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Fuller, Jewett, and the Influence of Community Narrative
Editor's note: numbers in square brackets, such as:  indicate an endnote, found at the end of the document.
Since its first use, the term mentor has depended upon notions of trickster travel for its definition. One of the first uses of the word was, of course, in Homers Odyssey, where Athena traveled from Olympus to Ithaca to tell Odysseuss son about his fathers travels. There Athena assumed the guise of Mentes in order to offer counsel to Telemachus about his father. Through this persona, Athena advises Telemachus about the power of narrative authority and encourages him to construct a story that will rid the house of his mothers unwanted suitors. Her message is a simple one: ignore the grand narrative of the courtly bard and, instead, open the heart and mind to receive the simple stories a new friend might tell. Her counsel, of course, proves correct and eventually the familial community is restored at Ithaca.
The idea of disguise inherent in Athenas mentorshipof traveling to a place where one is both unfamiliar and able to assume a new personaoften gets lost in our contemporary ideas of mentor. But it was very much alive when women writers in 19th-century America set out to inscribe a new type of nature writing. While their male counterparts strove to embody the American dream of autonomy and individuality through grand narratives and theories of self-reliance, women often sought opportunities to break with these conventions and create a more organic, more web-like account of interactions between self, community, and environment. This trend allowed women writers to employ the oral traditions of folk art in their writing, particularly insofar as these folk arts privilege ideas of a shared dialogic and a web-like system of communication. It also encouraged them to turn towards their literary foremothers for inspiration and the mentorship. In so doing, these writers discovered a world of opportunity in the unconventional styles and formats used by the earlier generation.
One of the most poignant examples of this literary inheritance can be found in Margaret Fullers influence on Sarah Orne Jewett. In spite of the generational gap between these two authors (Fuller died the year after Jewetts birth), Jewett had ample opportunity to familiarize herself withand to borrow fromFullers aesthetic. Not only did she own several of Fullers texts, she also enjoyed the luxury of traveling in Fullers circle, where she was mentored by many of Fullers contemporaries. In her introduction to New Essays on The Country of the Pointed Firs, June Howard writes that the literary tradition created by this circle was one that privileged influence and collaboration. What results is an oeuvre in which friendship and literary influence blend so seamlessly for Jewett; as her letters clearly show, when moved by a literary work, she responded by expressing a sense of connection with, and gratitude to, the author and a desire to share the experience with a friend (15). This sense of connection and gratitude was, at its root, an appreciation for the guidance offered by the author and text: Jewetts self-avowed mentors.
Like many of her contemporaries, Margaret Fuller encouraged this web of literary connection throughout much of her writing. As Melissa Homestead deftly argues in a recent study of authorship in the 19th century, writers such as Fuller and Jewett employed devices in their work that actively encouraged readers to imagine immediate, personal communication with the author. One effect of this immediacy, Homestead contends, is that texts invited readers to consider the author as present in personal service to the reader (77). This service, of course, could take any number of different forms from providing solace and entertainment to offering directives and advice. I would suggest that all of these services could be considered different types of mentoring insofar as they both emphasize narrative agency and counsel.
Both of these efforts are very much a part of Fullers Summer on the Lakes, in 1843. There, Fuller interrogates her own agency and asks the reader to do the same. This process allows Fuller to receive instruction and guidance through the Athena-like personae in her text. It also directly encourages reader-writers to adopt a similar process in their own texts. Although there is little proof that Fuller was thinking of The Odyssey when she drafted Summer on the Lakes, I nevertheless find it fitting that the original notion of mentor is present throughout Fullers text. Like her goddess counterpart, Fuller travels some distance to actualize her mentor-status for later writers such as Jewett. And, like Telemachus, Fuller discovers that she must also allow herself to be mentored, to find the means to reject grand narrative. What results is an interesting doubling effect: by seeking counsel from other voices in her text, Fuller ultimately learns to offer counsel to others.
