Catharine Maria Sedgwick

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Sister Mary Michael Welsh (essay date 1937)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5532

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 Leslie, 1827, and The Linwoods, 1835; but the analysis will proceed not according to their importance, but in the order of their publication. The plan is to give a brief summary of the plot, then, to consider the various elements contained in each novel, and, finally, to apply these elements to the generally accepted standards of novel construction.


Her first novel, A New England Tale, 1822, is set in her own familiar Berkshires. Here she was perfectly at home; she knew the country and she understood the people. Her thorough knowledge of New England characters, and her complete understanding of their strength and weakness were powerful aids in the development of her tale, and in this respect she far surpasses the skill of Maria Edgeworth, who wrote of a locale to which she was alien. The story was written shortly after Miss Sedgwick's renunciation of Calvinism and her acceptance of the new Unitarianism. The pharisaical judgments of some of her neighbors had given her considerable annoyance, and she wrote the tale with the hope of acquainting them, through delightful satire, with the fact that the religious motives and sentiments of some of their number were sometimes actuated by hypocrisy.

Her intention when she began to write the tale was to produce a simple tract for Sunday school classes, but as she wrote she became so interested in the work that she continued adding further incidents until it had outgrown the length of the sketch she had intended and had reached the proportions of a novel. It is always placed with her novels but, strictly speaking, it is more correctly a tale as the author herself designates it in her title. Briefly, the plot is this: Jane Elton, a twelve year old girl, is a destitute orphan. Her three maternal aunts try to shift responsibility in adopting her. Crazy Bet, a town character, upbraids them. Thus the author has used Crazy Bet as a means of castigating the Puritanical character. The only sincere friend of the orphan is Mary Hull, a servant, who is the example of genuine charity and sterling piety. There are three men: Mr. Lloyd, a Quaker of sound principle; Mr. Erskine, weak and vacillating; and David Wilson, hypocrite and libertine. The story ends in the happy marriage of Jane and Mr. Lloyd.

The material of this novel is familiar and the treatment idealistic. It is not romantic in the sense of history or of customs, but there is a small touch of the Gothic element. The plot is simple with but little interest—what interest is there is in the didactic purpose. There is a seduction incident, a little more hideous in its consequences than those incidents found in similar novels of the day. There is also a duel. Poetic justice is meted out to evil doers and the virtuous are rewarded. With the exception of Mrs. Wilson, the characters are not self-revealing; they do not stand out. The narration is fair—somewhat impeded by the ever-present desire to satirize and preach. The unity of impression is blurred by too many unnecessary details not vitally connected. There is a definite harmony between the characters and the material, but the balance among the characters themselves is sadly lacking. Jane is too good; the Wilson girls are too bad. The integrity of Mr. Lloyd far outweighs the rascality of David Wilson. There is no organic rhythm to the book—no proportion. Too much attention is given to one aunt with but a passing reference to the other two. There is no particular quality of style, and the method is a form, occasionally that of letters, too well-worn at that time to be considered worth while. The whole story is so positively didactic, so replete with satire, that no memorable reading of life comes down to us.

Yet this novel was a success—financially speaking. In spite of this fact Miss Sedgwick was loathe to rush into a literary career. She made no pretensions to authorship. Her novel, she said, was not for the erudite of Boston, but for the young and the humble. The tale, however, was a daring adventure in satirizing the accepted religion of the place and period. The author showed courage in publishing it. The book was later reprinted in England and translated into German. To the literary historian it is of interest both because of its being her first novel and because of its setting forth the material in which she was later to do her best work.


Two years afterwards, 1824, the second novel Redwood appeared. This was a tale of domestic life and dealt with such events that ordinarily occur in all well-regulated communities. The treatment of this material is a vivid idealization, and the result, an unusual amount of interest.

Mr. Redwood and his daughter, Caroline, arrive in the midst of an electric storm at a little town in Vermont. Redwood has his arm broken when his frightened horses wreck the carriage. Mr. Lennox and his sister, Aunt Debby, offer him the hospitality of their house. While Redwood is convalescing the plot develops.

Redwood, when young, was a high-principled man but he lost his religion and morality through his association with an atheist. In this state he had contracted a clandestine marriage with Mary Erwine, a pious governess, but socially inferior. His father insisted on his marrying a rich girl—his cousin. He broke with Mary and his infidelity killed her. He knew nothing of her death until he reached Rome. On his return he married his cousin who lived but a few years. Before she died she left him a daughter, Caroline, who grew to be the epitome of the social uselessness of the time.

In the Lennox family there was an Ellen Bruce. Ellen was all that a model ward should be, but there is in addition an air of mystery about her. She owns a casket which is not to be opened until she is twenty-one.

Other visitors appear at the Lennox household. The two Shakers, Susan Allen and her niece Emily, make a fleeting visit, leaving a sense of future tragedy in their wake. The Westalls, mother and son, stop on their return to Virginia. Redwood and Mrs. Westall are anxious to arrange a marriage between their children. This marriage would please Caroline, but Charles Westall's choice rests on Ellen Bruce.

The meeting at Lebanon Springs of all the principal characters brings the story to a rapid conclusion. Caroline elopes with an English officer, Ellen Bruce turns out to be the daughter of Redwood and Mary Erwine, Mr. Redwood regains his lost faith, Charles Westall marries Ellen, and Aunt Debby rescues Emily from the influence of the Shakers.

The plot, easily penetrated at the outset, is, nevertheless, filled with many complications, and the general effect is that it holds the interest.

The character development is exceptionally good. The proud, selfish, envious Caroline is thoroughly revealed to us, and toward the end she shows some good development. The gentle, generous, trustful character of Ellen Bruce is perhaps too good to be real, but the contrast between her and Caroline is convincing. So, too, is the contrast between Susan Allen and her niece Emily. Above all, though, Aunt Debby Lennox stands out—practical, childlike, yet wise in the ways of the world, a counsellor to the needy—a character unique in American literature at that time. These women are far superior to the women we find in Cooper's novels at the same date.

The narrative is good—better than that of the contemporary women writers. The unity is strong yet relieved by variety of interests all held in restraint. The story is in harmony with the setting, and the balance of characters and groups of characters is acceptable. The story lacks an appreciable rhythm, but the proportion of the book is excellent. There is as yet no evidence of a distinct style—no lyric quality, and the method Miss Sedgwick follows is one found in almost every contemporary novel. Deep pathos pervades some parts of the story, while others display a keen sense of humor. The dialogue is easy, natural, and appropriate.

The mystery surrounding Ellen's birth, the casket which she may not open, the meeting with her father under such peculiar circumstances—all seem extraordinary. These are, however, in accordance with the style of the fiction of the period. Sir Walter Scott and Miss Edgeworth made use of such expedients, and the readers of the day accepted them without question.

The moral, which is a religious one, is well worked into the texture of the story and does not stare officiously from its pages. Miss Sedgwick shows how plentiful and how valuable are the materials to be found in the lives of her people, and how readily they adapt themselves to the pages of fiction. The story is decidedly romantic in its descriptions of scenery, and this romance is deepened by many of the incidents—the electric storm, the accident at the lake, the abduction, and the imprisonment in the hut of the Indian. The sentimentality of the author's predecessors is apparent, too, in the secret marriage of Mary Erwine and in Redwood's desertion of her. The incident of the visits of Ellen to the blind child and the operation which gave her sight, is used some years later by Mrs. Augusta Evans Wilson in St. Elmo, 1835.

The novel was reprinted in England and translated into French. A notice of Redwood in The Constitionnel, a Paris newspaper, attributed the authorship to Cooper.


Redwood, 1824, was followed by Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in Massachusetts, 1827. This novel, an historical one, was probably suggested by a review of Redwood which appeared in the North American Review, after the publication of that novel. While commending Redwood, the review points out the wonderful material available to the writer who would go back to the infancy of the colonies, to the fearless lives of the pioneers, the unknown terrors of the forests, and the mingled kindness and treachery of the savage tribes by whom the settlers were surrounded.1

The plot was suggested by an incident connected with the Indian massacre at Deerfield, Massachusetts. A young girl was taken captive by the Indians and married to a chief. She was, after some years, discovered by her relatives; but she refused to return to them, preferring to remain with her Indian husband.

Springfield, Massachusetts, and the city of Boston are used as the chief settings for the novel. William Fletcher, confident of the safety of his little family, leaves his wife and two sons in Springfield while he travels to Boston to meet his cousin, Mrs. Leslie, who is arriving from England. When the vessel reaches port, he learns that Mrs. Leslie died at sea, leaving her two little daughters, Faith and Hope, to his guardianship. He is obliged to remain in Boston for some days but sends Faith to Springfield, keeping Hope with him. Shortly after Faith arrives at the settlement, the father of two young Indians held in service at the Fletcher homestead, attacks the family, kills Mrs. Fletcher and her infant son, and takes Faith and Mrs. Fletcher's elder son, Everell, captive with the intention of sacrificing him. As the ax descends to take his life, Everell is saved by Magawisca, the chief's daughter, who, like Pocahontas, throws herself between him and the ax and receives the blow which severs her arm.

After Everell's escape the story passes over the intervening years to present Everell and Hope grown to manhood and womanhood. The scene changes to Boston. Here in a few months events throng thick and fast upon one another. Hope meets her sister Faith; but the meeting is interrupted by the villain of the story, Sir Philip Gardiner, who leads a guard to the meeting place and takes captive Magawisca, who accompanied Faith. Oneco, Faith's Indian husband, and the old chief Ononotto then take Hope prisoner, believing she has acted as a decoy. Hope evades them and is rescued by an Italian sailor who supposes her to be his patron saint. Magawisca is tried for conspiracy, and in this trial occurs the most tragic scene introduced in an American novel up to this period. Here in open court the Indian maiden produces the crucifix dropped by Gardiner and asks him to swear upon it to the truth of his statements.

Faith steals back to her Indian husband. Hope plans the escape of Magawisca by disguising her in the clothes of her old tutor whom she leaves in the cell in her stead, knowing the gentle old man will not be made to suffer. The awful catastrophe of the blowing up of the vessel on which Gardiner had planned to carry off Hope ends the story. All the evil ones meet their punishment in the explosion, and the good are safe from their further machinations. Everell and Hope, as is expected, are happily married.

