Catharine Maria Sedgwick Essay - Critical Essays

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Catharine Maria Sedgwick 1789-1867

American novelist. For further information on Sedgwick’s life and career, see NCLC, Volume 19.

A popular as well as critically acclaimed writer in her own time, Sedgwick is best remembered for her novels depicting colonial and early nineteenth-century New England life. Contemporary critics admired Sedgwick for her use of distinctly American settings and themes in her writing, including the use of American characters, history, morals, values, and ideals. She was also noted for her realistic descriptions of domestic detail and regional culture. Sedgwick's first novel, A New-England Tale was published in 1822, and she is numbered among a group of nineteenth-century writers who helped found a uniquely American body of literature. Although she was neglected by scholars and critics for many years, Sedgwick's work was rediscovered in the 1970s, and since then most attention has been focused on Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827), a historical novel that deals with such varied subjects as Puritan attitudes towards religion, women's role in the new American republic, and the relationship between whites and Native Americans.

Biographical Information

Sedgwick was born into a prestigious family in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her father, Theodore Sedgwick, was an early and prominent member of the newly-formed U.S. Congress, and his political obligations kept him from home for long periods of time. Left to manage the large household by herself, Sedgwick's mother, Pamela, suffered debilitating bouts of mental illness. Consequently, the responsibility for raising Sedgwick and her younger brother often fell upon the older siblings, to whom she remained deeply attached all her life. Offered the best education available to girls at the time, Sedgwick nevertheless always felt disadvantaged because of the poor educational opportunities open to girls—even girls from the most prominent backgrounds. She attended a local grammar school, which offered a meager curriculum, and later went to boarding schools in Albany and Boston. When her mother died in 1807, Sedgwick went to live with relatives in New York, where she became friends with a number of literary figures, including poet William Cullen Bryant and the noted theologian and Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing, whose liberal beliefs left a strong impression on her. Sedgwick returned to her family home in Stockbridge following her father's death in 1813. His conversion from Calvinism to Unitarianism shortly before his death, as well as her own admiration for Channing, fueled Sedgwick's already strong interest in religion; in 1821 she also converted to the Unitarian faith. The hostile reaction to her conversion from conservative friends and relatives helped inspire her lifelong quest for religious tolerance and also prompted her to begin writing. In 1822, she composed a tract about religious persecution, which, with her brother's encouragement, she eventually developed into her first novel, A New-England Tale. Sedgwick continued to write throughout most of her life, composing moral tracts and didactic tales as well as novels. She divided her time between New York City and Massachusetts, where she became renowned for her tea parties. These gatherings brought together some of the leading American writers, including Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Fenimore Cooper. Sedgwick also became involved with social causes, helping to promote improvements in prisons and schools. Although involved in numerous social and political causes, Sedgwick avoided taking controversial stances, leading biographers to comment on her ambivalent attitudes. For example, she opposed slavery, but considered the abolitionists too extreme in their views; she remained unmarried, but idealized matrimony; and she supported women’s right to own property, but not women’s right to vote. Sedgwick continued to champion social reform until late into her seventies when she became ill and moved to Boston. There a niece cared for her until her death at the age of seventy-eight.

Major Works

Sedgwick wrote both fiction and nonfiction and there is a didactic tone in all her work that stresses the need for religious and racial tolerance, as well as social and political reform. Her first novel, A New-England Tale, focuses on the evils of organized religion. Set in the early nineteenth century, the work tells the story of a noble young woman who is the victim of corrupt church leaders. Because most novels written in America at this time were modeled on the works of English authors, this novel garnered special critical attention for its American setting and characters. In addition, the focus on moral concerns and domestic themes also met with immediate acclaim and Sedgwick soon became one of the country's most popular authors. Her work, titled Redwood (1824), was equally well received. Featuring a highly-principled protagonist, Debby Lenox, and again focusing on religious concerns, the work has often been praised for the creation of one of the most realistically-drawn women characters in early American literature. Despite the success of these two novels, it is Sedgwick's fourth novel, Hope Leslie, that is considered by most critics to be her best work. In this historical romance situated in New England, Sedgwick describes the customs of the Native American Pequot tribe. It follows the relations between whites and Native Americans, and introduces the theme of miscegenation into American literature. She followed this publication with several others, including Clarence (1830), The Linwoods (1835), and Married or Single? (1857). After the mid-1830s, Sedgwick primarily wrote nonfiction prose, including several moral tales and essays to help teach children in Sunday school. In addition, she also wrote her autobiography, unpublished during her lifetime, and later titled The Power of Her Sympathy (1871; 1993).