Not everyone has praised this patchwork of voices and techniques. For over 150 years, scholars and students alike have attempted to classify the mix of genre and personae as travelogue or as a companion to works such as Emersons Nature or Thoreaus Maine Woods or A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Those who attempt to situate Fullers text within these contemporary essays quickly become frustrated, and even dismissive, as they find that her delight in leaping between multiple forms and narrative voices is without immediate antecedent. But that, after all, was precisely Fullers aim. What she wanted was a new form of nature writing and reading: one that recognizedand even celebratedsubjectivity, gender, and freedom of interpretation. To find this new form, Fuller discovers that she must not only reject the traditions of New England literature, she must rejectat least for a timeNew England as well. She determines to use an upcoming trip to the Midwestern prairie as her model for textual exploration, certain that this landscape will suggest a different kind of ballad than that of The New England woods (73). And, once in the Midwest, she is indeed taken by the vastness of these grasslands. But they alone offer paltry direction when it comes to literary form. Throughout the opening pages of Summer on the Lakes, she reveals a palpable apprehension and uncertainty about her ability to create this new genre, as she fears that she will lack the capability to establish such a voice or to persuade her readers of its merits. This uncertainty only compounds the block she felt earlier, until finally she discovers that she can not write a word. She responds as so many of us do in such situations. She procrastinates: When I reached the hotel, I felt a strange indifference about seeing the aspiration of my lifes hopes. I lounged about the rooms, read the stage bills upon the walls, looked over the register; and, finding the name of an acquaintance, sent to see if he was still there. What this hesitation arose from, I know not (8). Fortunately, it is her very procrastination that leads Fuller to the real inspiration for her literary form.
As Fuller avoids the weighty task of sketching the Midwestern landscape, she continues to seek solace in the company of its new inhabitants and their identification with place. Through these identifications, Fuller comes to appreciate what she calls the Greek splendor of Indian and pioneer ways. She learns to look to these settlers not only for guidance in navigating the landscape of the prairie, but also for a mode of expression with which to make sense of that experience. This mode of expression, she soon learns, can be found through the full participation in Midwestern life, which provides plenty of exercise, the woods, the streams, a few studies, music, and the sincere and familiar intercourse of the landscape (40).
Notions of intercourse with place are crucial to understanding Fullers aesthetic, as it emphasizes not only communication, but communication between and with others: community. The dialogic of community discourse is the very fabric of Summer on the Lakes, and Fuller goes to great lengths to create a narrative structure that reflects this interest in community. She writes often of conversations had with different pioneer women, marveling at what laughter, what sweet thoughts, what pleasing fancies they enjoyed together (36) and the pleasant society created by the Western life (39). She notes with appreciation how this community of women shares its skills in folk arts with one another and writes critically of those mothers who insist upon imparting a formal Eastern education on their daughters (39). Such women, she concludes, would be far better served in giving themselves over to the new possibilities of homesteading the western prairie, as she herself hasat least temporarilydone. Immersed in quilt making, vegetable harvesting, and the camaraderie of pioneer women, Fuller recommits herself to her writing, having been refreshed by the unstudied lore, the unwritten poetry which common life presents to a strong and gentle mind (42).
To my mind, one of the most revolutionary ways that Fuller demonstrates her appreciation for this narrative of community is her inclusion of some many different literary forms and voices in Summer on the Lakes. Within this thin volume, Fuller includes dramatic dialogue (such as Chapter 2, which begins with stage directions and then proceeds as a one act play), the inclusion of letters she finds admirably descriptive of the country (45), and excerpts from books read along the way. A single chapter of the text might contain a review of contemporary travel writers, spontaneous verse, letters, and frame tales all loosely tied to one another. Read in light of the dominant male aesthetic of the time, these myriad voices and forms may appear as ruptures in the unfolding narrative, a structural afterthought or interruption. If, however, we read this chorus of voices and forms in light of womens domestic and folk art traditions, the text itself becomes a rich patchwork of voices responding to and supporting one another, thereby creating a community and tradition of their very own. In so doing, Fuller emphasizes that Summer on the Lakes is the result of creativity shared by a number of people rather than a monadic enterprise (Adams 250). Because the very heart of the community narrative is the depiction of local life and intercourse, the genre not only allowsit demandswriters to break from linearity and other conventions in order to accurately represent the often episodic or discursive nature of a particular group of people and, more specifically, the domestic aspects of that community. And, because local color literature also insists upon a resistance to disciplinary knowledges and practices, it is particularly well-suited to the depiction of womens experiences, as they almost necessarily existed outside of hegemonic discipline (Donovan 232).