The novel is decidedly romantic. The author has used material that is historical and has treated it idealistically. On several occasions the sentiment of terror adds a Gothic touch. The plot does not stand out; it is so involved in minor plots, that the main one is, at times, obscured. These minor incidents, however, are all so stirring and thrilling that the interest aroused is intense. Hope's escape, first from the Indians, then from the outlaws, and finally from the treachery of Sir Philip Gardiner—all keep alive the interest awakened at the beginning of the novel when the massacre occurred. The characters are too strongly idealized. In Magawisca we have a high idealization of the Indian, but the character seems overdrawn. Both Everell and Hope are also idealized. They hold too perfectly to a happy mean, scarcely attainable at their age and period. The Puritan character is presented in a more favorable light than in A New England Tale. Governor Winthrop and Mr. Fletcher, though strict adherents, are both free from the blight of Puritan severity. The story is told in an easy, familiar style, with few interruptions for the sake of sermonizing, and with frequent passages of subtle humor. Again, the author rises to the heights of eloquence, as in Magawisca's dramatic trial scene. The narration will bear comparison with that of any other writer of the time. Even with the numerous incidents, many so vivid that they almost hide the chief plot, the unity of the story is intact; and a strong restraining influence is exercised. The harmony between characters is perfect. The story is quite in keeping with the setting, and thus, harmony is preserved. The author appears to leave, to some extent at least, the more open didacticism of her predecessors, and writes in a smooth, natural style. Miss Sedgwick gives evidence of much originality in this novel. Her introduction of the crucifix and Hope's rescue of Magawisca are incidents new to the American novel. For these she had no precedent.


Three years after the publication of Hope Leslie, in 1830, Clarence appeared.

The story begins with the friendship established between Mr. Flavel, an aged man, and Frank Carroll, an attractive young boy. The old man becomes ill, and Frank persuades his parents to take him into their house, to nurse him through his illness. Flavel, whose real name is Clarence, turns out to be the father of Mr. Carroll and the grandfather of Frank. When a young child, Mr. Carroll had been lost through the villainy of John Smith, a clerk, to whom Clarence had entrusted him. Flavel dies shortly after the relationship has been established and leaves his immense wealth to Mr. Carroll who from now on is known by his true name of Clarence. The happiness of becoming the possessor of this fortune is changed to grief when Frank dies suddenly.

The tenth chapter really begins the plot. The tale is rather complicated, presenting two pairs of lovers, Gerald Roscoe and Gertrude Clarence; Emilie Layton and Randolph Marion, whose love affairs run anything but smoothly. Two villains, John Smith, the faithless clerk, and Pedrillo, an adventurer, masquerading as a wealthy gentleman, add to the complication of the plot.

Mr. Clarence and his daughter move to their country house. Here they meet Mrs. Layton. She is a cultured woman of the world, but one who does not hesitate to sacrifice her daughter's happiness in order to avoid the loss of their wealth. This daughter, Emilie, is a lovable girl; and the idea of her marriage with the adventurer, Pedrillo, is most repugnant. Louis Seton, the timid, sensitive artist, deeply in love with Gertrude Clarence, is also introduced.

In the second part of the novel, the scene changes to New York City and city life is vividly and truly described throughout the remainder of the book. The author's own life was spent partly in the country and partly in the city and her affections seem to be equally divided between the two. She is one of the first to indicate clearly the city, as such, in the novel, Hugh Breckenridge and Charles Brockden Brown alone preceding her. The attitude of city life interested her, and she was the first to present real social situations as they are found actually existing in the city. The first real account of a church service in a novel occurs in Clarence.

She is one of the first to introduce into a novel an incident that permits her to express her sentiments and those of her contemporaries regarding the folly of duelling.

In spite of the romanticism of Clarence, the novel presents in its descriptions of social life in New York City, a realism that is true and accurate in all its details. Different grades of society are depicted: the newly rich with their over-crowded, gaudily furnished rooms; the intolerant many, who, sure of their own position in society, scorn their less fortunate neighbors who are seeking entrance; the genuinely refined, who, although bereft of their fortunes, still retain their graciousness and culture.

There is also in Clarence a condemnation of the shallowness of the city's social standards. It is an indictment against the artificiality of fashionable life. A fine sarcasm prevails.

Clarence, though one of the most romantic of Miss Sedgwick's novels, is developed from material thoroughly realistic. Scenes depicting the most extravagant romance are, however, generously sprinkled throughout the novel. As is usual with the author, she has so deluged her story with interesting events, that, while the plot itself seems weakened, it is never lost sight of; although it runs along in danger of eclipse by some of the minor plots. The novel is strong in character portrayal, but lacks character development. All are either good or bad at the beginning, and the good remain unchanged; while the bad become more wicked as the plot develops. Yet, the characters are splendidly drawn and are individuals, not types. Mrs. Layton is beautiful, polished, charming, yet so selfish she would sacrifice everything and everyone to satisfy her slightest whim. Gertrude Clarence is in direct contrast to Mrs. Layton. Gertrude is not beautiful, but charming in her simplicity, her honesty, and her goodness. She is willing to sacrifice herself in order to bring comfort to others. Gerald Roscoe corresponds in character to Gertrude and forms a marked contrast to the dishonest profligate, Pedrillo. The narration is splendid. The story abounds in effective, appropriate dialogues; and the depression some sections of the novel would produce is tempered by a tactful introduction of mild humor. The unity of impression is weak, owing chiefly to the strength of minor plots. While these incidents seem to confuse those of the chief plot, they furnish, nevertheless, a restraint that excites interest. The contrast in characters makes for harmony and presents a perfect balance. In this novel, the author makes her nearest approach to lyrical style. She makes frequent use of the epistolary Richardsonian method to bring events up to date, and in these letters she excels. In adopting this style she is in keeping with the writers of her time, but takes the initiative in introducing new incidents—church services and duelling.

Interwoven side by side are the romantic and the dramatic. Miss Sedgwick has not forgotten her purpose in writing which was both to entertain and to instruct. Throughout the book she has injected, quietly and effectively, the moral she wished to instill. One lesson which she brings home very strongly is that one's death depends upon the life the individual has led. This is brought out very plainly in the contrast between the death of Pedrillo and that of Seton.


Five years elapsed after the publication of Clarence, 1830, before Miss Sedgwick gave to the public another novel. This was The Linwoods; or Sixty Years Since in America, 1835, an historical romance which carries the reader back sixty years to the stirring events of the Revolution. The scene is laid in New York, but the New England farm life is introduced in the home of Eliot Lee and his sister Bessie. In Clarence, the New York of the 1830's plays an important rôle, while The Linwoods acquaints the reader with the colonial city of the Dutch settlement.

The review of Redwood already referred to, published in the North American Review in 1825, seems to have suggested the writing of The Linwoods as well as the writing of Hope Leslie.

The Review calls attention to the wealth of material open to writers of fiction, if they would go back to the incidents of the Revolution; to the policies that divided families and separated friends; and to the volunteers who came from foreign shores to aid the struggling colonists.

Although The Linwoods was not written until ten years after this Review, it seems probable that it had its influence on the creation of this novel; for all the incidents suggested in it are made use of by Miss Sedgwick. She does not, however, go deeply into the events of the war, nor bring out as heroes our great historic figures. General Washington is introduced several times but he is by no means the principal character. The reader meets Lafayette but he disappears before one really knows he is there. General Putnam, also, opportunely arrives at the decisive moment only to be lost sight of immediately. Mrs. Washington appears for the first time in a novel and delights the reader with her kindly manner and her gracious aid in assisting with the wedding preparations of Eliot Lee, the hero of the romance. The mercenary and military adventures so scorned by the Rebels have their place in the story; the Tory also plays his part. The nobility of the colonists in their privations and sufferings endured so uncomplainingly, is contrasted with the selfishness and feastings of the enemy.

The very first chapter of the book introduces the chief characters; Bessie Lee, the daughter of a New England farmer, Isabella Linwood and her brother Herbert, children of a wealthy Tory, and Jasper Meredith, the friend of young Linwood. When the war opens, Herbert Linwood, in opposition to the command of his father, joins the rebel forces and is disowned in consequence. Eliot Lee becomes an officer and is in close attendance on General Washington. Bessie Lee, deceived by Jasper Meredith, gradually becomes mad and wanders from her New England home to New York to return his trinkets to him, believing that by doing so she will be freed from the love she has had for him. Here at the close of the war all are united and, as usual, rewarded or punished as poetic justice demands. Throughout the story one exciting event follows another, so that there is not a dull moment to be disposed of.

As usual Miss Sedgwick is not strong in building up her plot. Incidents without number are gathered around it. This is true of The Linwoods as well as of all her other novels. This does not, however, seem to detract from the interest of the plot but rather adds to it, for the author is always felicitous in her selection of incidents, and so ingenious in weaving them into the story that one overlooks the lack of plot unity.

Again, as is usual with Miss Sedgwick, the women characters are exceedingly well-drawn. The heroine, Isabella Linwood, is an excellent character, beautiful, intelligent, loyal—lovable in every way. The gentle, trusting Bessie Lee is a most pathetic figure. The beautiful traitorous Ruthven sisters present a woeful contrast with their miserable duplicity. Herbert Linwood and Eliot Lee are noble types of colonial youths, while Jasper Meredith may well be placed in the same category with the Ruthven girls. All these characters are real; the only suggestion of idealization is in Eliot Lee, or in the devotion to Eliot of the poor unfortunate Kissel. The story is told in a fascinating manner. Incidents crowd in such quick succession and from such unsuspected sources that, while the interest is intense, the unity of impression is sometimes marred. Naturally the many changes in these minor events provide a restraining influence. There is always harmony between characters and settings, whether these be the New England farm house or the Clinton mansion. Miss Sedgwick's use of contrast inevitably tends to balance in characters—a balance that she preserves in all her novels. The same simple ease in writing which seems natural to the author is evident here. Letters are frequently used to advance the plot and explain situations. The proportion is good, although prominent historical figures are lightly passed over. In this Miss Sedgwick is probably influenced by Scott, in giving minor places to these characters. Her purpose is didactic, for she states in her Preface that she is presenting this picture of the sufferings of their ancestors in the hope that her young readers may be faithful to the free institutions transmitted to them. In spite of this, however, one could not call the novel really didactic. Miss Sedgwick is unique in being the first to introduce Mrs. Washington into a novel.


