Sarah Josepha Hale

(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111205135-Hale_S.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: The author of poetry, novels, plays, and cookbooks, as well as an important history of women, Hale is best known as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular magazine in the United States before the Civil War. As editor of this women’s magazine, Hale encouraged and supported women writers, and she advocated improved opportunities for women’s education and work.

Early Life

Born October 24, 1788, on a farm outside Newport, New Hampshire, Sarah Josepha Buell was one of four children of Gordon and Martha Whittlesey Buell. Though opportunities for formal schooling for girls were limited at the time, Buell received a good education at home, and she credited her mother with inspiring her love of literature. Despite limited access to books, Buell read widely during her youth. By the time she was fifteen, for example, she had read all of William Shakespeare’s works. Other favorites included the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Buell also benefited from tutoring by her brother Horatio, who attended Dartmouth College. During Horatio’s summer vacations at home, the two studied Latin, Greek, philosophy, English grammar, rhetoric, geography, and literature. Hale drew on her strong education when, at age eighteen, she opened a private school for children. She continued to teach until 1813, when she married David Hale, a lawyer in Newport.

During her marriage, Sarah Josepha Buell Hale continued her education. As she later recalled, she and her husband spent two hours each evening reading current literature and studying topics ranging from composition and French to science. During this period, Hale also worked on her own writing, publishing a few poems in local magazines.

Hale’s life changed considerably when, in 1822, shortly before the birth of their fifth child, Hale’s husband died suddenly. Concerned with providing for her family, Hale turned first to the millinery business, but she soon focused on becoming an author. Her first volume of poetry, The Oblivion of Genius and Other Original Poems, appeared in 1823. After winning several literary prizes and becoming a regular contributor to magazines and gift annuals, Hale published her first novel, Northwood: A Tale of New England, in 1827. Though highlighting New England character traits, as the subtitle suggests, the novel focused on the contrasts between the North and South, including issues of race relations and slavery.

Life’s Work

Soon after the publication of Northwood, Sarah Josepha Hale, at the age of thirty-nine, launched what to a great extent would become her life’s work as a magazine editor. When a new periodical, the Ladies’ Magazine, first appeared in January of 1828, Hale edited it from her home in Newport, but within a few months she moved to Boston, where the magazine was published. Though the Ladies’ Magazine was not the first periodical intended for American women or edited by an American woman, it did differ considerably from earlier efforts, which often focused on fashion. Hale’s Ladies’ Magazine included fashion plates during part of its nine-year existence, but it was much more intellectual than previous women’s magazines had been. Sketches of famous women were common features, and Hale’s editorial columns often addressed issues of social reform, such as property rights for married women and the importance of women’s education.

Publishing both poetry and fiction, the magazine also had a significant literary component, and Hale’s support of American authors is particularly noteworthy. Whereas other magazine editors relied on anonymous material and reprinted British literature (generally without permission), Hale’s magazine featured American authors, and she repeatedly encouraged her readers to recognize authorship as a legitimate profession. Therefore, she favored original submissions rather than reprints, encouraged attribution of authors, and supported the idea that authors should be paid for their work.

Throughout her editorship of the Ladies’ Magazine, Hale continued her efforts as an author. Her own writings appeared frequently in the magazine, and some of them were published separately in book form. Her Sketches of American Character (1829) and Traits of American Life (1835) first appeared in the Ladies’...

(The entire section is 1857 words.)