The historical context of Jewett’s writing was the Victorian era, with its unique slant of the issues, tragedies and progressive outlook of the US. Most significant was the American Civil War that overwhelmed the nation from 1861 to 1865. The Northern Union fought with a desire to abolish slavery, the institution which was enmeshed in the brutal social conditions as well as the fabric of the Southern economy, and which was fiercely defended by the Confederate army. After four years of bloodshed, slavery was abolished and another step towards social equality was taken.
In terms of literary context, Jewett was writing during a rich period of American Literature, with several writers developing texts that would formulate the American literary tradition in earnest. Authors such as Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe exemplify the burst in talent that came from the New World.
Jewett’s style has been variously described in history, with each label carrying a myriad of social, political, academic and literary connotations. Jewett was successfully publishing her work from the age of 19, though until the 1970s, her work was described as ‘local color’ writing. This was a subtly patronising, pejorative term, which implied a lack of depth and value to her writing. However, it is evident from Jewett’s early writings that she intended her work to be considered in the future as a catalogue of the individual in society, and the uniqueness of the social, cultural and natural environment which she saw before her.
If her work is identified as regionalism, Jewett becomes elevated to the realm of other ‘cultural interpreters’, as Fetterley and Pryse attest. This places her amongst other notable authors such as Kate Chopin, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. As a regionalist writer, Jewett belongs to a group that ‘are often interested in features of the physical landscape [but] they are not nature writers; [they] focus on the relationship between that world and human consciousness.’ These principles are certainly evident in Sylvia’s bond with nature in ‘A White Heron’, Ann Lane and her comparison to the marsh rosemary and Farmer Finch and her barberry bush.
Other critics have connected Jewett’s work with an earlier time: the idealistic and possibly pantheistic Romantic era. Jewett certainly refers in her personal correspondence to her enjoyment of the writings of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. However, her characters are not totally subsumed by their natural environment. Polly Finch has gained human strength and personal acceptance through her experience running the farm, but this is only a summer’s endeavour. Sylvia may choose the secret of the heron over pleasing the handsome hunter, but she is only nine: womanly experiences are still a little time away.