The Artistic Collaboration between Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) & Sarah Wyman Whitman (1842-1904)

“[…] and that whatever loss (individual) is entailed in this fusion of interests, is more than made good by a new and more complete existence.”
– Whitman in a letter to Jewett, July 1884
.

One of the most elegant examples of collaboration between an author and book designer from the PBO collection involves the artistic partnership between the popular late nineteenth century author, Sarah Orne Jewett, and one of the first profession book binders in American, Sarah Wyman Whitman.

Sarah Wyman Whitman was first introduced to Sarah Orne Jewett in the 1880’s. Their professional relationship and friendship remained strong during the rest of their lifetimes. Robert Gale explains, “Mrs. Whitman was Jewett’s closest friend after Annie Fields. Jewett admired her, and welcomed her comments on fiction she wrote.” In fact, Jewett, who only dedicated ten of her twenty books to her colleagues and friends, took great pleasure in inscribing her collection Strangers and Wayfarers to, “S.W. (Whitman): Painter of New England Men and Women/ New England Fields and Shores.”

 
 

South Transept Window:
Knight, St. Martin and the Beggar, Inscription, Sindney at Zutphen, Scholar. (1898). Harvard University.

Whitman was also a painter and she received a large part of her training in France. While in France, Whitman was heavily influenced by the Art Nouveau movement, an artistic movement which was interested in making art objects out of the “common materials” that surrounded daily life. Art Nouveau was also concerned with taking artistic production out of the elite theaters of the Art Museum and the Private Gallery, and into the public sphere.

For artists and designers, like Sarah Wyman Whitman, who were influenced by Art Nouveau’s aesthetic theories, the new technological phenomena of the mass-produced book was a powerful venue for expanding artistic expression. Whitman spoke about how book bindings could be a new medium for the artist in her address the Boston Arts Association. She advised her audience, “[…] to think how to apply elements of design to these cheaply sold books; to put the touch of art on this thing that is going to be produced at a level price.”

 
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A Country Doctor
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1884)
 

Perhaps, Whitman drew her inspiration for her book bindings of Jewett’s works from the acute attention Jewett pays to the daily lives of her characters. In her own way, Jewett was trying to put the “touch of art” on her middle class characters lives. Jewett writes about their lives in small prosaic New England towns, and from her vantage point, explores the ebb and flow nineteenth century domesticity. Jewett makes the day to day happenings in these towns the central focus of her short fiction, sketches, and novels.

Whitman expresses her admiration for Jewett’s attention to the common details of her character’s lives when she writes Jewett in 1882 about the novel, Country Doctor: “I think it delightful: written with that combination of pure literary style and aromatic individual flavor that gives one such special pleasure, and the people live and breathe for me and take their place in the New England landscape.”

It is perhaps most evident from the correspondence between Whitman and Jewett that they enjoyed a friendship, as well as, a professional relationship. The two women wrote letters back and forth to each other from their homes in New England and from their travels abroad. Their letters range from accounts of their daily routines, observations about nature, friendly gossip, anecdotes, and discussions of one another’s latest artistic projects. It is in these letters that one uncovers the sincere mutual respect and appreciation Whitman and Jewett had for each other’s artistic endeavors.
 
  pbw00238
A White Heron
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886)

In a letter to Jewett’s lifelong companion, Annie Fields, Jewett explains her plans for the publication and presentation of her short story “A White Heron:”

"Mr. Howells thinks that this age frowns upon the romantic, that it is no use to write romance anymore; 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 so much 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 and the reason for Mrs. Whitman’s pretty cover.”

Jewett and Whitman both shared an aesthetic sympathy for the “romantic” in “every day life.” Each of them lived most of their lives in New England and their works were influenced by the last vestiges of Emerson’s transcendentalism, a philosophy influenced by English Romanticism espousing that contact with nature and the nature world is spiritually restorative.

 
pbw00153
The Country of the Pointed Firs
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1896)
 

In Whitman’s works and collected Letters, she displays a predilection for the “romantic” similar to Jewett’s. Whitman writes Jewett in 1896 about Jewett’s novel, The Country of The Pointed Firs, “I love to have you write and write in these levels; where a star and pebble make part of the divine chord.” For Jewett and Whitman there was an inspirational, almost divine, force at work in the common life and common objects that surrounded them.

Jewett remained so attached to Whitman’s binding designs that even after Whitman’s death she wrote to her publishers about the new edition of her novel Betty Leicester, “But will you please give directions at the Press that the old bindings should be restored to Betty Leicester? –the scarlet and white- (sic) for it is an ugly book at present; the die does not sit well sideways on the corner and this green and red cloth are very far from the beauty of Mrs. Whitman’s charming design.”

 

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Betty Leicester
(Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886)

Click here to search the PBO database for bindings designed by Sarah Wyman Whitman.


Bibliography of Works by Sarah Orne Jewett:

1877: Deephaven
1878: Play Days
1879: Old Friends and New
1881: Country By-Ways*
1884: The Mate of the Daylight, and Friends Ashore
1884: A Country Doctor
1885: A Marsh Island
1886: A White Heron and Other Stories
1887: The Story of the Norman
1888: The King of Folly Island and Other People
1890: Betty Leicester
1890: Tales of New England
1890: Strangers and Wayfarers
1893: A Native of Winby and Other Tales
1894: Betty Leicester’s English Christmas
1895: The Life of Nancy
1896: The Country of Pointed Firs
1899: The Queens’ Twin and Other Stories
1901: The Tory Lover
1905: An Empty Purse
1911: Letters of Sarah Orne Jewett*
1916: Verses*

*1st Volume of Jewett’s work to have a cover design by Sarah Wyman Whitman
*Posthumously Published and Edited by Annie Fields

List of Jewett’s Works Whose Binding Designs were Done by Whitman

A Country Doctor (1884)
The Mate of Daylight (1884)
A Marsh Island (1885)
A White Heron (1886)
The King of Folly Island (1888)
Betty Leicester (1890)
Strangers and Wayfarers (1890)
A Native of Winby (1893)
Deephaven (1894)
Tales of New England (1894)
The Life of Nancy (1894)
The Country of Pointed Firs (1896)
Betty Leicester’s Christmas (1899)
The Queen’s Twin (1899)
The Tory Lover (1901)*

* This design is attributed to Whitman although there is some doubt whether or nor Whitman herself actually designed the cover or if the cover was based on earlier Whitman designs.


Selected Bibliography:

Cary, Richard. Sarah Orne Jewett. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1962.

Cohen, Rachel. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854-1967.

Critical Essays on Sarah Orne Jewett. Ed. Gwen Nagel. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984.

Gale, Robert L. A Sarah Orne Jewett Companion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Hirshler, Erica E. A Studio of Her Own: Women Artists in Boston 1870-1940. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2001.

Letters of Sarah Wyman Whitman. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1907.

Sarah Orne Jewett Letters. Ed. Richard Cary. Waterville, Maine: Colby College Press, 1967.


Online Sources:

Sarah Orne Jewett Text Project:
www.public.coe.edu/~theller/soj

Sarah Orne Jewett Biographical Essay at Publishers’ Bindings Online: http://bindings.lib.ua.edu/designerbios/whitman.html

Chronology of Jewett’s Published Works and Links to Other Jewett Sites at Washington State University:
www.wsu.edu/~campell/amlit/jewett.htm

Examples of Whitman’s Stained Glass Work at the Memorial Chapel:
www.fas.harvard.edu/~memhall/staingls.html

                       
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