Passing over her didactic tales for the present, we go on to her last novel which was not published until twenty-two years later. In 1857, however, she produced another novel entitled Married or Single? In her Preface to this story the author openly proclaims her purpose in writing. She says that it is a woman's right to shape her own course and that she would feel that the novel had not been written in vain if it did anything to lessen the stigma attached by the vulgar to the title of “old maid.”

As a novel it does not bear comparison with either The Linwoods or Hope Leslie. The author has piled into the tale all kinds of incidents and grouped them together in this story. There are several pairs of lovers, three or four characters with a mysterious past, a seduction with its usual tragedy in the death of the victim, the inevitable triangle, and a young man unjustly imprisoned for forgery. The main theme of the novel is a woman's right to enjoy an independent life.

Grace Herbert, the heroine of the story, after discovering the villainy of Copeland, her betrothed, determines to lead a single life. She proves her ability to support herself although her girlhood had been passed in a home of wealth. Her resolution to remain single weakens when she finds that she is loved by Archibald Lisle, an ideal character and the hero of the novel. The tale leaves her at twenty-three years of age betrothed to the hero with the promise of a happy life before her.

There are many passages in the novel, however, that give the reader much knowledge of the author's philosophy of life, and her position on some of the questions of the day. There is a little satire on transcendentalism which shows her lack of confidence in this philosophy. She places this term in the mouth of one of her characters to designate anything he cannot explain—its meaning seems to be obscure and cloudy. The uncultured wealthy, who invite friends to see their portraits painted by one of the old masters, come in for their share of the satire. The introduction of the runaway slave and her little child afford an opportunity for expressing her sentiments about this question.

There are so many plots in this story, it is difficult to determine just which is the real one. The love story of Archibald Lisle and Grace Herbert, however, appears to be the principal one, and their experiences which end in their final union constitute the plot. The characters, like the plots, are numerous, and are of all kinds. Miss Sedgwick fails to make her woman characters convincing, as she has done in her earlier novels. Her idealization of hero and heroine has resulted in rendering both rather vapid. No particular character in the book stands out. Her narration is excellent, for she is a finished story-teller; and even in an inferior tale, can hold the interest of the reader. Unity of impression is lacking, however, lost in the multiplicity of minor plots which obscure the main issue. The restraint is too forced. There is a certain harmony between characters and material, but balance among the characters is wanting. The good far exceed all others, and the villain, Copeland, stands absolutely alone. The book lacks proportion, many of the minor plots exceeding the interest of the main plot. There is no particular style to the writing—the author does not appear to have acquired any special style. Nor does this tale exhibit any originality of method; it follows her usual manner, weaving incidents around a group of characters. At times, these incidents seem introduced simply because the author wanted to write about them, not that they aided the plot.

As a novel, the work is a failure. Its value and importance lie in the fact that it helps to place the author in the issues of her day, since she has given expression to her sentiments regarding many current questions.

Summing up this analysis of her novels, we find that while her material has been divided between the familiar and the historical, the treatment has been invariably idealistic. This is quite in keeping with the authors of her day. We find, however, that her plot construction, with the exception of the last novel, improves with each new one; but that intrigue and complications tend toward obscuring the unity of impression so much desired. In this particular, Miss Sedgwick ranks on a par with most of her contemporaries, but is inferior to both Cooper and Simms.

Her best characterization comes out in her second novel, Redwood, in the personage of Aunt Debby Lennox. A comparison of Miss Sedgwick's characterizations with those of Cooper will show, especially in regard to women, a far more human group of heroines. But not even Aunt Debby can be classified in the same category with Harvey Birch, Long Tom Coffin, or Natty Bumpo.

It seems safe to say that Miss Sedgwick's dialogue is the equal of the best of her contemporaries, and that for the most part it maintains a consistent level of excellence.

Another interesting point lies in her inventiveness. She is particularly rich in adding unique situations and incidents to her stories, and in this respect she has anticipated Cooper, Dickens, Motley, and the Brontes. Seldom does she look forward to the newer realism. All too frequently she looks backward to the sentimentalism and the Gothic materials of an earlier time.

That she is something of a social historian is apparent in Clarence. Although she was not a pioneer in the social materials of city life, still she did far better work in that field than any other writer up to the coming of Willis in his Paul Fane.

The ever prevailing shadow of didacticism is over her work, and for this reason alone her novels make no appeal to the modern reader. In almost every other respect she takes her place in the literary world among such early novelists as Cooper, Neale, Bird, Simms, Cooke, Willis, and Holmes. The didacticism which kills our interest in her novels marked her as an author whose work was in great demand in the journals and publications of her day. Her faults were the faults of the age.


  1. North American Review, “Review of Redwood” (Boston, 1825), XX, 245.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1379

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.

Thomas H. Fick (essay date 1990)

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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 after her death in 1867 she came to merit only passing references in literary histories and critical works. During the past few years, however, her literary reputation has undergone a minor revaluation, at least in part because her work shows a remarkable sensitivity to literary modes and conventions. Her first novel—A New England Tale (1822)—established the major conventions of what Nina Baym calls “woman's fiction” and, as Michael D. Bell points out, in Hope Leslie she demonstrated an unusual knack for working with existing conventions. It is therefore not surprising to find that two recent collections of women's fiction open with exemplary stories by Sedgwick: Judith Fetterley begins Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women with “Cacoethes Scribendi” (1830) and Susan Koppelman chooses “Old Maids” (1834) to introduce her anthology Old Maids: Short Stories by Nineteenth Century U.S. Women Writers. Koppelman goes so far as to claim, with considerable justification, that not only does “Old Maids” set “the classic pattern for a story written in defense of old maids,” it also introduces “the major themes characteristic of women's short fiction” (9, 10). Clearly, Sedgwick's fiction is attractive both for its graceful execution and for its articulation of formal and thematic concerns—the implicit (and sometimes explicit) commentary on operative conventions as well as subjects. For these reasons, Sedgwick's works are interesting both for themselves and for what they can tell us about the development of modes and genres.

In this essay I want to consider “Cacoethes Scribendi,” one of Sedgwick's most rewarding short fictions, for what it reveals about antebellum conceptions of realism in literature. This “protorealistic” writing shares some characteristics with formula fiction and is often marked by interventive authorial commentary—a narrative strategy virulently attacked by almost all American proponents of realism since Henry James.1 Yet despite such narratological faux pas, protorealistic fiction explicitly presents itself as engaged in exploring “reality” both by the structure of the story (which like Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn centers on an opposition between reality and aristocratic romance) and by the authorial voice. It is my contention that we must grant a tentative legitimacy to these structural and authorial assertions of realism if we are to understand how the real is conceived and portrayed in antebellum literature.

“Cacoethes Scribendi” (Latin: writer's itch) is a compact tale that explores the opposition between the “real” and the ideal through two converging lines of development. On the one hand, the story is about women and writing. Mrs. Courland (the matriarch of an all-female household) and her sisters indulge their passion for writing with an exuberance that, as Judith Fetterley rightly observes, suggests no trace of the “anxiety of authorship” that Gilbert and Gubar find central to the woman writer's experience (5). On the other hand, the story concerns the subjects of women's fiction: while Mrs. Courland is engaged in the act of writing, her daughter Alice acts out a courtship and marriage that exemplifies the sort of fiction Mrs. Courland should write. Thus “Cacoethes Scribendi” explores both the act of writing and one subject of writing, in this case the unfolding romance between Alice and her cousin Ralph—a text-book example of true love.

While the parallel plots clearly indicate that the story has something to say about the relation between writing and living—technique and subject—modern readers can easily be deceived about the precise nature of that relation. In her introduction to the story, for example, Fetterley argues that Alice's lover Ralph emerges “as the genuine writer” because “His is a ‘true story,’ based on real feelings,” and because when he writes his declaration of love for Alice “he writes only what he has to say.” In this view, the story endorses a conception of reality, and of realistic writing, that stands opposed to what are presumed to be the sentimental and formulaic productions of Mrs. Courland, who presumably writes standard odes to romantic love. Yet Fetterley's notion of realism is both tautological and ahistorical: Ralph's is an ostensibly “real” story because it is based on “real” feelings, with the unexamined assumption that real feelings (in this case love) are spontaneous, unmediated—presumably the result of something like “instinct” or nature, and that hence endure as transhistorical constants. Yet real feelings, like right actions or even true love, are products of their times and are expressed in different ways: one “has to say” what one has learned is possible and appropriate to say. Further, “true stories” about real feelings are recognized as true only within the literary conventions that define the consensus about what constitutes reality. (Literary realism is itself determined by conventions, as critics have long acknowledged.) We should resist the temptation to find “Cacoethes Scribendi” significant to the extent that it anticipates the particular conventions of postbellum literary realism—a teleological conception of genre. If we move beyond vague, incantatory evocations of “true stories” and “real feelings,” we find that Ralph's feelings, and hence the truth of his story (a very conventional love story), have a logic of their own.

In the literary economy of this tale, “reality” emerges as a reflection of moral codes and social formulae—a collective human construction that bestows meaning upon the actions of the individual. (In contrast, the post-Darwinian notion of realism posits an individual working out the imperatives of impersonal and inhuman forces; the world of conventional morality is frequently considered unscientific, artificial, and hence irrelevant.) As one consequence, the characters and plots in antebellum realism tend to be portrayed in broadly representative terms—as what might seem to us now as stereotypical or formulaic. What I am suggesting is that we look for the “real” story in antebellum fiction not in the portrayal of thorough-going individuality, but in characters and plots that explicitly represent shaping conditions and expectations, and that thus often appear to the modern reader to be formulaic in the case of plot and conventional in the case of character. By adhering to a moral and collective notion of the “real,” Sedgwick performs an essentially conservative cultural function that is upsetting both to liberal critics who look for an enlightened ideology (or literary practice), and to formalist critics who value intricate aesthetic shape, complex verbal resonance, and moral ambiguity. Yet for antebellum writers the portrayal of what Sedgwick elsewhere calls the “beau actual” (“First Love” 83) was the dominant form of representing contemporary conditions, and to read such tales as “Cacoethes Scribendi” as a justification of Howellsian realism is quite simply untrue to the narrative. We can see how the “real” operates in much antebellum fiction by looking closely at Sedgwick's carefully crafted tale.

