When Nancy Schultz, chairwoman of the English department at Salem State College, went to the supermarket and asked them to write "Happy 160th Birthday Sarah Orne Jewett" on a cake, there were puzzled expressions.
"You should have seen the reaction," Schultz said.
The cake, a photo of which is now on display at the English department, not only helped faculty and students celebrate the American writer's birthday on Sept. 3, it also acknowledged Jewett's selection as Salem State's first writer of the year, which will focus attention on her life and writings in classes and in a series of special events.
Several of these events are open to the public, including a lecture on Jewett tonight by Elaine Showalter, professor emerita at Princeton University. Showalter has been a leader in feminist literary scholarship.
"We hit on this idea of a writer of the year," Schultz said, "to promote writers who we would like to have our students read, but who are less well-known."
Sarah Orne Jewett was born in South Berwick, Maine, in 1849. Most of her 20 volumes of fiction are set in coastal New England and depict the people who lived and worked there.
If Jewett is no better known among undergraduates than she is at the supermarket, some of her obscurity, according to Schultz, may be due to her gender.
While Jewett's books were popular and sold very well in her day, literary history, which has mostly been written by men, tends to ignore or denigrate women writers, according to Schultz.
English professor Theresa DeFrancis explained the feminist element, and the general appeal of Jewett's work, by describing Jewett's story "The White Heron," which she has been teaching in classes.
"A young girl who has left the city to live with her grandmother in the woods, in nature, meets a man with a gun, who is looking for a white heron. He spends the night at their house and asks for the girl's help in finding the bird, sensing her closeness to nature.
"She finds the tree where the heron lives, sees its majestic beauty and, knowing the man would shoot the heron so he can stuff it, refuses to divulge its location.
"She immediately fell in love with the man, but he threatened her world. When she refuses to give up that information — at the turn of the 20th century, women's power was often represented as silence."
According to DeFrancis, Jewett's work is filled with women confronted by similar choices between a man's world, or one spent alone or in the company of women. In "The White Heron," the girl and her grandmother "become a power structure," resisting the man.
DeFrancis said her students like Jewett's work because, while much of the literature they study presents difficult themes in dark moods, Jewett's work is "gentle. There are all these happy endings to delightful snapshots of life, these lovely, rich sketches. They like the fact that the girl wins in the end."
If you go
What: "Jewett's Critical Juries," lecture on Sarah Orne Jewett by Elaine Showalter of Princeton University
When: Tonight at 7:30
Where: Salem State College, Central Campus Recital Hall, CC Room 158
Information: Free and open to the public; visit www.salemstate.edu/8640.php