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.
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.
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).
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.