Mrs. Courland's profession of authorship begins when Frank returns from Boston with two annual collections of poetry and fiction, a form of publication then extremely popular among middle-class readers.2 Although intended for Alice, these collections have their most immediate and obvious effect on Mrs. Courland: “she felt a call to become an author, and before she retired to bed she obeyed the call, as if it had been, in truth, a divinity stirring within her” (53). She inspires her three unmarried sisters to follow her writerly example, and together they turn out examples of almost every form of popular prose: religious tracts, treatises on botany and child rearing, with an emphasis on romantic sketches. There are several other consequences of this obsessive “itch.” First, in her search for subjects Mrs. Courland cannibalizes her daughter's public life with such energy that Alice grows “afraid to speak or to act, and from being the most artless … little creature in the world, she became as silent and as stiff as a statue” (56). A comic version of the tortured artists that appear in Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales, Mrs. Courland violates her subject's public and private self, but she changes her daughter from artless girl to statuary rather than, like Ethan Brand, her own heart to stone.

The other results of writing are in some ways more positive. A hundred years before Virginia Woolf called for a room of one's own, Mrs. Courland and her three sisters abandon the parlor for their separate bedrooms, and their retreat from the space of domestic action turns the parlor from “a sort of village exchange” to a “tower of Babel after the builders had forsaken it” (56). Writing silences the sort of social discourse that comprises the typical nineteenth-century woman's world and substitutes another whose lack of conviviality is at least partly balanced by an increase in authority. But the story does not validate the romantic notion of an isolated Promethean creator. Indeed, most antebellum fiction by women portrays the community of the parlor in positive terms and conversation as an alternative to the linear masculine narratives of business and adventure—as Sedgwick's play on “village exchange” neatly suggests. The true “bluestocking,” as Sedgwick indicates in another short story, is as unpretentious, social, and neighborly as any other member of her community.3 Since Mrs. Courland separates herself from the community it is reasonable to conclude that her fiction may also be misconceived: Mrs. Courland seeks inspiration not in her world but apart from it. The anxiety of authorship is therefore not an issue, but the nature of what Mrs. Courland authors most certainly is.

While Mrs. Courland easily enlists her sisters in a life of joyous scribbling, neither example nor exhortation can convince her daughter Alice to write a line. Yet in an important sense Alice's refusal to touch a pen doesn't cut her off from the subjects of fiction as Mrs. Courland cuts herself off when she abandons the hospitable “village exchange.” Indeed, while Mrs. Courland pursues her writing, in the now-empty parlor Alice and her cousin Frank are enacting the age-old tale of true love—a literal rather than a literary endeavor. The women's withdrawal to their unsocial space clears a space for acting out a flesh and blood social drama: “Not a sound was heard [in the parlor] save Ralph's and Alice's voices, mingling in soft and suppressed murmurs” (56)—and these are murmurs Sedgwick has no need to translate for her audience. This, as we shall see, is the real story that Ralph and Alice enact—a story that is real precisely because it represents the common and expected lot.

The drama of the young couple's lovemaking stands in contrast to Mrs. Courland's literary apprenticeship, for the annual has a different but equally powerful effect on Alice and Frank. Unlike her mother, Alice responds to the meaning of the stories rather than the idea of writing, to the presence of desire rather than the desire to write. When Frank first brings the annuals that trigger Mrs. Courland's “itch,” Alice is particularly affected by one tale about “two tried faithful lovers, and married at last!” and she calls Frank's special attention to the ending: “I hate love stories that don't end in marriage” (52). Frank passionately agrees, and “for the first time Alice felt her cheeks tingle at his approach” (52). Ralph and Alice's love is given shape and direction by the conventional story in the annual: love becomes real because fiction makes its habitual and accepted plot available to the two participants. As one young woman comments in a story by Susan Pindar, “If I could only hear one true love story, something that I knew had really occurred—then it would serve as a kind of text for all the rest. Oh! how I long to hear a real story of actual life” (54). Similarly, before Ralph and Alice found their own “text” they “had always lived on terms of cousinly affection—an affection of a neutral tint that they never thought of being shaded into the deep dye of a more tender passion” (52). A later exchange between Ralph and Mrs. Courland clarifies the relationship between the activity and the subjects of writing that is suggested by the annual's double effect. When Mrs. Courland asks Ralph to corroborate her opinion that Alice is a fool to fear being called a “blue-stocking,” he answers “It would be a pity, aunt, to put blue stockings on such pretty feet as Alice's” (57). The conversation continues for a while in the same vein, with Ralph converting “blue-stocking” into clumsy compliments about Alice's dainty feet. His word play mimics the relationship between the two narrative lines: “Cacoethes Scribendi” is a story about literary women—about bluestockings—but it is also about well-turned ankles and lovers' compliments. The relationship between the two plots is further explored in the episode that moves Ralph and Alice's passion from the private to the public realm, reinscribing their drama in the social world and bringing the story to its anticipated conclusion. Mrs. Courland has been pestering Ralph to write about his experiences, and he finally gives in: “I will sit down this moment, and write a story—a true story—true from beginning to end” (57). He takes up his pen and with much labor writes a single scratched and interlined paragraph that presents a “short and true story of his love for his sweet cousin Alice.”

Ralph's single act of authorship raises one of the central questions of the story: in what way is Ralph's story true? Does Ralph emerge, as Fetterley maintains, “as the genuine writer” because “His is a ‘true story,’ based on real feelings, and [because] he writes only what he has to say”? On the one hand Ralph's paragraph is not a fiction; it represents his actual feelings and evokes a response that shapes the rest of his life. In a more important way, however, both his written and lived stories are—or become—“literary” and conventional: as we have seen, the courtship was given shape and bodied forth from the nebulous realm of adolescent affection by a sentimental story whose plot it mirrors from beginning to end. Ralph becomes an adult when he learns accurately to “read” the conventional plot of true love. Indeed, “Cacoethes Scribendi” concludes with a one-sentence paragraph describing Alice's nuptials and the young lover's disappearance into the space of generic bliss: “her mother and aunts saw her the happy mistress of the Hepburn farm, and the happiest of wives.”

As my discussion of the story should make clear, Fetterley is right but for the wrong reasons: Ralph's story is a “true story,” not because it conveys his special feelings in contrast to conventional ones—for clearly it does not—but precisely because it fulfills common expectations about the course of events.4 The truth of this story is therefore confirmed partly by the difficulty with which Ralph writes it, and partly by the confidence with which he lives it, a confidence generated by seeing it as repeating a cultural formula. We miss this notion of what constitutes real life if we insist on judging “Cacoethes Scribendi” by postbellum definitions of realism, which are profoundly suspicious of predictable narrative shape.5 We miss it also if we equate realism with biological or sociological pessimism (the great descending curve of the naturalists). By all indications Mrs. Courland is a bad writer not because she writes “romance” but because her fiction pays no attention to the form, balance, and restraint of common plots such as the one that unfolds in her parlor—“The Romance in Real Life,” as Sedgwick titles another of her short stories.

It is easy to misread the indications of Mrs. Courland's weakness as a writer. We might, for example, decide that her error lies in composing romantic tales of love rather than realistic ones of misery or thwarted affection. This possibility is first suggested when Mrs. Courland reminds Ralph of three encounters he could make into wonderful articles, “founded on fact, all romantic and pathetic.” Here she appears to be the sentimental romancer, cut off from the conditions of everyday life and lost in romantic haze. Indeed, Alice not-so-gently counters that:

The officer drank too much; and the mysterious lady turned out to be a runaway milliner; and the man in black—oh! what a theme for a pathetic story!—the man in black was a widower, on his way to Newhaven, where he was to select his third wife from three recommended candidates.

To this objection Mrs. Courland brashly responds, “do you suppose it is necessary to tell things precisely as they are?” In this exchange Alice seems to function as the voice of modern realism, reminding her mother that desire must not overpower fact, and urging attention to the dark side of life. From a post-Jamesian perspective, therefore, it is tempting to see Mrs. Courland as the misguided romancer who distorts the available topics of everyday life; in this view Mrs. Courland is a bad writer because she doesn't recognize the marvelously gritty topics that would attract, say, Stephen Crane or Theodore Dreiser (if not W. D. Howells).

But such a reading just won't do. After all, Sedgwick herself does not give us the “realist's” (more properly the naturalist's) story of a drunken officer or fugitive milliner or hardhearted, mercenary widower, but a tale of courtship and marriage. When evaluated according to the criteria of antebellum realism, the “romantic” content of the story subverts its supposed realism and hence we must consider the story hopelessly confused. However, “Cacoethes Scribendi” does not define unrealistic writing as stories of true love rather than drunken soldiers. Within the tale's world “things precisely as they are” (as demonstrated by Alice and Ralph's courtship) can be remarkably conventional, even what we might now consider sentimental. Mrs. Courland's fault lies not in the desire to write of true love rather than drunken soldiers, but in her inability to see such plots when they unfold in her own parlor, and to render them with appropriate decorum and proportion—something that Sedgwick most emphatically does. “Cacoethes Scribendi” offers several examples of the sort of writing Mrs. Courland should but cannot do. Take, for example, the narrator's description of Ralph—the actual lover to Mrs. Courland's fictional ones: “Ralph was no prodigy; none of his talents were in excess, but all in moderate degree” (51). Alice perfectly complements her lover: no girl of seventeen, the narrator remarks, “was ever more disinterested, unassuming, unostentatious, and unspoiled” (52). None, all—the language of absolutes humorously characterizes the perfectly average lover in contrast to the extravagant pretensions of aristocratic romance.