Fullers text suggests a real interest in and commitment to womens storytelling: providing an account of lives and identities as a way of preserving their experiences and educating others. And, inspired by the storytelling practices of prairie women, Fuller begins to look within her own experiences for similar frame narratives she might employ. The most obvious example of this aim is Fullers inclusion of three extended anecdotes that serve as allegorical personae through which she might sound some of her more theoretical statements about life and literature. The first of these traces the story of Captain P and his wife who find themselves trapped in an unfortunate marriage because of shortsighted intellectualism and the disavowal of romantic love. The second details the story of Mariana, a schoolmate of young Fuller, whose passionate commitment to imagination eventually leads to her death. Finally, Fuller introduces the narrative of Frederica, a German woman who suffers from a magnetic inner life that allows her to commune with the otherworld, ultimately at the expense of her own life.
At first glance, these three tales appear to be random space-fillers or tangential ramblings, and they are the cause of much criticism of the work as a whole. When read through the lens of feminist theory concerning genre, however, these narratives, which control a rather sizeable portion of the text37 of 155 pages, to be exactserve an important thematic and stylistic function. Thematically, they emphasize the dangers of isolation, both intellectual and social. Those who rely too heavily on abstraction, philosophy, and imagination, Fuller warns, are destined for ruin, as are those who avoid society and community. Stylistically, these narratives allow Fuller to engage consciously in a literary dialogic, as she listens and responds to the stories of others, thereby embodying feminist notions of collaboration and community.
It is through this sense of community, of the dialogic, that Summer on the Lakes finds its strength and identity. By the conclusion of the text, Fullers language and narrative voice have undergone a decided transformation. The tentativeness present in the opening pages, the constant uncertainty regarding the reception of her writing, her self-effacing stance, and her need for constant affirmation from the reader have been replaced with an easy confidence and awareness of her role as author. Thus, while the authorial voice in the opening pages of the book laments that the reader cannot possibly be interested in her dialogic contributions, the voice of the books conclusion is one of confidence by the books end.
No longer apologetic for her form and style, Fuller now takes her readers to task for their skepticism regarding her extended anecdotes and other conversational moments:
This passage reveals Fullers sense of place and her fully developed notion of community discourse as the basis for environmental writing. The western woods are depicted as a sort of eccentric patchwork garden, where multiple seeds and stories have taken root and created a new sense of landscape. This landscape allows for multiple voiceshere represented as biodiversitywithin the previously homogenous realm of the Wisconsin forest.
Just as the fertile Midwestern landscape allows for constant rebirth and regeneration, so too does the conclusion of Summer on the Lakes. Consider, for instance, the poem that concludes the text, but is wrylyand rather cumbersomelytitled The Book To The Reader Who Opens, as American Readers Often Do, at the End, with Doggerel Submission. While an obviously tongue-in-cheek commentary on the state of literacy and patience in America, this somewhat sardonic title also inscribes the function of the poem in the text as a whole. The title of the poem also suggests a notion of cyclic return and rebirthboth for reader and writeras the conclusion of her aesthetic discovery suggests a new beginning.
This new beginning is one based on cooperation and exchange, a notion evinced in the final stanza where Fuller, characterizing her writing as a dish of blackberry jam, inspires her reader to join in the dialectic of her new literary community:
This, the conclusion (or is it the introduction?) of Summer on the Lakes unifies the precepts of Fullers new aesthetic: the marriage of fact and fiction, of the homely and beautiful, and the interplay of voices in womens folk arts. Fuller, having brought together the voices of the women on the prairie and the women of the east coast, now beseeches her readers to join in the community of women by bringing a needle with which to sew a narrative of their own. It is no coincidence, I think, that this invitation is rendered as a domestic art, as doing so further reifies the notion that literature, and nature writing in particular, can and should arise from gendered traditions.
