Friday, July 19, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 87: Sarah Orne Jewett, An Autumn Holiday (#150)

Sarah Orne Jewett, "An Autumn Holiday" (1880) from Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories:

After or alongside Stephen King, Sarah Orne Jewett is probably my favorite New England regionalist/local color writer. Like King, Jewett usually plays a complex balancing act between holding up her old sailors and herb-gathering widows as freaks of cultural isolation; and showing them as humane and identifiable characters. In a way, we might see Jewett's ethnic-ization of the region like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison: through their particulars and strangeness, we see the shared humanity.

One reason why I like Jewett is that her local color is never just anthropology, but embedded in narrative. Which is one reason why "An Autumn Holiday" starts so oddly, for me. The narrator takes a wandering walk, a Thoreauvian exploration of the woods and fields that includes the discovery of an unattended grave and the foundation of a long-gone house. What is this? Sure, it's melancholy--it reminds the narrator of a small boy's toy boat getting shipwrecked--but where's the impulse to keep going.

Then, on page five, we finally meet some of the local human-freaks, Miss Marsh and her sister Mrs. Snow. And yes, they both have names that mark their connection with the landscape. But the story isn't really about them, not directly; they gossip about some locals--the woman who always plays at being sick and the husband who can't do anything but care for her; and, the main story, pp. 8-14, of a Mr. Daniel Gunn who after some heat-stroke (or something) occasionally thought he was his own sister. (The original title for this piece was "Miss Daniel Gunn," which shows how important this section is; and how squeamish her editors were for finding that title too much.)

The story of Dan'el Gunn is hilarious and sad: there's low stakes, so it's not tragic--he's an old man with a strange idea and everyone is pretty accepting of the idea. So why sad? If I wanted to be super-cute, I'd say that their New England accent that drops the "i" marks Daniel as someone without a coherent "I." If I wanted to be just regular-strength cute, I'd note that the last names of that family mark them as non-landscape/other (Gunn) or lost (Gunn is related to Ash).

But if I didn't want to be cute at all, I'd note (as the LoA page does) the various parallels: Daniel Gunn took a strange path that set him outside the usual bounds of society, as did Miss Polly Marsh--and we can see that reflected in the abandoned grave. But as Snow notes, love goes where it will and we can't force it into the usual paths that society declares safe; and then the final image is of the narrator being driven home by her father, noting that the road is much longer than the natural path she took across the fields. So here's another balancing act: between the natural-personal and the societal.

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