What I am suggesting may be hard to stomach—that we take authorial claims to represent the real seriously, rather than as excuses for writing fiction.6 This means entertaining the possibility that a structured social and moral world—which can appear to us as formulaic—can be the reality to which earlier writers respond, the one they wish to represent as the primary experience of their lives. At issue is not whether we consider such a world to be true, but whether the writers did—and clearly the oppositional structure of the tales tells us that this is the case. Any other attempt to understand realism seems to me culturally and temporally limited. There is obviously much about Sedgwick's conception of the “real” that the modern reader must find unacceptable. As the product of a white middle-class woman, it downplays, even if it does not entirely ignore, suffering, injustice, prejudice, disease—the dark panoply of human misery. These are indeed large omissions. However, I maintain that we cannot disregard repeated assertions of what constitutes part of the author's “reality” when such assertions occur within an oppositional structure pitting real against ideal—that is, when the work clearly recognizes that the nature of reality is a primary issue. The difficulty of recognizing the relation between the reality of protorealism and the conditions it ostensibly reflects is that we expect realism to be mimetic in a particular way: always to reflect the consequences as well as the conditions of society—in short, structurally to contain a commentary as well as a vision of the world. Prose which does not contain such commentary is considered documentary if it is not fiction, or romance if it is literature that uncritically and unselfconsciously expresses how a society would like to see itself. But fiction like “Cacoethes Scribendi” can be considered neither documentary nor romance—hence our discomfort with its generic indeterminacy. While presented as an explicit alternative to dangerously deceptive romantic expectations, this vision of the real is not scientific or “natural” but subjective and human: one hears nothing of the impersonal forces that scholars of realism have seen as the focus of postbellum realism.7 Instead, something is real to the extent that it functions as a representative text, one agreed upon and validated, a reality of consensus rather than objective inquiry. This sort of common text, rather than the scientific and essentially dehumanizing realism of post-Civil War America, marks the “protorealism” of much fiction by antebellum women. Sedgwick's exemplary tale helps us to understand the very different conventions of this mode.


  1. As John Cawelti remarks: “Two central aspects of formulaic structures have been generally condemned in the serious artistic thought of the last hundred years: the essential standardization and their primary relation to the needs of escape and relaxation” (8). Protorealistic prose is frequently standardized, but within this cultural standardization it attacks rather than promotes escape. Robyn Warhol's recent work on narrative strategies in nineteenth-century women's fiction suggests one way of reconciling the intrusive narrator and literary realism. In “Toward a Theory of the Engaging Narrator,” Warhol proposes to add the term “engaging narrator” to our critical lexicon; unlike the “distancing narrator” the engaging narrator addresses a narratee directly in order to stir her to sympathy and ultimately to action in the extratextual world. Elsewhere she argues that Stowe's explicit didacticism and direct addresses to the reader do not violate verisimilitude but promote a sense of continuity between textual and extratextual worlds (“Poetics and Persuasion”).

  2. “Cacoethes Scribendi” appeared in just such a collection (The Atlantic Souvenir) in 1830.

  3. In a story published in 1832, Sedgwick defends literary women against charges of desexing themselves by describing a visit by the “bluestocking” Mrs. Rosewell to the home of one of her admirers. Mrs. Rosewell is revealed to be modest, sociable, and adept in smoothing the course of true love—not at all the terrible literary lion and “mannish writer of reviews” (336) the company anticipates. Indeed, it is her dilettantish host Mrs. Laight who delves into ponderous tomes and produces an unreadable essay on “the intellectual faculties” (344). Sedgwick's strategy is to justify Mrs. Rosewell's writing by promoting her participation in daily activities; to one questioner Mrs. Rosewell responds that “my last work was cutting out some vests for my boys” (341). This is a culturally conservative strategy that appears frequently in antebellum fiction: writing and women's traditional activities are shown to be complementary and authorship is reduced to an affirmation of the status quo. Given these values, Mrs. Courland's retreat from social space must be considered an inappropriate move, since she defines her literary “work” as separate from the middle-class woman's domestic work.

  4. A number of recent scholars have shown that what Alfred Habegger calls “domestic bitterness” (34-37) was of great interest to antebellum writers. David Reynolds, for example, discusses “the literature of misery”—works that focus on the dark side of women's experience, which frequently focus on nightmarish and even savage fantasies of violence and revenge against conventional patriarchal society (340, 352).

  5. William B. Stone's formulation of the problem is typical: “For a work to be termed an example of literary realism it must be able to impose an aesthetic order on its materials, but it must do so unobtrusively” (48; original emphasis).

  6. For a discussion of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century suspicion of fiction, see Martin. On antebellum responses to fiction see Nina Baym, Novels, Readers, and Reviewers, especially Chapter 2, “The Triumph of the Novel,” in which Baym argues that the supposed hostility to fiction in nineteenth-century America has been greatly exaggerated.

  7. George J. Becker, for example, writes of “the sense of blind, impersonal force which is the mark of the great realistic novels” (130).

Works Cited

Baym, Nina. Novels, Readers, and Reviewers; Responses to Fiction in Antebellum America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

———. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

Becker, George J., ed. Documents of Modern Literary Realism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

Bell, Michael Davitt. “History and Romance Convention in Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.American Quarterly 22 (1970): 213-21.

Cawelti, John. Adventure, Mystery, and Romance. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.

Fetterley, Judith, ed. Provisions: A Reader from 19th-Century American Women. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1985.

Habegger, Alfred. Gender, Fantasy, and Realism in American Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Koppelman, Susan, ed. Old Maids: Short Stories by Nineteenth Century U.S. Women Writers. Boston: Pandora, 1984. 53-61.

Martin, Terence. The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1961.

Pindar, Susan. “Aunt Mable's Love Story.” Koppelman 53-61.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Review of The Linwoods, by Catharine Sedgwick. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. James A. Harrison. New York: AMS, 1965.

Reynolds, David. Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. “Cacoethes Scribendi.” Fetterley 49-59.

———. “First Love.” Sartain's Magazine 4 (1849): 81-84.

———. “A Sketch of a Blue Stocking.” The Token: A Christmas and New Year Present. Ed. S. G. Goodrich. Boston, 1832. 334-46.

Stone, William B. “Towards a Definition of Literary Realism.” Centrum I (Spring 1973): 47-60.

Warhol, Robyn. “Poetics and Persuasion: Uncle Tom's Cabin as a Realist Novel.”

———. “Toward a Theory of the Engaging Narrator: Earnest Interventions in Gaskell, Stowe, and Eliot.” PMLA 101 (1986): 811-18.

Principal Works

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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 (novel) 1836

Live and Let Live; or, Domestic Service Illustrated (novel) 1837

Means and Ends; or, Self-Training (essays) 1839

Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (letters) 1841

Married or Single? (novel) 1857

Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick (unfinished autobiography and letters) 1871; revised as The Power of Her Sympathy: The Autobiography and Journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick [edited by Mary Kelley] 1993

Carol J. Singley (essay date 1992)

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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 Puritan world, yet who ends the novel in the most typical of ways, married to the young colonial hero, Everell Fletcher. Like many American novels of its time, Hope Leslie has a convoluted, somewhat contrived plot, with many doubling structures, cliff-hanging chapter endings, and narratorial intrusions. The novel primarily focuses on three issues: the friendship, romance, and eventual marriage of Hope to her foster brother and childhood friend, Everell Fletcher; a rigid and intolerant Puritan system, intent on order and suppression of women and Indians; and the complex relationship of settlers, land, and Native American culture, represented chiefly through Magawisca, the young Pequod woman who risks her life to save Everell's and who forms an indissoluble bond of friendship with Hope.

As historical romance, Hope Leslie combines mythic aspects of the American frontier, a fictional marriage plot, and historical accuracy. Several events in the novel—the Pequod attack on the Fletcher family, Magawisca's rescue of Everell, the villainy of Tory sympathizer Sir Philip Gardiner—are based on documented historical data that Sedgwick culled from her reading,1 but the novel is primarily fiction, intended, as Sedgwick says in her preface to Hope Leslie, to “illustrate not the history, but the character of the times” ([Hope Leslie, hereafter,] HL, 5). The novel has from the very beginning been compared with the frontier romances of James Fenimore Cooper. Sedgwick's contemporary, Sarah Hale, called Hope Leslie Sedgwick's “most popular tale; and indeed, no other novel written by an American, except, perhaps the early work of Cooper, ever met with such success” (quoted in Foster, 95). Reflecting the biases of the day, one reviewer noted that Sedgwick “had fallen into the error, so apparent in the works of Cooper … that have anything to do with Indians” (HL, x), but most applauded Sedgwick's depiction of American Indians, some granting that Sedgwick's novel contained “pictures of savage life more truthful than that of Cooper” (quoted in Foster, 95). Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller, noting Cooper's faults, also praised his fiction for its “redemption from oblivion of our forest-scenery, and the noble romance of the hunter-pioneer's life,” and in her next paragraph gave Sedgwick—the only American woman novelist she ever cited by name—tempered praise for writing “with skill and feeling, scenes and personages from the revolutionary time.” Sedgwick's work, Fuller wrote, “has permanent value.”2 Alexander Cowie, indicating the direction that critical opinion of Sedgwick would assume by the end of the nineteenth century, compared the fiction of the two writers, implying that Sedgwick “modestly” and wisely did not try to compete with Cooper.3

Despite Sedgwick's extraordinary popularity, by the end of the nineteenth-century she was practically unread, excluded from the anthologies that canonized Cooper and formed the literary myths of Adam in the New World—the “melodramas of beset manhood,” as Nina Baym has called them.4 We have little trouble recognizing this process of marginalization. At one time thought to be the American literary form, the historical romance gave way to the more imaginative, abstract romances of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, and other male writers. Men's narratives assumed the status of the universal while the domestic novel became associated with the particularized, narrow interests of “scribbling women.” By 1936 Van Wyck Brooks could write of Sedgwick, “No one could have supposed that her work would live.”5

But live it has. Newly reprinted and accessible to a new generation of readers, Hope Leslie stands ready to take its place in the American literary tradition. I argue here that Sedgwick deserves as prominent a place in an American canon as Cooper, not only for the comparable literary value of her fiction—after all, the same “threadbare formulas” and assortment of escapes, rescues, and pursuits that Robert Spiller cites in Cooper's fiction are no more egregious in Sedgwick's novel,6 and, furthermore, Sedgwick's prose is often cleaner and clearer in expression than Cooper's (Foster, 94)—but for the alternative vision of the American woman, American culture, and the relationship to nature that she provides. While following romantic conventions, Sedgwick in fact undercuts many of the assumptions upon which the romance is organized. Also, while apparently obeying the moral and literary dictum that literature teach by adhering to the facts of history and by depicting authentic characters and events—Gov. and Margaret Winthrop, the Reverend John Eliot, the Pequod Chief Mononotto, for example—Sedgwick provides an alternative literary history, one that exposes injustice against women, Native Americans, and the land. Finally, while Cooper works in the realm of the abstract, indulging the masculine fantasy of escape into some past golden age or into timelessness,7 Sedgwick engages both the social and the natural realms, suggesting a transcendental ideal achievable in society as well as nature.