The narrative voice in the conclusion of Summer on the Lakes, is one of self-awareness and confidence, backed by the chorus of women and stories she has encountered along the way. Through this process of inscription and its co-extensive activity of consistently listening toreading, if you willthe stories of others, Fuller finds a mode of writing appropriate for her message and a strong sense of her own subjectivity. Confident in this aesthetic, Fuller urges her readers to consider her work on its own terms, and not those established by her male peers. She self-assuredly asserts that all great expression which, on a superficial survey, seems so easy as well as so simple, furnishes, after a while, to the faithful observer its own standard by which to appreciate it (4). And, again, that it is always thus with the new form of life; we must learn to look at it by its own standard (22). Thus seeking to preempt those critics who would attempt to hold her to the standards of her male peers, Fuller crafts a new mode of discourse for readers and writers alike. And, by painstakingly articulating the process through which she arrived at this discourse, she offers the detailed counsel necessary to mentor future writers through the same process.
These readers and writers have, indeed, taken notice of Fullers landmark work, and echoes of her aesthetic can be found in myriad writers and texts. To my mind, the most obvious example of Fullers influence can be seen in Sarah Orne Jewetts The Country of the Pointed Firs, which bears striking similarities to Summer on the Lakes both in terms of theme and form. As I mentioned in the introduction to my essay, Jewett traveled in Fullers literary circle, and she relied upon the immediate guidance of this circle as she began to craft her own literary career. Although Fullers death obviously prevented her from mentoring Jewett firsthand, Jewetts easy access to Fullers publications allowed her to enjoy all of the writerly advice texts such as Summer on the Lakes have to offer. By studying this narrative, Jewett found models and personae she could employ in her own writing.
Examples of this influence exist throughout Jewetts body of work, but never more clearly than in The Country of Pointed Firs. Like Fullers landmark Summer on the Lakes, Jewetts best known novel is based upon an emphasis on community, the use of the dialogic, and a recognition of the strength and inspiration afforded through ones identification with the environment. Jewett relied upon the patchwork form first pioneered by Fuller when organizing Country: collections of anecdotes, extended description of the natural world, and an emphasis on dialect serve as the structural basis for the text.
Readers of Fuller will also find the basic plot of Country of the Pointed Firs hauntingly familiar: a female narrator suffering from writers block travels to a new place in the hopes of finishing her work. There, she meets country people, learns their folk art, and finds inspiration for her writing in their many anecdotes. In Jewetts rendering of the plot, the unnamed narrator travels to the seaside town of Dunnet Landing, Maine. This trip affords much of the same liberating departure from cultural mores as Fullers journey to the west: independent of the Puritanical history of its more established neighbors to the south, Maine represented a wilderness and society with its own, and distinctly more liberal, codes of behavior.
There, on the rocky coast of southern Maine, the narrator discovers that her intercourse with the town community leads to her personal growth and success as a writer. After all, she, too, is a traveler and amateur ethnographer who finds the folklore and art of environmental regionalism both inspiring and fulfilling. And, also like Fuller, the narrator of Pointed Firs begins her storyher journey, if you willfilled with apprehension and uncertainty. Referring to herself in the third personmerely as a single passenger and a lover of Dunnet Landing, the narrator refuses to claim authorship, and she distances herself from her own identity and action, thereby compromising her subjectivity and casting herself as an elusive figure who reveals precious little about her own authority (Homesetead 76).
This ambiguity of identity mirrors the subjectivity presented by Fuller. Like her mentor, Jewetts narrator suffers from a lack of confidence, an inability to identify herself as author because of the vexed uncertainties associated with what she calls a long piece of writing, sadly belated now, which I was bound to do (16). Butand more importantly, I thinkher reluctance to assert a strong authoritative presence in the text also affords the narrator space to play participant-observer, to receive direction and inspiration from those she encounters in Dunnet Landing. Jewett emphasizes this role of mentee by relegating her narrator to a schoolhouse, where the narrator describes herself as an anxious scribe ready to receive instruction from her new community (4).
To do so, she must temporarily abandon her writing project in favor of the folk arts practiced by the women of Dunnet Landing. She begins by associating herself with her landlady, Mrs. Todd, a local herbalist and sometimes midwife. And through this association finds that the harvesting and selling of herbal tonics is far more appealing than a tired writing project:
In keeping with Fullers literary process, Jewetts narrator eschews her work in order to revel in the camaraderie of fellowship and exchange. And, also like Fuller, she quickly discovers that this so-called procrastination actually has the potential to become inspiration.