Critical Reception

Sedgwick's works were considered innovative during her own time because she was one of the first American writers to use local scenery, customs, and characters. And while many contemporaries considered her writing style awkward and her works overbearingly didactic, she was universally praised for her well-realized characters and lively plots. Additionally, she was lauded for the realism of her work. Critical interest in her writing, however, began diminishing soon after the publication of her last novel, Married or Single?, and as other authors began writing novels about American locales, customs, and characters, her work began to appear less innovative. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Sedgwick's work once again gained critical attention, and with the new edition of Hope Leslie in the late 1980s critics began focusing on her historical significance. This novel in particular has garnered the most attention from modern critics, who universally praise Sedgwick's innovative writing style and subjects. In this historical romance, she told the story of Hope Leslie, her sister Faith, and Magawisca, a Pequot Indian. Through the stories of these women and within the boundaries of the romance tradition, Sedgwick skillfully confronted authorized versions of history, and offered an alternate perspective to the Puritans' largely ethnocentric view of the Pequot War and the displacement of Native Americans during the early years of the American republic. Critics such as Philip Gould, who examines this work in the context of other contemporary historical accounts of the Pequot War, have praised Sedgwick's revisionist interpretation of Puritan historiography through the eyes of those traditionally marginalized or oppressed by it, such as women and Native Americans. Similarly, examining the work as a political text that reflects the social concerns of its time, Douglas Ford notes that Sedgwick used Hope Leslie to explore the possibilities of a more inclusive definition of American identity and culture. Carol J. Singley agrees, noting that while Sedgwick wrote within the confines of the traditional frontier romance tradition, she used her writing to offer an alternative vision of the American woman and American culture. In fact, Singley feels that while she seemed to be following romantic conventions, Sedgwick actually undercut many of the assumptions upon which the romance in her tale is organized, instead opting to teach by adhering to facts of history and depicting authentic characters and events. Despite a gap of many years in the critical attention given to her work, contemporary and modern critics alike have acknowledged Sedgwick as one of the first American writers to focus on moral themes that address issues of both social and political significance for nineteenth-century America. She has also been praised for her terse prose style and the creation of courageous, independent female characters. Perhaps most importantly, however, Sedgwick is now acknowledged by literary historians for her contribution to the development of a national literature in America.

Principal Works

A New-England Tale; or, Sketches of New England Character and Manners (novel) 1822; revised as A New England Tale, and Miscellanies 1852

Mary Hollis: An Original Tale (novel) 1822

Redwood: A Tale 2 vols. (novel) 1824

Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (novel) 1827

Clarence; or, A Tale of Our Own Times (novel) 1830

Home (novel) 1835

The Linwoods; or, “Sixty Years Since” in America (novel) 1835

Tales and Sketches 2 vols. (short stories) 1835-44

The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man...

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Criticism

Sister Mary Michael Welsh (essay date 1937)

SOURCE: “An Analysis of Miss Sedgwick's Novels,” in Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Her Position in the Literature and Thought of Her Time Up to 1860, Catholic University of America, 1937, pp. 21-34.

[In the following essay, Welsh offers an overview of Sedgwick's best known novels, including A New England Tale, Hope Leslie, and The Linwoods.]

Since it would hardly serve any great purpose to consider the work of Miss Sedgwick chronologically, it seems better to examine her work by forms. In the matter of importance her novels come first. It is through her six novels that she is best known by the critics of American literature. Especially important are Hope...

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Thomas H. Fick (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Cacoethes Scribendi’: Romance in Real Life,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 567-76.

[In the following essay, Fick examines Sedgwick's short story “Cacoethes Scribendi” as a protorealistic piece dealing with antebellum conceptions of literary realism.]

Although Catharine Sedgwick was one of the most respected and popular authors writing before the Civil War, until recently she has been largely ignored by twentieth-century critics. In an 1835 review of The Linwoods, Edgar Allan Poe wrote that “of American female writers we must consider [Catharine Sedgwick] the first” (95), but...

(The entire section is 4325 words.)

