Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Town Poor

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

Interior of a Farm House in Maine, 1865, oil on canvas by American artist Eastman Johnson (1824–1906). Image: The Athenaeum.
Five years after Sarah Orne Jewett wrote “The Town Poor,” which appeared in the July 1890 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, she received a letter from her friend Frances Morse, who was active in social work and who helped establish Associated Charities of Boston.* The selection was a work of fiction, but Morse knew that Jewett’s stories often had their foundation in the author’s personal experiences and communal dealings in Maine, and she decried the treatment doled out to two elderly sisters who had been forced to live through a winter in the unheated attic of a stranger’s farmhouse.

Jewett responded that “there is nothing exaggerated about the story.” In nineteenth-century New England, when families or individuals became homeless or reliant on charity, towns would put them up for auction to nearby residents willing to provide room and board in exchange for a monthly stipend; whoever offered the lowest bid would win the auction. The host families were frequently poor themselves and the meager funds provided by the town were more often added to the household’s already strained resources than used to care for the boarders.

The method of auctioning the poor supplemented the more customary practice of housing the indigent in group homes or farms, and it was a solution that might be expected to encourage abuse. Yet Jewett reassured Morse that, in theory, “the system is far better” than county farms in remote locations, noting that two such overcrowded, ramshackle institutions had been ravaged recently by “dreadful” fires. Jewett argued that at least the auction system and local group homes usually kept the poor close by, where their care can be better supervised. “You put your finger on the cure,” she concluded, “when you wish for women visitors and inspectors, especially in country neighborhoods.”

Jewett’s story, however, documents when this system went awry, in this case both because the home is ill-equipped to board the two elderly Bray sisters and because the “weather-beaten, solitary farmhouse” is in a secluded, hardscrabble location. Furthermore, what is often overlooked (even by the two visiting women in the story) is that the “town poor” includes Mrs. Janes, who is given responsibility for the “unwelcome inmates” while her husband—who receives the money—is usually away. As Paula Blanchard notes in her biography of Jewett, “the blame for the Bray sisters is spread around among church, neighbors, and town government, but the largest share lies with men and male institutions,” particularly the sisters’ father, a deacon who spent so much on his church that he failed to provide for his daughters. As literary scholar Josephine Donovan summarizes, Jewett’s fiction presents “a vision of a supportive community of women, sustained by a kind of matriarchal Christianity, and by traditions of women’s lore and culture.”

* The letter is quoted in Paula Blanchard’s Sarah Orne Jewett: The World and Her Work.

Notes: As the story begins, the two women have just come from the “installation” of a new minister at the church. A leghorn hat (page 725) is made from plaited straw, so named because the finest straw came from Livorno (Leghorn) in Tuscany (click here to see a sample from the period). The term meeching (page 727) is local dialect and can mean meek or self-effacing, often in a negative sense, or sly and sneaking. “The text about two or three being gathered together” on page 732 is Matthew 19:20 (“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”).

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Mrs. William Trimble and Miss Rebecca Wright were driving along Hampden east road, one afternoon in early spring. . . . 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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