As an editor at McClure’s Magazine, Viola Roseboro made lightning strike thrice as she advanced the careers of Jack London, O. Henry, and Willa Cather. When the muckrakers at McClure’s sought relief from the summer swelter in Manhattan, they boarded a train on the New Haven line to the artist colony in the Cos Cob section of Greenwich, Connecticut. Dubbed by one biographer as the Duchess of Dorp, Roseboro gave a typically deflating response to an ambitious daughter of the artist colony: “Well, that child doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she will never find in college the kind of conversation that she found tonight around this dining room table.” When Cather rode the New Haven line to receive Yale’s second honorary doctorate awarded to a woman (Edith Wharton was first), she may have recalled Roseboro’s remark alongside her publisher’s official dictionary example of anti-climax: “For God, For Country, For Yale.”
Roseboro introduced Cather to Cos Cob, a “salt-aired, white-clapboarded little town” that matched the description of Sarah Orne Jewett’s fictional Dunnet Landing in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). Cather ranked the novel with Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as great American classics: “The Pointed Fir sketches are living things caught in the open, with light and freedom and air-spaces about them. They melt into the land and the life of the land until they are not stories at all, but life itself.” The author of an emetic essay on the hundred worst books, Cather had discovered a sure cure for summer readers sick of “this plague of books, which rated at nothing, would be overestimated.”
Cather judged correctly the timeless quality of Jewett’s perfect little book and hoped to cultivate the interest of the “young intellectuals of Greenwich Village [who] sometimes ask vaguely for ‘some of Sarah Jewett’s books.’ ” Her long admiration of Jewett’s work made difficult the assignment of introducing her collected stories. “My heart and mind have been full of it for years; but when I sat down at the desk, it was not an easy piece of work to do. The tone, of course, is the difficult thing; I have tried for a tone which would not have displeased Miss Jewett herself, but in these things one never knows.” In 1908, Jewett advised Cather to “find your own quiet center of life and write from that to the world.” To develop the proper tone, Cather visited Cos Cob in the mode of Jewett’s narrator at Dunnet Landing who “spent many days there quite undisturbed, with the sea-breeze blowing through the small, high windows and swaying the heavy outside shutters to and fro.”
The Bush-Holley House is a two-story saltbox overlooking the Cos Cob harbor advertised by the proprietors as a “first-class board for select parties” featuring “large airy rooms, wide piazzas, extensive grounds, splendid shade.” Touting a benefit frequently mentioned in local real estate listings, guests were assured that they would be free from malarial mosquitoes. (Mainline WASPs would start to disappear in the mid-century.) Jewett observed that “a man’s house is really but his larger body, and expresses in a way his nature and character.” For Josephine and Edward Holley, the addition of a broad second-story front porch was their expression of welcome to American Impressionists, including J. Alden Weir, Theodore Robinson, Birge Harrison, and Childe Hassam. Josephine Holley cooked, cleaned, and laundered for the artists and other guests. Jewett’s Mrs. Blackett offered a similar guest experience. “Her hospitality was something exquisite; she had the gift which so many women lack, of being able to make themselves and their houses belong entirely to a guest’s pleasure,—that charming surrender for the moment of themselves and whatever belongs to them, so that they make a part of one’s own life that can never be forgotten.” Edward Holley busied himself growing potatoes, apples, and onions.“There is all the pleasure that one can have in gold-digging in finding one's hopes satisfied in the riches of a good hill of potatoes,” wrote Jewett, and Cather must have agreed. In Cather’s The Song of The Lark, Doctor Archie savors the discovery of the operatic talents of Thea Kronborg more than the treasure from his Colorado gold mine.
Hassam gave up his room in the boarding house to make Cather more comfortable. He must have thought, as Jewett’s boarder did, that “I had been living in the quaint little house with as much comfort and unconsciousness as if it were a larger body, or a double shell, in whose simple convolutions Mrs. Todd and I had secreted ourselves, until some wandering hermit crab of a visitor marked the little spare room for her own.” Hassam painted several scenes of the house, and his Couch on the Porch (1914) is reputed to feature Willa Cather lounging with a book. Perhaps he was reminded of Jewett’s description of how “the sea-breezes blew into the low end-window of the house laden with not only sweet-brier and sweet-mary, but balm and sage and borage and mint, wormwood and southernwood. If Mrs. Todd had occasion to step into the far corner of her herb plot, she trod heavily upon thyme, and made its fragrant presence known with all the rest.”
But the sea air was not always sweet, and the brine soaked into the “old fishermen’s hard complexions, until one fancied that when Death claimed them it could only be with the aid, not of any slender modern dart, but the good serviceable harpoon of a seventeenth century woodcut.” While editing McClure’s, Cather published Jewett’s poem “The Gloucester Mother,” a lamentation for loved ones lost at sea:
God bless them all who die at sea!
If they must sleep in restless waves,
God make them dream they are ashore
With grass above their graves!
On Shell-Heap Island, off the coast of Dunnet Landing, Jewett placed a woman, a modern hermit, who lost her love to another and tried to dissolve into the sea and sky. As tourists seek unseen places, “there are paths trodden to the shrines of solitude the world over” and “the feet of the young find them out because of curiosity and dim foreboding; while the old bring hearts full of remembrance.”
Summer travel in America offers the greatest challenge and reward to those who seek the places where “the altars to patriotism, to friendship, to the ties of kindred, are reared in our familiar fields, then the fires glow, the flames come up as if from the inexhaustible burning heart of the earth; the primal fires break through the granite dust in which our souls are set.” Whether you pass your summer on the coast or on your couch on the porch, The Country of the Pointed Firs is always ready to receive your visit. “Then I’ll get you a good cup o’ tea before you start to go home,” Jewett writes. “The days are plenty long now.”