Sarah Orne Jewett traveled in 19th-century international literary circles, but it was the White Mountains, the ocean and the people of her native New England that inspired her. She was an early feminist writer whose masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs, described provincial life in southern Maine.
Jewett viewed the world through the lens of Romanticism, which celebrated the picturesque life of common folk and the sublimity of nature. Awe was an emotion to be cultivated, especially in the presence of majestic landscapes.
In the summer of 1872, she was 22 years old and had already been published in The Atlantic Monthly. She wrote about the otherworldly experience of climbing Mount Washington in New Hampshire in her Aug. 8, 1872 journal entry:
I may travel to the ends of the earth and see more wonderful things than I have ever dreamed of now, but one thing is certain: I never shall be standing on the top of a mountain for the first time again! I have just come home from my first visit to the White Hills and one night and part of the next day I spent on Mount Washington.
I never shall forget that little grassy place where the little white flowers grew, down among the rocks toward Tuckerman’s Ravine. That lonely place where I could not see a bird in the air or a living creature on the earth or hear a sound except the faint dashing of water at lone intervals, in the unknown mysterious hiding places where I should not dare to intrude — in the unknown mountain clefts and solitudes where I never shall go.
I can understand people’s being afraid of the mountains and imagining them gods themselves, or peopled with creatures not of this earth — It did not seem as if I were in the world I had been born and brought up in, the world I was looking at there — the whole world, it seemed, and all of it mountains — What had become of all the houses and the people and the climbing and pushing and falling and laughing and crying? It had all been taken away for a while, there were rocks and clouds — and the hills were alive: they were huge giants crouching there asleep, waiting for the day when they are to rise up and march away with their bowed heads lifted, chanting with their great voices, with Mt Washington for the captain, a grand and solemn and stately procession.
I wonder if they mean so much to every body else as they do to me. Their strength teaches me what God’s strength is like, and the wonderfulness of them grows greater and greater to me. all that afternoon as we went up and the next morning, I kept thinking of the Psalms and it was so good to “lift my eyes unto the hills,” in reality, and to see the strength of the hills which is Him also — and I thought most of the Psalm which begins “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof:” I was half afraid to ascend into the hill of the Lord for my hands are so soiled with the wicked things I have done and my heart was very far from pure. Somehow I could not help taking it literally, for there was the hill of the Lords and there was I — And when I said it over and over again to myself and came to the last verses, I could not believe anything else but that these were the very gates and that the King of Glory was coming very soon.