Thursday, May 23, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 30: Sarah Orne Jewett, Going to Shrewsbury (#27)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "Going to Shrewsbury" (1889) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels and Stories:

If you take a writing class now, you will probably read or write a piece where a character speaks in a deep accent, with lots of dropped letters that may or may not be marked with apostrophes, guv'nor. And if you do, likely you'll realize that a little dialect goes a long way for most material. The other thing you may find is that dialect is not a replacement for character and POV. Verbal tics are easy, right? But characterization is hard, right?

If you find yourself in this situation, go read Sarah Orne Jewett. She uses dialect pretty hard, so she may not be a good model for that. Here, enjoy:
"Shrewsbury's be'n held up consid'able for me to smile at," said the poor old soul, "but I tell ye, dear, it's hard to go an' live forty-two miles from where you've always had your home and friends. It may divert me, but it won't be home. You might as well set out one o' my old apple-trees on the beach, so 't could see the waves come in,--there wouldn't be no please to it."
So: lots of accent, lots of apostrophes to mark dropped letters. And yet, this isn't impenetrable--it's just enough accent to remind you that this is one of Jewett's patented Northeast rural ancients. (If you've read Country of the Pointed Firs, which I recommend, you know that Jewett likes wise old women.) The feeling here is thick, as old Mrs. Peet has lost the farm to an unscrupulous family member, and expresses that exile in cultivation terms (a tree by a beach). Also, check out that Peet's dialogue isn't just accented, but also includes some non-standard phrases.

That's probably my favorite part of this story, the use of regional idiom/accent and personal POV and the way that Jewett combines the personal and the regional. Compare this form of regionalism with the impersonal anthropology of Zora Neale Hurston's Harlem scene. Here's a story that's primarily monologue, and which gives the monologuist an opportunity to paint her background and her personality.

But since this is mostly monologue, the story here is pretty simple: the narrator meets Mrs. Peet on her first railroad trip as she starts her exile from the farm to the town. This might sound like a cliche--"oh, the old ways are passing away, the trains destroy families"; only Jewett's narrator goes on to note that she heard that Mrs. Peet really enjoyed living in town with her family there.

Which is why I think we need to take a firm stand against the analysis presented in the headnote as Richard Cary's read of this story, that this is another example of how Jewett extolled the old ways and warned against the new urbanity. Did Richard Cary not finish the story before he wrote his analysis?

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