she describes," Richard Brodhead writes, Jewett's "literary identity bears an inescapable mark of local derivation"—the mark, that is, of the Boston literary milieu in which she thrived (176). Compelling as this presentation of Jewett may be as "a single historical exhibit" (173-74), Jewett herself would certainly have objected to being placed in Boston, and thus displaced from her hometown of Berwick, Maine: "I count myself entirely a Maine person and not a transplanted Boston citizen even though I may spend many weeks of the winter within the limits of Ward Nine!" (Letters 95). Regionalism, of...


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