Monday, September 2, 2019

The Passing of Sister Barsett

Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909)
From Sarah Orne Jewett: Novels & Stories

“ ‘I guess your friends will stand by you,’ said Mrs. Crane.” Illustration by Canadian artist Henry Sandham (1842–1912) for Jewett’s story when it appeared in the May 1892 issue of Cosmopolitan.
Near the end of 1891 William Dean Howells, the influential books columnist for Harper’s Monthly and former editor of Atlantic Monthly, agreed to assume the co-editorship of Cosmopolitan. Working with John Brisben Walker, the magazine’s millionaire owner who had rescued the publication from bankruptcy two years earlier, Howells planned to do “something for humanity as well as the humanities,” elevating the magazine’s contents from its current fare of light fiction and household tips. The circulation for Cosmopolitan had skyrocketed under Walker's oversight to a quarter of a million and would nearly double again in the next three years, and the huge national audience—combined with the outlandishly extravagant salary offered by Walker—convinced Howells to take the job. “Unquestionably Mr. Howells will be a greater power than ever in the radical wing of American literature,” wrote one reporter. Unfortunately, his progressive attitudes toward literary and social writing clashed with Walker’s commercial interests, not to mention the millionaire’s headstrong and unpredictable personality, and Howells quit after only a few months at the helm.

Before Howells resigned, however, he had invited pieces from several top-notch authors whose bylines would probably have otherwise never graced its pages—and who were convinced not only by the addition of Howells’s name on the masthead but also by the exorbitant rates Cosmopolitan paid its contributors. He directed one of his first letters to Sarah Orne Jewett, whom Howells had introduced to a national audience when, twenty years earlier, he published several of her earliest tales in the Atlantic. Howells had just reviewed her latest story collection for his Harper’s column, praising “Miss Jewett’s New England studies [for] not only the delightful mood in which these little masterpieces are imagined, but the perfect artistic restraint.” When he wrote to Jewett, he urged her to send him “the very first sketch” she finished and reminded her that the owner was not “meeching about the pay.”

It’s a curious word, meeching; it is scattered throughout Jewett’s stories and novels, and it has a variety of meanings. A New Dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1902, tells us, “This word, which is a true archaism of very respectable lineage, still survives in New York and New England, in sense of skulking, sly, sneaking, or underhand.” It can also refer variously to someone who is falsely humble or who complains in private or (as Howells uses it) who deceitfully claims to be poor or ill. In Jewett’s world, biographer Paula Blanchard notes, “Meeching people run out on their responsibility to God, themselves, and their community, and because they feel guilty about it they are a fairly noisy bunch.”

Blanchard points to the title character of “The Passing of Sister Barsett” as “a meecher of real distinction”—although Jewett doesn’t use the word in the story itself. (Coincidentally, it’s the story that Howells published in Cosmopolitan.) When two women receive news of Sister Barsett’s death, they launch into a stream of disparaging gossip against the dearly departed woman who was “the first to have all the new diseases that’s visited this region.” It turns out that both Sarah Ellen Dow, the disgruntled nurse who had been single-handedly caring for Sister Barsett, and Mercy Crane, a well-to-do widow whose staunches her loneliness by accosting passers-by for conversation and news, have plenty to say about their meeching neighbor.

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Mrs. Mercy Crane was of such firm persuasion that a house is meant to be lived in, that during many years she was never known to leave her own neat two-storied dwelling-place on the Ridge road. . . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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