Critics of American literature have persistently favored a mythology that David Levin has described as “a movement from the ‘artificial’ toward the ‘natural.’”8 This practice celebrates the individual white man either alone in nature—whether he be Natty Bumppo, Ishmael, Thoreau, or Huck Finn—or in union with a same-sexed other.9 For example, writing about the second of Cooper's The Leatherstocking Tales, The Last of the Mohicans—the novel in which the hero, Natty Bumppo supposedly “matures”—D. H. Lawrence is exuberant: “In his immortal friendship of Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo, Cooper dreamed the nucleus of a new society … A stark stripped human relationship of two men, deeper than the deeps of sex. Deeper than property, deeper than fatherhood, deeper than marriage, deeper than Love.”10 With its “wish-fulfillment vision” (Lawrence, 73) and yearning for escape, the male-defined main-stream American romance has been constructed around impossibility. Sedgwick shows us the damage that results from insistence on this impossibility: the very fabric of society and nature itself is jeopardized. Order turns to confusion; America's promise is unfulfilled.

Because Sedgwick utilizes the conservative form of the romance—the so-called “woman's novel”—readers have generally read her fiction as reinforcing the conventional nineteenth-century notions that woman's fulfillment is found in the domestic sphere11 and as validating the notion of the progress of history (Bell). Only recently has attention been given to the deeply critical qualities of Sedgwick's novel. Sandra Zagarell, for example, reads Sedgwick's treatment of women and Indians as two sides of the same repressive Puritan coin, noting not only Sedgwick's domesticity but her concern “with the foundations and organization of public life.”12 Contrary to critical consensus, Hope Leslie is not “an extraordinary conventional novel” (Bell, 213-14), nor is its comic marriage plot, as Frye explains, one “that brings hero and heroine together [and] causes a new society to crystallize around the hero.”13 Despite the conservative requirements of its genre, Hope Leslie exhibits signs of its own unraveling, as if to suggest the unworkability of its own romantic conventions. The novel replicates the chaos and contradiction inherent in the Puritan conception of its “errand in the wilderness,” addressing problems that fall outside the accepted sphere of historical romance. It also posits a heroine who resists what Leslie Rabine calls the “totalizing structure” of romantic narrative, and who struggles, valiantly and sometimes successfully, to sustain herself as an autonomous subject rather than become absorbed into the male quest for identity and mythic unity with himself.14

On some levels, Catharine Maria Sedgwick and James Fenimore Cooper have much in common. Both choose fictional contexts to express concern over the rapid, careless encroachment of civilization on the wilderness and the extinction of the Native Americans. Both also depart from their privileged, Federalist backgrounds to advocate egalitarian notions of democracy. We see important differences, however, when comparing Hope Leslie with a Leatherstocking novel written just one year earlier, during a period when the Jackson Indian Removal Policy had effectively cleared the eastern United States of Native American presence. The Last of the Mohicans, published in 1826 and set in 1740, is only tangentially colonial in that it depicts a chapter from the nine-year French and Indian War. In contrast, Hope Leslie focuses specifically on a nine-year colonial period from 1636 to 1645 and, as Mary Kelley notes in her introduction, explores “the roots of American moral character” (HL, xiii). Cooper's characters seldom leave the forest or evince concern with the political, economic, or social aspects of the law; Sedgwick's characters directly confront Puritan social, religious, and legal systems, finding in them the basis for discord and injustice. In Cooper's novels, the American hero can thrive only outside the constraints of civilization. Sedgwick addresses questions both of culture and nature, criticizing the “Law” of the Founding Fathers that enforces policies of actual repression and thereby fosters patterns of imaginative escape.15

If the character of Hope Leslie can be read as the “spirit of American history” (Bell, 221), it is history with a revisionary spirit. Hope's adventurous and generous nature contrasts with the repression and self-absorption of the Puritans; her many “doubles” in the novel challenge dichotomous views of womanhood and warn of the fragmented nature of the American psyche, split in such ways that fusion of the individual, nature, and society is impossible.

The force of Sedgwick's critique is suggested by her biography as well as by her fiction published before Hope Leslie. “The country is condemned to the ministration of inferior men,” she wrote in a letter to her brother Robert in 1814.16 In 1821, Sedgwick changed her membership from the Calvinist to the Unitarian church. Her first novel, A New England Tale (1822), is a blatant attack on Puritan hypocrisy; after venturing into a novel of manners with Redwood (1824), she returns to a critique of Puritanism with Hope Leslie, this time linking the present-day concerns about American expansion to the original project of the Puritan founders. Feeding the nation's appetite for historical fiction, Hope Leslie became an instant success. But it is by no means a book of reconciliation or progress. Below its seemingly accepting surface are deep fissures that throw into question not only the American project in the new land but also the romance literature that since Richard Chase has been synonymous with the American project.

The novel opens in England with a tale of thwarted romance—that of Hope's mother, Alice, and Alice's liberal-thinking cousin, William Fletcher. Alice's father, also named William Fletcher, prevents her from eloping to the New World with her cousin. Under pressure from her father, Alice marries Charles Leslie instead, but when her husband dies, she sets sail for the New World on her own. She dies at sea, leaving her two daughters to the guardianship of her former lover William Fletcher, who has since married a “meek” and “godly maiden and dutiful helpmate” (HL, 14), followed John Winthrop and John Eliot to America, and settled on the western frontier near Springfield, Massachusetts. When Fletcher meets the two orphaned girls in Boston, he renames them Hope and Faith, and sends Faith on ahead to Springfield. In a surprise Pequod attack on the Fletcher homestead, Faith and the Fletchers' son Everell are captured, Mrs. Fletcher and her infant son are killed, and two Indian children, Magawisca and Oneco, captives from a previous battle, are reunited with their tribe. Hope and William Fletcher, some distance away, are spared. The Pequod chief, Mononotto, intends to kill Everell, but Magawisca heroically saves his life and effects his escape; Faith, however, remains a captive, eventually converting to Catholicism and marrying Oneco.

As their names suggest, religious “Faith” of the Puritans is lost to the Indians, while the more secular “Hope” remains to confront the Puritan intolerance and repression spearheaded by Gov. Winthrop and his docile, subservient wife. And although the younger William Fletcher embodies a more liberal Puritanism than his stern elders, he is by name indistinguishable from the authoritarian uncle he has left in England. With this naming, Sedgwick suggests that Old World repression is simply transferred to the New World, at least so far as Native Americans and women are concerned. Themes of imprisonment, captivity and family disruption, rather than the comic restoration of social order associated with romance, pervade the novel. And despite epigraphs from A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It, in Hope Leslie unlike in Shakespearean romantic comedy, there will be no return to a green world at the end of the story. Society is not rejuvenated.

After the Pequod attack and escape sequence, Sedgwick resumes the narrative nine years later. Everell is being educated in England; writing to him, Hope describes her own “education” in nature as well as an incident in which an Indian woman, Nelema, saves her tutor's life by curing a snakebite. The Boston authorities respond to the news of Nelema's kindness by imprisoning her for witchcraft and removing Hope from Fletcher's custody so that she can profit from the more ordered training at the Winthrop residence. Here Hope shares a room with Winthrop's newly arrived niece, Esther Downing. Undaunted by Puritan restrictions, Hope manages to free not only Nelema but Magawisca, who has been imprisoned as a result of a scheme by Sir Philip Gardiner to overthrow the Puritan government. The plot then follows a comedy of manners formula, with Hope escaping the seductions of Gardiner and his hired sailors and finally marrying Everell after predictable mistaken identities and confused affections. At the end of the novel, Esther returns to England and Magawisca to the forest.

Although Sedgwick bases the major elements of her narrative on documented history, it is not her adherence to facts but her departure from them that is so intriguing. Sedgwick's subject, set in “an age of undisputed masculine supremacy” (HL, 16), attempts an alternative history from a woman's perspective, a perspective also sympathetic to the plight of the Native American, whom she sees in an oppression parallel to woman's. This woman's history, which as Rabine tells us, takes place outside “dominant frameworks,” is deeply critical and seeks “to subvert romantic ideology” (107). Thus, while the Springfield settlement is historically accurate, Sedgwick dramatizes with particular sensitivity the vulnerability of Margaret Fletcher and the children as they sit helpless and ignorant on the porch while the Pequods stealthily plan their attack. Women, the scene demonstrates, are powerless pawns in masculine battles. Whereas in the annals of history, Philip Gardiner's mistress lives on to marry, Sedgwick has her die in a fiery explosion, graphically depicting society's intolerance of sexually experienced unmarried women. And while no exact historical figure exists for Esther, Sedgwick invents her as the submissive, dull counterpart to Hope, a model of passivity that only a masculinist ideology like Winthrop's could endorse.

Sedgwick's rewriting of the Indian attack is most telling. The attack on the Fletcher homestead is preceded by a narrative by Magawisca, in which it is clear that the Puritans—not the Indians—precipitated the violence by first attacking the sleeping, unsuspecting Pequod village. During this brutal raid, the Indian children Magawisca and Oneco are captured and their mother and brother killed. The structural symmetry of the two attacks—in each battle a mother and son are killed and two children are taken captive—renders the acts of male violence morally indistinguishable and underlines the falsity of assigning blame to the Indians. The one inescapable difference, however, is that in the end the Puritans will prevail and the Indian tribes will be eradicated. Reinforcing this imbalance of power, Sedgwick depicts Magawisca raising and losing her arm to protect Everell from her father's axe, and noting later in the novel that the Indians cannot “grasp in friendship the hand raised to strike us” (HL, 292).

The parallel massacres by the Puritans and the Pequods—the first a “ghost chapter” in the novel—haunt the narrative, undermining dreams of harmony and unity that sent the Puritans to America. Kelley writes that the romance “is interwoven with the narrative of Indian displacement” (HL, xxi). In fact, the massacre threatens to displace the romance altogether, just as role inversions in the novel subvert the gender system in which the male provides and protects and the female submits and obeys. The Indian attacks actually set into motion an alternative narrative of redemption, not through Calvinist devotion to doctrine but through the wits and magnanimity of the female characters. Hope and Magawisca, more generous in spirit than their male counterparts, attempt to undo the wrongs of their male leaders, fundamentally challenging the precepts upon which the Puritan, male world is constructed. They do not offer a Cooperian escape or romantic/comic affirmation.

