Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Circus at Denby

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

“My sakes alive, ain’t he big!” Drawing by American artist Marcia Oakes Woodbury (1865–1913), who with her husband, the painter Charles Herbert Woodbury, illustrated the 1893 Riverside Press edition of Deephaven.
From the day Deephaven first appeared in 1877, Sarah Orne Jewett insisted that her book’s eponymous town was entirely a product of her imagination. A brief preface admitted that some readers of the tales appearing previously in The Atlantic Monthly had “asked if Deephaven may not be found on the map of New England,” to which Jewett answered, “while there is a likeness to be traced, few of the sketches are drawn from that town itself”—a town she declined to name.

She repeated this claim for the next four decades in letters to readers, editors, and critics. “Deephaven is not the result of careful study during one ‘summer vacation,’ as some persons have thought,” she wrote to one reader the year after the book was published, “but I could write it because it is the fashion of life with which I have always been familiar.” Sixteen years later, she doubled down in a new preface for a specially illustrated gift edition. By then, an entire range of seaside villages had been suggested as the model for the community her readers refused to believe wasn’t real. “Portsmouth and York and Wells, which were known to the author, Fairhaven and other seacoast towns, which were unknown, were spoken of as the originals of this fictitious village which still exists only in the mind,” she wrote.

In this abbreviated list, Jewett buried the name of the town most of her neighbors and readers had in mind: the coastal resort of York and nearby York Harbor, a little over ten miles to the southeast from her home in South Berwick. Despite her later denials, she admitted the connection in letters sent to various friends while she was writing the original tales that she would later reassemble and expand into the novel. To Horace Scudder, an editor who had published some of her early children’s stories, she wrote:
I have only been down to the Shore half a dozen times and only for the day, which doesn’t count with me. But I am going down directly to spend a week, and then I know where to go for those clams and where to get an old dory with as many leaks as a basket, and I know where the cunners hold county conferences out in the harbour, where two other little boys and I caught a hundred and thirty in just no time at all one day last summer. This is all in York which reminds me of my dear Deephaven though that was ‘made up’ before I had ever stayed overnight in York, or knew and loved it as I do now. Since “The Shore House” [the first Deephaven tale to appear in The Atlantic] was written I have identified Deephaven with it more and more. Still I don’t like to have people say that I mean York when I say Deephaven.
Later that year she wrote to Theophilus Parsons, a retired Harvard law professor she had befriended, “I wish it were in October and that I had just come home from York. I am out of the spirit of Deephaven life.” Moreover, her attempts to disguise the inspiration for the book’s location didn’t fool one of her idols. Shortly after publication, she received a letter from John Greenleaf Whittier, who read the book three times and gave copies to several friends. “I hear thy little book everywhere praised. The hotels & boarding houses of ‘Old York’ ought to give thee & thy friends free rooms, from this time henceforth, for there will be half thy readers going to ‘Deephaven.’”

Setting aside the lack of mystery surrounding the book’s coastal Maine inspiration, Deephaven is much more than a novel about a place; it is about the community of people who populate and visit it. Shortly after it was published, Parsons wrote to praise the book but criticized Jewett for not including more “moralizing.” Jewett responded that she might have done so for a different kind of book—but not for this one. “I like best to have the moral in the story—to make the character as apparent as I can, as one feels instinctively the character of the people one meets.” Her intention was “to look at ‘commonplace’ lives from the inside instead of the outside—to see that there is so deep and true a sentiment and loyalty and tenderness and courtesy and patience—where at first sight there is only roughness and coarseness and something to be ridiculed.”

The roughness and coarseness of her subdued realism was often ignored by later critics, who instead focused on the tender (but rarely sentimental) and the courteous. Like many nineteenth-century works of “local color” written by women, Deephaven suffered unfairly from a reputation established by scholars during the advent of modernism in the 1920s. In a “historical survey” of the short story, for example, Fred Lewis Pattee (“the first Professor of American Literature”) named Jewett one of the “reactionary influences,” an author who “recorded only the things lovely and of good report” and “free from the harsh and the harrowing”—judgments that perhaps say more about Pattee’s selective memory of the stories than about the stories themselves.

Yes, Deephaven recounts the often enchanting and sometimes idyllic summer vacation of two young and somewhat naïve women who visit the town to, as they put it, “remove ourselves from society and distractions.” Nevertheless, as Richard Cary pointed out in his 1962 reappraisal that both directly rebutted Pattee’s assessment and helped reintroduce Jewett to American readers, the women’s enjoyment of their carefree vacation is often directly challenged or offset by Jewett’s depictions of some of the area’s more hapless residents and ramshackle settings, including “the emaciated outskirts of Deephaven; the distressing squalor of the circus; the shabby, hopeless careers of the Kentucky Giantess and the pitiable lecturer”—all of which can be found in just one of the selections, “The Circus of Denby.”

According to biographer Paula Blanchard, Jewett often took the short trip to Dover, New Hampshire, to go to the annual summer circus, “a treat she continued to enjoy occasionally well into middle age.” We can assume, then, that the extravaganza in Dover (almost certainly P. T. Barnum’s Circus) was a whole sight better than the dilapidated outfit passing through her fictional town of Denby. The two young vacationers excitedly reserve a day for the trip, in the company of the vivacious Mrs. Kew, a Deephaven resident who lives with her husband in a lighthouse on a harbor island. Toward the end of the day, the three women meet the “Kentucky giantess,” one of the more lamentable sideshow attractions. The second part of the story describes another form of small-town entertainment, a “free” lecture given by a young man—but the event is anything but a success. Literary scholar Robert L. Horn ties together the two seemingly disparate episodes: The circus employee and traveling lecturer, both outsiders alienated from their audiences, “are not isolated by space and time from the wider world, as the people of Deephaven are, but rather wander through it aimlessly, carrying their isolation within them, because they refuse to face the reality of what they are.”

Note: Chester White refers to a large white pig breed that originated in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in the early 1800s.

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Kate and I looked forward to a certain Saturday with as much eagerness as if we had been little school-boys, for on that day we were to go to a circus at Denby, a town perhaps eight miles inland. . . . 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.