Through this reflection the narrator begins to suspect that the isolation and intellectual abstraction so common to writers stunts her progress. She realizes that this isolation removes her from the very heart of her compositionthe lovely summer cadences and the language of the natural world and acknowledges that, for the first time I began to wish for a companion and for news from the outer world (21). That she adds to this awareness a yearning for communion with others reveals an awareness not only of the ways in which humans interact with nature to create meaning in landscape, but also of a need for intercourse with others as a means of finding inspiration: the very bedrock of Fullers aesthetic, as articulated in Summer on the Lakes.
Fullers coupling of place and community becomes the sole focus of the narrators intellectual energies, and the narrator begins to rely upon it for a sense of fulfillment by turning to the local community for solace. Having rejected the solitude of the schoolroom, the narrator searches for excuses to join in Mrs. Todds endless hunt for herbs and other natural remedies and becomes noticeable disappointed when she is denied these opportunities. This relationship allows for both growth and experimentation, as the narrator discovers a world outside the printed word. Through her relationship with Mrs. Todd, the folk-healer and purveyor of oral tradition, the narrator finds a woman of depth and passion whom she cannot explain or dismiss, a woman who reads nature and people. . . . But Mrs. Todds texts are not inscribed, and some of her traditional practices are entirely wordless (Romines 51). This association offers the narrator an opportunity to commune with the landscape she has loved from afar, as she joins Todd on a series of herb-hunting expeditions and, eventually, trips to meet Todds family and friends as well.
Through her journeys with Mrs. Todd, the narrator learns to read the stories of domestic life in this coastal village: a new form of literature for the narrator. One cant help but be reminded of Fullers account of the folk culture of homesteading women when reading the narrators stories of Mrs. Tilleys housekeeping and rug making, Mrs. Blacketts recipe for a well-made chowder, and the gossip of nearly 100 years of community life. As contemporary scholar Karen Oakes rightly notes, these moments, which foreground the connection between the dialogic and the domestic, are part of Jewetts commitment to the psychological feminine insofar as the represent a dialogue with the notion of purity and a gesture toward the tribal sensibility (156). To this assessment I would also add Jewetts commitment to the dialogue and tribal sensibility of a growing community of American women nature writers as well.
The structure of The Country of the Pointed Firs reflects this process of discovery. Like Fuller, Jewett rejects the notion of a grand linear narrative and, in its place, creates a forum in which individual stories maintain a distinct voice, part of a chorus of stories that together create the larger narrative of the text. Through this structure, Jewett is able to simultaneously affirm the individuality of her characters and create a sense of community by depicting the interaction of these characters and their stories. Thus, as Sandra Zagarell concludes, each characters personality emerges through an activity conceived as fundamentally social speech (519).
The most poignant example of social speech is the inclusion of three extended anecdotes, each of which neatly mirrors its companion in Summer on the Lakes. These weighty anecdotes, which cover 18 of the novels 147 pages, detail the stories of Joanna, who, like Fullers Captain P, finds that her passion leads to a life of quiet isolation until her death. Next, Jewett inserts the narrative of Miss Martin, who mirrors Mariana insofar as she is consumed by her imagination and need for alliance. And finally, Jewett presents us with the tale of Gaffett, who like Frederica in Summer on the Lakes, discovers and becomes a martyr to an otherworld of shadowpeople. Not only do these three frame narratives share structural similarities to Fullers tales; they also mirror the themes emphasized by Fuller in Summer.
Like Fullers characters, the lives of these three subjects run afoul when their imaginations and emphasis on the abstract begin to eclipse their awareness of the physical world and their commitment to the full participation in community. It is this isolation, this desire to remove oneself from the active workings of community in order to pursue metaphysical or imaginative goals, that Jewetts narrator warns against by way of three personae. Each figure serves as an example for the reader of what not to do: a sort of negative mentor who can warn through his or her own failure in actualizing a balance between solitary imagination and collective communion.