Like Natty Bumppo in The Leatherstocking Tales, Hope takes “counsel from her own heart” (HL, xxiv), but her independence is unlike his because she is female. Hope's power extends beyond domestic morality and the woman's sphere. And if she exemplifies the selflessness that Kelley associates with nineteenth-century femininity (HL, xxiii), she also embodies the traits attributed to men, acting on behalf of her own advancement as well as others'. Hope, as Bell remarks, “seems to specialize in freeing Indians” (216); this observation is true both in the terms of the novel's plot and Hope's larger project of social justice. An “unfettered soul,” Hope does not hesitate to commit “a plain transgression of a holy law” (HL, 280, 311).

If Hope stands for the white woman's resourcefulness and defiance of male restrictiveness, Magawisca represents the integrity of the Native American woman. But unlike Natty Bumppo's noble savages, who slay in order to achieve peace, Magawisca engages in no violence, whatever the personal risk. Foster (77) and Bell (216-17) speculate on Sedgwick's use of local town history for Magawisca's amputation, with Bell suggesting a source in the Captain John Smith—Pocahontas story. But Sedgwick tells us in her preface that with respect to Magawisca, “we are confined not to the actual, but the possible” (6). Magawisca, her Indian double, Nelema, and her white double, Hope Leslie—all of whom save lives even when it means their own captivity—are Sedgwick's “hope” for a revised American history and new literary mythology. The magnitude of their heroism is Sedgwick's version of what Levin calls the movement from the “artificial” to the “natural.” In Sedgwick's view, society should move away from the “artificial” imposition of violence and oppression and toward the “natural” coexistence of peace and mutuality.

Despite Hope's rebellions, the novel ends in the heroine's marriage to the young Puritan Everell Fletcher, seemingly validating Rabine's observation that women's protests and assertions occurring in the middle of romances are often negated by their endings. Marriage is an outcome Cooper assiduously avoids for his own heroes, but a more realistic Sedgwick reminds the reader that no matter how independent the heroine, marriage is not easily renegotiated.

Family is the mainstay of the woman's romance as well as the “familiar” domain appropriated by American male writers to contrast with the fears and unknowns of the American wilderness. And the family, Gossett and Bardes assert in their study of Hope Leslie, is the central building block of a democratic republic. Although Sedgwick's reputation rests on her domestic writing, and Kelley describes her as “a divinely appointed reformer within the confines of domesticity,”17 in Hope Leslie no home is glorified. The Fletcher homestead is exposed and vulnerable, the Winthrop home is repressive, and Digby's parlor is the setting for mistaken identities and mismatched lovers. Families are repeatedly torn apart in this novel; women and children are not protected by men but become victims of their battles. Home, then, is not a comforting haven, with “good living under almost every roof,” as de Crèvecoeur would have it,18 but a precarious site of danger.

Ann Snitow notes that the “one socially acceptable moment of transcendence [for women] is romance;”19 that is, conventional love between men and women leading to marriage. As her name implies, Hope Leslie is “hopelessly” committed to this bourgeois romantic ending. Yet Hope is also an individual—a “pathfinder” in her own right, to use Cooper's term, and through her, Sedgwick goes farther than most previous American writers in exposing Puritan hypocrisy and affirming the value of Native American and female culture. Hope breaks the boundaries of normal expectation for young women as she treks through nature, befriends Indians, frees political prisoners, and eludes drunken sailors. Her most inspiring and affecting experience is not marrying Everell but climbing a mountain with her tutor to survey an expanse of undeveloped land. “Gaz[ing] on the beautiful summits of this mountain,” Hope writes in a letter to Everell, who is receiving his education in England, not in nature, “I had an irrepressible desire to go to them” (HL, 99). Hope resists romantic seduction, political captivity, and traditional domesticity throughout the novel; she will not become a Mrs. Winthrop, who “like a horse easy on the bit … was guided by the slightest intimation from him who held the rein” (HL, 145).

Forever the adventurous youth, never the adult, Hope not only challenges conventional notions of what it means for a woman to grow up; she also resists Puritan mandates to be “hardened for the cross-accidents and unkind events … the wholesome chastisements of life” (HL, 160). Hope, in fact, achieves a fantasy of indulgence and sacrifice, of selfishness and doing for others, proving as she moves undaunted through one escapade after another that, contrary to Calvinist doctrine, good deeds on earth can bring joy. Emerging from virtually every situation unscathed, Hope subverts Puritan ethics and behavior; and although she marries Everell at the end of the novel, the major events in her life revolve not around romance but around nature and the sense of fair play.

Neither is Everell Fletcher romantic or heroic in the traditional sense. Well-meaning but weak, he is an example of the dilution of the bloodline that so worried the Founding Fathers, a parallel to that most famous of feeble Puritan sons, Arthur Dimmesdale. Everell has more tolerance than his stern male forebears, but he lacks vision and capability to put thought into action. His capture during the Pequod raid of the Fletcher farm inverts the traditional female captivity narrative: a white man, he must be saved by an Indian woman. Everell's significant instruction comes not from the Bible or England, but from Magawisca's narrative about her own people's plight. When Magawisca later is imprisoned because Puritan officials mistakenly think her guilty of inciting an attack on Boston, Everell fails to free her because of his fears: the hapless young man struggles outside the jail with a ladder while Hope successfully schemes for Magawisca's release. Passive and ineffectual, Everell is the hero because he marries the heroine.

The true bond—and the real romance—in this novel is between Hope and Magawisca. It is a same-sex bond that Fiedler has found essential to American romance. In constructing same-sex friendship between Magawisca and Hope, Sedgwick creates a parallel of the relationship between Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in The Leatherstocking Tales—but with a difference. Doubles throughout the novel, Hope and Magawisca are drawn together by, and in spite of, the destructive acts of their fathers. Both have lost their mothers through war, both are torn between obedience to their fathers and the dictates of their own minds, and both oppose Puritan law, finding inspiration and guidance in nature or their own consciences. In prison the two learn the meaning of trust and betrayal, and in a secret meeting in a cemetery—symbol of death by male order—where their mothers are buried, they seal their bond: “Mysteriously have our destinies been interwoven. Our mothers brought from a far distance to rest here together—their children connected in indissoluble bonds” (HL, 192). The union of Magawisca and Hope represents the waste caused by masculine violence as well as the need for feminine healing—a healing not between the Old World of England and the New World of America, as traditional American romances have it, but between the original world of the Native Americans and the new, intrusive world of the Puritans. Unlike Natty and Chingachgook, Hope and Magawisca do not retreat into nature together, isolated but free. They participate in society, serving as its critics, mediators, and healers. When their relationship is sundered, Hope's marriage to Everell can only be a partial substitute.

Women, Sedgwick suggests, must play active and essential, not passive or secondary, roles in American society. In Cooper's fiction, in service to the American Adam mythology, women are rendered dichotomously. As Fiedler notes (21), Cooper establishes the “pattern of female Dark and Light that is to become the standard form” in American literature: an innocent, passive woman juxtaposed with a vibrant, sexualized one, whether Alice and Cora in The Last of the Mohicans, Hetty and Judith in The Deerslayer, or Inez and Ellen in The Prairie. While women in nature figure as tokens of exchange in elaborate captivity sequences engineered by men in The Leatherstocking Tales, Cooper fundamentally endorses the standard nineteenth-century view of separate spheres for men and women, with women “the repositories of the better principles of our nature.”20 This dichotomous view of women has its corollary in the male view of nature: a lone male figure either seeks a lover's alliance in nature as replacement for the relationship he fails to achieve with woman, or he views nature as a fearful object he must conquer or destroy in order to validate his own existence.

Sedgwick rejects these dichotomies for her female characters. Magawisca and Hope are as capable as their male counterparts of participating in nature and society. As sisters, Hope and Faith represent active and passive aspects of the female principle, but this distinction is never expressed in terms of sexual and spiritual purity or innocence. No female in Hope Leslie exhibits the “yearning felt by a presumably experienced woman to return to the pristine state of the innocent virgin” that Porte finds in Cooper (21), a view that incidentally reads all female sexuality as a fall into sin requiring redemption or escape. Faith, on the one hand, not only marries, she marries a “red-blooded” Native American; Hope, on the other hand, a virgin throughout the novel, romps from adventure to adventure unaffected by salacious sailors and villainous seducers. And Magawisca, who according to the Cooper paradigm must be “wild and dangerous” because Indian (Bell, 218), is, in fact, peaceable and socially oriented. Only Rosa, seduced and abandoned in the New World, appears as a stock character—a desperate reminder of romance's failure to accommodate women's sexuality. A prototype of Bertha Rochester, she takes vengeance on her oppressor, destroying herself in the process. Rosa gives angry expression to the female energy that her more socially integrated counterpart, Hope, channels into minor rebellions.

Hope Leslie forbids a reductionist view of women and the romance. It rejects patriarchal concepts of female submissiveness and purity, instead presenting women as complex models of democracy, adventure, mutuality, and sympathy. Sedgwick, in fact, presents not just one double of Hope, but many, demonstrating multiple rather than dichotomous ways of womanhood. Hope, Magawisca, and Esther all love Everell, but Magawisca and Esther give him up. Hope marries, but her union with her foster brother is more a friendship than a romance, modeled perhaps on Sedgwick's own relationship with her brothers.21 Esther's single status endorses autonomous womanhood: “Marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman,” Sedgwick writes in defense of Esther's decision (HL, 350, italics in original), and her own life is testimony that a single woman can find satisfaction as friend or sister.

The doublings become uneasy where Native Americans are involved, however. By eschewing a retreat into nature that Natty Bumppo achieves with Chingachgook, Sedgwick emphasizes the crucial difference between the races: the inevitable decimation of the Native American to make way for white expansion and greed. “We are commanded to do good to all,” Hope explains to her tutor as she works to free Magawisca (HL, 312). But she cannot prevent the inevitable. Esther, prevented by Puritan conscience from helping Magawisca escape from prison, essentially gives herself up to the rigid law-of-the-father; and Magawisca, “first to none” (Kelley 1978, 224), returns to a nature that is blighted and a people “spoiled.” Dichotomies reemerge with Magawisca's declaration, “The Indian and the white man can no more mingle, and become one, than day and night” (HL, 330).

