Monday, June 3, 2013

Notions of Solomon's Temple and blowing gray figures - weird Jewett

Ghosts and weirdness tonight.

The Country of the Pointed Firs is now usually published with four more stories set in the same town and with the same narrator.  Three are even set during the same summer.  Two are visits, pure domestic picaresque.  One is actually a kind of wrapping up of a plot, which in the plotless context of the novel is almost like a twist ending.

The remaining story, “The Foreigner” (1900), is another surprise, since it is an almost conventional, well-made short story.  It is even a ghost story, told by one character to another on a stormy night.  The story reminds me strongly of some of Elizabeth Gaskell’s stories of female solidarity.  It even has a postcolonial angle (see title).  I wonder if it has become well-known in certain academic circles.  It seems that it should be.

But I will set the ghost story aside for something stranger.  The narrator, Sarah, has rented an abandoned schoolhouse (the Maine town has lost its children) to serve as a “room of her own” for her writing.  She has not become part of the community, so her first significant “visit” turns out to be with a visionary madman, Captain Littlepage, who tells a story that is half borrowed from Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym (1838) and half from H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (which would not be published or even written for another thirty-five years).

“’A shipmaster was apt to get the habit of reading,’ said my companion,” which might explain part of the strange tale that has become an obsession for him, much like (Sebald alert!) another sea captain he knew “’had notions of Solomon's Temple, and made a very handsome little model of the same, right from the Scripture measurements’” (Ch. V).  Littlepage was once shipwrecked in the Arctic, where he met the survivor of an exploring expedition who is the source of the weird tale.  The explorer told of a hidden town inhabited by “blowing gray figures that would pass along alone, or sometimes gathered in companies as if they were watching.”  When pursued they “flittered away” like “a piece of cobweb.”

Finally, the gray shapes attack:

'Those folks, or whatever they were, come about 'em like bats; all at once they raised incessant armies, and come as if to drive 'em back to sea.  They stood thick at the edge o' the water like the ridges o' grim war; no thought o' flight, none of retreat.  Sometimes a standing fight, then soaring on main wing tormented all the air.  And when they'd got the boat out o' reach o' danger, Gaffett said they looked back, and there was the town again, standing up just as they'd seen it first, comin' on the coast.'  (Ch. VI)

Does it make the passage more or less strange that much of it is taken from Book VI of Paradise Lost?  “’I was well acquainted with the works of Milton’” – the Captain had mentioned this a bit earlier for what seemed like no reason.

So the first important connection the narrator makes with the town is with a lonely madman while she is herself alone.  Things can only improve.


  1. Sounds to be some story. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym as well as At the Mountains of Madness are works that I love. Both stories were so very atmospheric as this one sounds to be.

  2. I sure as heck was not expecting this sort of thing to show up in Sarah Orne Jewett!

  3. Yes, this is good stuff. Totally weird and one wonders if there's a mutiny in Heaven subtext to Firs. I'm picking up a copy (finally) of this book on my way home tonight. I'm also makng a note to read Paradise Lost again, maybe early next year.

  4. It's a surprisingly subtle book. Much of what I will call the argument of the book is carried by some particular word choices that mark small shifts in or revelations of the attitudes of the narrator or Mrs. Todd. I have not really written about that.