Jewetts narrator soon learns to incorporate these lessons in her own life. Strolling with a newfound friend, she muses that the landscape of rural Maine becomes more meaningful when shared with a knowing companion who can help guide ones perceptions. Through their interaction, the narrator concludes that approaches such as these served best because they were thoughts in common; the primary effect upon our minds of the simple things and beauties that we saw (119). With this in mind, the narrator gives herself wholly to the quiet community of Dunnet Landing and, more specifically, the established community of women storytellers. The narrator views each of these opportunities as high festivity, and admits her impatience at having to wait for another moment of intercourse to begin (55).
Moments of isolation from community become pointedly distressful for the narrator, who now relishes opportunity to read, instead of write, the stories around her. In one such instance, a visit from Mrs. Todds friend, Mrs. Fosdick, simultaneously creates feelings of eager anticipation and disappointment as the narrator yearns to be included in the storytelling:
Here, the narrator formalizes her tacit understanding of the connection between reading literature and observing local communities. She also demonstrates her further desire to assume the role of reader/collaborator, rather than autonomous author.
This desire for community reaches its full maturity as the narrator prepares to attend the Bowden family reunion in late summer. Having inscribed a place for herself within the community landscape and learned to hear the stories it has to share, she is now invited to become an honorary member of the family. It is at this moment that the narrator receives her narrative communion, embodied in the offering of elaborate desserts, each inscribed with community text: the names of the families as well as commemorations of the reunion itself:
Like the concluding poem of Fullers Summer on the Lakes where the reader is fed the jam and bread of literary creation, this passage emphasizes the interplay of the domestic arts, womens discourse, and reader/writer relations.
Margaret Fuller, you may recall, used this metaphor as a way to advocate for a feminine folk aestheticthe cousin in her country home whose creation of provincial preserves bears little resemblance to that of the sophisticated literati and intelligentsia. Jewett builds upon Fullers metaphor in the above passage by reaffirming connection between folk art and literary aesthetic. Jewetts use of the word essay to describe both the print language on the pie and the creation of a gingerbread house reveals her desire to deconstruct traditional notions of literature and the arts in order to create a more inclusive category of expression. By emphasizing the embodiment of text in these desserts, Jewett also points to the nourishing aspects of womens words and, more specifically, the honest language of a rural setting. Furthermore, as Marilyn Mobley argues in her reading of the journey motif in The Country of the Pointed Firs, this moment of communion signals the completion and fulfillment of the narrators inner journey, as she shifts from first person singular I to first personal plural we to describe that communal celebration. In her role as narrator, she becomes the unifying device that gives thematic and structural continuity to the novel (Mobley 41). In so doing, Jewett and her narrator also promote a historical and stylistic continuity among women writers in America.
Indeed, the amazing similarities between Jewetts Country of The Pointed Firs and Fullers Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 suggest that Jewett embraced the notion of an intergenerational literary community. Not only does her narrator find a sense of personal fulfillment through the camaraderie afforded by her summer in Dunnet Landing, but the author herself also finds a sense of connection through her exposure to the literary circle of Margaret Fuller and, ultimately, Fullers literary style as well. Jewetts openness to the mentoring offered by Fuller ultimately affords her a new style and persona of her own. With the quiet guidance of a literary mentor, Jewett opens up herself to the free play of a new literary form. It also allows her to recover what Nancy Fraser calls the lost traditions of female agency or resistance; narratives that restore historicity to female-centered practices heretofore misapprehended as natural; histories that revalue previously derogated forms of womens culture (63).
These histories and traditions depend upon classic definitions of mentoring for their identity. They are about resituating ones self, about mothering, about counseling through story. The goddess Athena recognized this when she approached an otherwise reluctant Telemachus. Margaret Fuller recognized this as well: both when she broke from the conventions of New England transcendentalism and apprenticed herself to the women of the Midwestern prairie, and later when she recorded the development of a new literary process that redefined nature writing by way of community. Her experiences have offered counsel to countless writers, beginning with Jewett and continuing today. Through our study of these relationships, we canas Virginia Woolf so elegantly suggestedthink through our mothers and remember the advice they first learned and then offered. And with this act of remembrance, I think, we can all be reminded of the influence of these literary foremothers, who even today patiently ask us to continue the mentoring relationship by reading them as we would be read.
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