Friday, August 28, 2015

A White Heron

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

Great Egret, 1821. Watercolor, graphite, pastel,
gouache, white lead pigment, black ink, and
blackchalk on paper by John James Audubon .
This painting was not included by Audubon in
Birds of America. Image courtesy of New-York
Historical Society website.
In the mid-1880s, after the Atlantic Monthly turned down Sarah Orne Jewett’s newest story, her longtime champion William Dean Howells (who had resigned from the magazine’s editorship a few years earlier) explained that it might have been rejected because tastes had changed in favor of realism. “Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance any more,” Jewett wrote to her friend and companion Annie Fields, “but dear me, how much of it there is left in every-day life after all. It must be the fault of the writers that such writing is dull, but what shall I do with my ‘White Heron’ now she is written? She isn’t a very good magazine story, but I love her, and I mean to keep her for the beginning of my next book.”

As one scholar speculates, “The Atlantic editors probably did not know what to make of this work of fantasy from a normally down-to-earth local color realist. But the story is much more than a simple fantasy.” Confident of the story’s worth, Jewett kept her word and used it as the opening selection—and title story—of her next book. Her instincts proved correct; readers were universally delighted, and nearly every contemporary reviewer of the book singled out “A White Heron” for praise. The popular writer Mary Wilkins Freeman was moved to send a fan letter, admitting “I never wrote any story equal” to it. The critic for the Overland Monthly exclaimed that the story “is perfect in its way—a tiny classic. One little episode of child-life, among birds and woods makes it up; and the secret soul of a child, the appeal of the bird to its instinctive honor and tenderness, never were interpreted with more beauty and insight.” And perhaps most ironically, the reviewer for The Nation praised the collection yet pointedly found in this so-called romance “no breath of romanticism or taint of literary sentimentality.”

In recent decades “A White Heron” has found new life as feminist scholars have “rediscovered” Jewett’s writing and reconsidered the story’s themes. Numerous theorists point out that it mimics and then subverts the old-fashioned fairy tale, in which the arrival of a princely figure—a “friendly lad, who proved to be most kind and sympathetic”—challenges a young, sheltered girl to reassess her place in the world.

All of which explains why this rejected magazine submission remains Jewett’s most celebrated story, ubiquitous to this day in literature anthologies and on classroom reading lists.

Note: The term bangeing was New England dialect for idling, loafing, or taking advantage of another’s hospitality.

*   *   *
The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o’clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.