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Sarah Orne Jewett Online
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Sarah Orne Jewett

SITE OF THE WEEK

If you ask me to name the greatest writer this region has ever produced, I'll say Sarah Orne Jewett (1848-1909). We've had Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners and a poet laureate around her too. But when it comes to consistent literary excellence, South Berwick's favorite daughter i still delivers.

 

VISIT the SARAH ORNE JEWETT web site

While Jewett never attained superstardom in her male-dominated era, her work continues to dig its way into college curricula. When I read "Mrs. Tempy's Watchers" just a few years back, it knocked me out. In this elegant short story, two South Berwick women spend the night with the body of a dead friend. Their simple and evolving relationship conversation drives the story like a steamroller.

Jewett's house on the main street in South Berwick offers one of the most fascinating tours in the region. The building still vibrates with the author's personality. A close companion of Annie Fields, John Greenleaf Whittier and Celia Thaxter, she is – for my money – the best writer among them.

Now an English professor way out in Iowa is giving Jewett's work to the world. It’s a labor of literary love. By the end of this year Terry Heller will have placed online every published word by Jewett. That's 1,685 digital files including poems, novels and short stories filling 52 megabytes.

While the site is a boon for any reader, it's a tool for scholars, including extensive notes and background. Heller includes details and even photos of Jewett's friends, her grave site, even her cat and dog. And Heller, who teaches at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, is far from finished.

"It will be years before I can add all of the appropriate supporting materials," Heller says. "And then I will go to work on her revisions, letters and manuscripts. Someday, I hope to publish Jewett scholarship at the site as well."

 

THE WEB SITE MAKER

 

This is, ultimately, how the Web started. It's pure data -- stuff that was formerly unavailable in a central spot online, suddenly is. The SOJ Text Project is hosted by Coe College, and as an academic, non-profit site, it's free of advertising.

Everything there is open for non-commercial use. Unfortunately, the URL to site is a lengthy mish-mash of letters that only a scholar could memorize (see the end of this article). It’s easily accessible from Google.com, but is desperately in need of a clever "bounce" domain name. Here are some available domain names – lovesarah.com, SOJtexts.com, pointedfirs.com, torylover.com (from her novels "Country of the Pointed Firs" and "The Tory Lover") or even SoberSarah.com, short for South Berwick Sarah? The bounce only costs $20 per year.

Heller does virtually all of the technical work himself. There are prettier sites to be sure, but Heller's straight-ahead html pages are easy to read and fairly easy to navigate. When in doubt, simply click back to the opening index page.

"I'm probably in the Dark Ages with regard to web page design," Heller admits.

He creates files on a PC in Word Perfect 8, eschewing the dominant MS Word which is more complex and sucks up more computer juice. He then formats the work in Netscape Composer, a bare bones tool that keeps the site looking, well, like the academic tool it is. Heller's son Gabe has designed the more graphical opening pages. His wife Linda does much of the copy editing, and he offers homage to a host of volunteer scanners, proofers, typists, researchers and helpers.

Heller says he first read Jewett when he begam teaching in the 1970s. Her work was good. She was among the only females of the era included in college anthologies, but only about a tenth of her work was still in print. When he searched for background data on her writing, it didn't exist. When he tried to convince publishers to reprint Jewett's work, they said there was no profit in it.

"I didn't start out to become obsessed with Jewett. I just wanted to get her out there, so it would be easier for people to come to like her as much as I do," he says.

With the Internet, Heller didn't need a publisher. Instead, he became one, and the work of collecting and disseminating everything-Sarah began. More than that, the professor has grown fond of his author. He taps into the same feeling I had upon discovering Jewett. There is something essentially good about her work – both as art and as a philosophy of life. Unlike much of the cynical and dark-minded literature of today, Jewett’s work is driven by a positive attitude and a sense that people, given the chance, will find their way.

"What I like best about her," Heller says, "is that, at the center of her work, is a concern for building and maintaining community. I believe that nothing was more important to her than friendship, which was to her the true basic building block of community. I agree with that idea, and

I like her work because-- through touching and amusing stories -- she gently teaches all her readers how to be better at friendship."

 

THE UP SHOT

 

Not only did I walk five miles home from high school in the snow, but I went to college before computers and the Internet. If Heller has his way, students and scholars can eventually search all of Jewett's work, biographical material and scholarship via lightning fast searches. That means a lot to weary literature majors. And they can do it from any online computer on earth. In my day, English Lit research was limited to the resources in the college library and the hours the building stayed open. Now even a fairly obscure 19th century writer is accessible 24-7.

This is good news for students and for Sarah too. Jane Vallier, another Iowa professor, wrote two books about local poet Celia Thaxter and got her on the radar screen 20 years ago. The more accessible an author's work becomes, the greater chance she will become the topic of serious academic analysis. The more master's and doctoral theses she engenders, the more teachers will assign her works in class, and that may even dribble down to high school. Trust me, academia needs a few new heroes. There's nothing left to say about Shakespeare, Thoreau or Emily Dickinson. I once ironically proposed a college term paper entitled "The Use of the Word 'THE' in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale." My professor didn’t know I was kidding. Yes, it gets that boring and stuffy in the ivory tower.

More students reading Jewett means more books in print. A recent edition of her stories contains an introduction by bestselling author Anita Shreve, showing just how hip Sarah has become. I confess, I first "read" Jewett while listening to an audio cassette of her short stories in my car stereo.

That's what a labor of love can achieve. But what does it cost? Other than a small research stipend, Hellers says he has not received a penny since his obsession began in 1997. He spent much of last month on a pilgrimage to the Seacoast from Iowa, researching Jewett's novel "The Tory Lover". He estimates that expenses come to least $7,500 to date on the Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project. That doesn't count hundreds, maybe thousands, of unpaid hours.

But there are other rewards.

"My visit to South Berwick, Portsmouth, and places around and between was one of the high points of my work on the Jewett project," Heller says. "I found so many enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and helpful people there."

Locals opened their doors to the visiting professor. The Old Berwick Historical Society provided office space. Librarians and historians dug deep to provide footnotes to the research and shuttled the researcher from one literary site to another.

"I think it's just an accident of affinity that I am working so intensely on Jewett," Heller says. "I sort of happened into this project -- and then it sucked me in. If I were more practical, I'd be working on writers with Iowa backgrounds, but I've been following my heart, and it's led me afar."