Carol J. Singley (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie: Radical Frontier Romance,” in Desert, Garden, Margin, Range: Literature on the American Frontier, edited by Eric Heyne, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 110-22.

[In the following essay, Singley examines Hope Leslie as a frontier romance that offers an alternative vision of American women and culture.]

Hope Leslie, published in 1827, was Catharine Maria Sedgwick's third and most successful novel. A historical romance set in the early colonial period, it centers on the adventures of a spirited, independent young woman, Hope Leslie, who energetically resists traditional conventions imposed by her...

(The entire section is 6748 words.)

Mary Kelley (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Negotiating a Self: The Autobiography and Journals of Catharine Maria Sedgwick,” in New England Quarterly, Vol. 66, No. 3, September, 1993, pp. 366-98.

[In the following essay, Kelley appraises Sedgwick's autobiography and journals in the context of the larger contemporary political and ideological landscape in which they were written.]

In a letter written on 5 October 1851, Catharine Maria Sedgwick responded to a proposal made by William Minot, the husband of her beloved niece and namesake, Kate. William had suggested that Sedgwick, a nationally acclaimed author of novels, tales, and sketches, undertake her autobiography. Had William appealed to her on...

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T. Gregory Garvey (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Risking Reprisal: Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie and the Legitimation of Public Action by Women,” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 287-98.

[In the following essay, Garvey assesses Hope Leslie as a text that dramatizes the pressures of female authorship in nineteenth-century America while also displaying the advantages of expanding women's responsibility for moral values in the public arena.]

Writing on the cusp of nineteenth-century activism for women's rights, Catharine Sedgwick played a central role in legitimating the presence of women on the literary stage. As recent critics of nineteenth-century...

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Maria Lamonaca (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “‘She Could Make a Cake as Well as Books …’: Catharine Sedgwick, Anna Jameson, and the Construction of the Domestic Intellectual,” in Women's Writing, Vol. 2, No. 3, 1995, pp. 235-49.

[In the following essay, Lamonaca examines and compares the impact of Catharine Sedgwick's and Anna Jameson's “domestic advice manuals” and “conduct books” on nineteenth century women.]

… I resolved to form Dora's mind.

I began immediately. When Dora was very childish … I tried to be grave—and disconcerted her, and myself too. I talked to her on the subjects which occupied my...

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Philip Gould (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War,” in Covenant and Republic: Historical Romance and the Politics of Puritanism, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 61-90.

[In the following essay, Gould illustrates how Sedgwick uses a revisionist account of the Pequot War to present a larger cultural debate over the nature of citizenship in the early American republic.]

I hope my dear Mrs. Embry [sic] you will go on to enrich your native country and to elevate the just pride of your country women.

—Catharine Sedgwick to Emma Embury, January 29, 18291

...

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Douglas Ford (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Inscribing the ‘Impartial Observer’ in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,” in Legacy, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1997, pp. 81-92.

[In the following essay, Ford discusses the manner in which Hope Leslie addresses the repressive treatment of women and Native Americans.]

Taken together, recent criticism discussing Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie constructs a dialogue concerning not only Sedgwick's neglected position in the canon, but also what most critics agree to be her unconventional portrayal of both women and Native American characters. In fact, several critics have pointed out the manner in which Sedgwick's novel questions the repressive...

(The entire section is 6984 words.)

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘My Sister! My Sister!’: The Rhetoric of Catherine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,” in American Literature, Vol. 70, No. 3, September, 1998, pp. 491-516.

[In the following essay, Fetterley contends that Hope Leslie is a novel that examines and reflects the political, feminist, and ideological contradictions of its time.]

Hope Leslie is arguably one of the most under-analyzed texts of nineteenth-century American literature. While sales figures from the Rutgers University Press American Women Writers series indicate its extensive use in classrooms across the country, and perhaps its interest for the general reader as well, scholarly and...

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Gustavus Stadler (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Magawisca's Body of Knowledge: Nation-Building in Hope Leslie,” in The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 41-56.

[In the following essay, Stadler explains that, by investing narrative authority in the figure of Magawisca, Sedgwick uses an individual to dramatize public issues of conflict between the colonists and Native Americans in her novel Hope Leslie.]

It has now become something of a critical commonplace in American cultural and literary studies to argue that the conceptual division between public and private spheres—a paradigm which has been particularly influential in work on the antebellum era—is artificial,...

(The entire section is 8983 words.)