Friday, May 26, 2017

Decoration Day

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

Illustration used in back cover advertising for White Smith & Co. sheet music. The drawing first appeared as a black and white etching in the mid-1870s and was hand-tinted later in the century for use when the company began publishing color covers. A list of the company’s recent publications would appear underneath the commemorative artwork.
Three years after the Civil War ended, in 1868, General John A. Logan—the head of the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans—established that May 30 should be set aside as Decoration Day, so-called from the tradition of decorating graves with flowers. More than five thousand participants gathered for the first Decoration Day in Arlington National Cemetery and lavished flowers and flags on some twenty thousand graves, and similar events took place in cemeteries all over the country. The commemoration spread more widely in subsequent years and by the 1880s the day was known in some places as Memorial Day, which over the course of the next century became the more common designation. It was only in 1968 that the federal government passed the law that, beginning in 1971, officially shifted the date to the last Monday in May.

On the morning of Decoration Day, in either 1889 or 1890, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote from her home in South Berwick, Maine, to her friend and companion Annie Fields in Boston about the events planned for that day:
There is going to be an unwonted parade in honor of the day and I am glad; for usually everybody trots off to Dover or Portsmouth and nothing is done here except to put the pathetic little flags about the burying-grounds. It seems to me that I have just begun to understand how grown people felt about the war in the time of it,—at any rate it brought tears to my eyes yesterday when John said that over two hundred men went from this little town to the war. You can see how many young sons of old farmers, and how many men out of their little shops, and people who had nobody to leave in their places, went to make up that number.
This “unwonted parade” almost surely inspired Jewett a couple of years later to write “Decoration Day,” in which a small group of aging Civil War veterans convinces the residents of their small Maine rural village to host a long-overdue procession honoring the local residents killed in the war.

After Jewett included the story in her collection A Native of Winby, the reviewer for The Writer singled it out as “one of the best stories that she has ever told,” and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier similarly wrote, just before his death, that the tale “was one of her very best.” In 1895 Jewett boasted to a reporter that the story had “kept its hold surprisingly and is making part of the exercises of the day this year.” And according to a handwritten note in a friend’s edition of A Native of Winby, Jewett later told a neighbor in Boston that “if she were remembered by any of her stories, she should be glad if it might be this one.”

In the last century, however, the opinions of critics have been decidedly mixed. When Willa Cather was assembling a 1925 edition of Jewett’s best writings, she belittled it as a “conventional magazine story” and recalled a conversation with Jewett two decades earlier. “When I told her that ‘Decoration Day’ to me seemed more like other people’s stories, she said with a sigh that it was one of the ones that had grown old-fashioned.” Cather convinced the editor at Houghton Mifflin not to include it in the volume.

Some of Jewett’s biographers have likewise dismissed the story as “sentimental.” But during his life the late Jewett scholar Richard Cary argued that the story is one of her finest—and by far the strongest of the many holiday-themed tales she published in magazines. The story “defines the pathos of short-lived gratitude,” Carey wrote, and Jewett “prevents pity from turning maudlin through an unexpected deliverance or a bracing touch of comedy.”

Note: On page 778, Jewett mentions the Wilderness, referring to the Overland Campaign, a series of battles in Virginia during May and June 1864, including the Battle of the Wilderness (May 5–7) in the Spotsylvania area measuring about twelve by six miles known locally as the Wilderness for its dense woods and undergrowth.

*   *   *
A week before the thirtieth of May, three friends—John Stover and Henry Merrill and Asa Brown—happened to meet on Saturday evening at Barton's store at the Plains. They were ready to enjoy this idle hour after a busy week. . . . 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.