In The Prairie, published in 1827, the same year as Hope Leslie, Cooper uses a tree as a symbol to describe the natural cycles of growth, ripening, and death, comparing the monumentality of nature to the works of humans: “It is the fate of all things to ripen and then to decay. The tree blossoms and bears its fruit, which falls, rots, withers, and even the seed is lost! There does the noble tree fill its place in the forests. … It lies another hundred years. …22 Sedgwick also presents such a Pantheistic notion of nature, giving Magawisca words that fuse the natural and the human: ‘The Great Spirit is visible in the life-creating sun. I perceive Him in the gentle light of the moon that steals through the forest boughs. I feel Him here,’ she continued, pressing her hand on her breast” (HL, 189). But this notion of nature has been negated by white encroachment. Sedgwick uses the familiar nineteenth-century symbol of the blasted tree, which Mononotto points to as representative of his race at the hands of the white men, to signify not only the decimation of the Native Americans but also the assault against women and nature. Thus Magawisca's body, the right arm missing, is truncated like the blasted tree. Hawthorne uses the same symbol in “Roger Malvin's Burial” to convey the guilty conscience of Reuben, who fails to send a rescue party to his dying father-in-law. Hawthorne's message, anticipated by Sedgwick, is that the strong and able have responsibility to succor those in need.

Hope's sister Faith, another double, also goes off into the wilderness, married to chief Mononotto's son Oneco in one of the few cases of miscegenation in early American fiction—certainly one that Cooper disallows in The Last of the Mohicans. The relationship of Faith and Oneco is mutually loving, gentle, and respectful. The bird imagery associated with the couple throughout the novel communicates a spirit of openness and freedom in nature. But just as Magawisca is mateless, the marriage of Oneco and Faith has a sterile, frozen quality about it. Faith speaks no English, and the couple is without children.

Constrained by her own position in history, Sedgwick perhaps could not conceive of an ending that both subverts and rewrites the white patriarchal plot. Were she able to do so, the pressure to produce salable fiction most likely would have prevented its articulation. Nonetheless, Hope Leslie strains against its conventions as surely as its female characters struggle against unjust imprisonment.

Hope Leslie is discomfiting for literary critics and readers who prefer retreat into a fantasy world where one can ignore the injustices to nature by escaping further into the wilderness. In this novel, the frontier myth does not seem to be, as Annette Kolodny has outlined it in The Lay of the Land, a fantasy of the land as a domesticated garden.23 It is, to some extent, what Leland Person suggests in his essay on miscegenation: a successful intermarriage of races, an Eden where the white woman is included and the white man excluded.24 The point is not that women ultimately prove superior—as they inevitably do, both in romance and in this novel—but that the pact with power engineered by men has jeopardized men, women, and nature. Cooper's paradisiacal wilderness is a profound and evocative symbol in American literature, but Sedgwick, while valuing nature, forbids an egocentric or overly romantic view of it. She does not let us forget that we are usurpers and that there will be no regeneration through violence. Her view more closely resembles what David Mogen calls “a gothic tradition of frontier narrative” that expresses, among other meanings, “despair about our history and our future.”25

The American literary hero feminizes the land, seeking in it a validation of his own creative principle. He wants to be the sole possessor of the virgin soil, which he penetrates with axe or gun and seeks to make pregnant with unresolved possibility.26 Sedgwick tells us that this pregnancy is a false one and that woman/land will not be reduced to a medium for man's self-glorification. The white man will, like Everell, inevitably find himself its captive rather than its victor. A possessive relationship with the land only results in estrangement from it. Thus Fussell writes, “Cooper's heart was in his writing,” but a “habitual need for recessive withdrawal … sprang from [his] fundamental alienation from his country” (28, 29).

If the male fantasy is escapist, the female fantasy is integrationist, inclusive of the whole of woman's traits—religious, sexual, adventurous, heroic. Without this integration, there can only be fragmentation. Governor Winthrop's household “move[s] in a world of his own” (HL, 301), cut off from the very unity of nature, God, individual, and society that it seeks.

This transcendental vision of unity, suggested in Sedgwick's historical and romantic critique, is developed some years later, not in the individualistic transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but in the social transcendentalism of Margaret Fuller. Like Emerson, Fuller embraces the ideal of the individual in nature, but while valuing the abstract, she also advocates social awareness. Looking out at the western territory near the Great Lakes in the summer of 1843, Fuller seeks “by reverent faith to woo the mighty meaning of the scene, perhaps to foresee the law by which a new order, a new poetry, is to be evoked.” Hope enjoys this same personal and transcendental relationship when she visits Mount Holyoke with her tutor and Nelema. But Fuller's fantasy is modified by the “distaste I must experience at its mushroom growth”: development “is scarce less wanton than that of warlike invasion,” and the land bears “the rudeness of conquest.” Emerson sought to unify technology and transcendental philosophy into a seamless fabric of hopeful expansion, but Fuller notes not transcendental insight but blindness: “Seeing the traces of the Indians … we feel as if they were the rightful lords of the beauty they forbore to deform. But most of these settlers do not see at all” (Chevigny, 318, 322).

The first writers, as Fussell notes, gave the West its mythology, finding in it their own dreams of possession and control. For women, identified with and through nature, the myth spells death and defeat. Sedgwick quietly but radically alters that mythology, transcending the limits of romance and history to establish her own yearning for social and natural unity.


  1. For detailed discussions of Sedgwick's uses of historical sources, see Michael Davitt Bell, “History and Romance Convention in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,American Quarterly 22 (1970): 216-18; hereafter cited in text; Edward Halsey Foster, Catharine Maria Sedgwick (New York: Twayne, 1974), 73-80; hereafter cited in text; and Mary Kelley, ed. and intro., Hope Leslie; Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827; reprint, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1987), xxi-xxxiii; hereafter cited in text as HL. Sedgwick also explains her fictional use of these materials in the preface to her novel (5-6).

  2. Bell Gale Chevigny, ed., The Woman and the Myth: Margaret Fuller's Life and Writings (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1976), 190; hereafter cited in text.

  3. Alexander Cowie, The Rise of the American Novel (New York: American Book, 1948), 204. Readers sometimes had difficulty distinguishing Sedgwick's and Cooper's fiction. Published anonymously in 1824, Sedgwick's Redwood was attributed to Cooper and actually appeared in France and Italy with Cooper's name on the title page. See Harold E. Mantz, French Criticism of American Literature Before 1850 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1917), 43.

  4. Nina Baym, “Melodramas of Beset Manhood: How Theories of American Fiction Exclude Women Authors,” American Quarterly 33 (1981): 123-39.

  5. Van Wyck Brooks, The Flowering of New England (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1936), 188.

  6. Robert E. Spiller et al., Literary History of the United States, 3d ed., rev., vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 256.

  7. See, for example, Joel Porte, The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1969); hereafter cited in text: “Natty is the epic hero par excellence” (43), with The Last of the Mohicans and The Pioneers serving as Cooper's Iliad and Odyssey (39-52); and Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel (New York: Humanities Press, 1965), who finds “an almost epic-like magnificence” in Cooper's portrayals (64). Addressing Cooper's aesthetics, H. Daniel Peck, A World by Itself: The Pastoral Moment in Cooper's Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1927), finds in his landscapes not so much a frontier consciousness but a timeless, classic pastoral ideal. Robert E. Spiller, Fenimore Cooper: Critic of His Times (New York: Minton, Balch, 1931); John McWilliams, Political Justice in a Republic: James Fenimore Cooper's America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); George Dekker, The American Historical Romance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); and others have noted Cooper's social and political criticism, but these interests appear mainly in Cooper's middle and late novels, not his early fiction, which is more appropriately compared with Hope Leslie. As Yvor Winters, In Defense of Reason (Denver: University of Denver Press, 1947), writes, “In the Leatherstocking Series … we have nothing whatever to do with social criticism, or at least nothing of importance” (185).

  8. David Levin, History as Romantic Art (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959), ix.

  9. See Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, rev. ed. (New York: Stein & Day, 1975); hereafter cited in text; and R. W. B. Lewis, The American Adam: Innocence, Tragedy, and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955).

  10. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923; reprint, New York: Viking, 1964), 78; hereafter cited in text.

  11. Suzanne Gossett and Barbara Ann Bardes, “Women and Political Power in the Republic: Two Early American Novels,” Legacy 2 (Fall 1985): 13-30; hereafter cited in text.

  12. Sandra A. Zagarell, “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (Fall 1987): 225.

  13. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), 163.

  14. Leslie Rabine, Reading the Romantic Heroine: Text, History, Ideology (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985), 7; hereafter cited in text.

  15. Philip Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel, New York: (Oxford University Press, 1985), argues that The Last of the Mohicans captures the spirit of the 1640s (39-40); but Cooper does not, like Sedgwick, take on the Puritan system of life in this novel. While one might argue that with its portrayal of the early stage of a hero's life, The Deerslayer, published in 1841, is a more appropriate companion text for Hope Leslie, this novel, even more than The Last of the Mohicans, reflects a timelessness and abstract yearning for lost origins and freedoms. Wayne Franklin, The New World of James Fenimore Cooper (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), even while defending Cooper's involvement with history, admits “even in The Deerslayer, as far back as he could push Natty, [Cooper] … introduced Tom Hutter and Harry March. … This bite of realism upsets what otherwise might become pure dream” (107-108).

  16. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Life and Letters of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, ed. Mary E. Dewey (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872), 101.

  17. Mary Kelley, “A Woman Alone: Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Spinsterhood in Nineteenth-Century America,” The New England Quarterly 51 (June 1978): 209; hereafter cited in text.

  18. Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, Letters From an American Farmer (1782; reprint, New York: Dutton, 1957), 64.

  19. Ann Barr Snitow, “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women is Different,” Radical History Review 20 (Spring-Summer 1979): 150.

  20. Quoted in Marvin Meyers, The Jacksonian Persuasion: Politics and Belief (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957), 52.

  21. Unmarried, Sedgwick sublimated her erotic energies into an ethos of sibling love and comradeship: “The affection others have given to husbands and children I have given to brothers,” she wrote (Kelley 1978, 213).

  22. James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie (1827; reprint, New York: Signet, 1964), 250.

  23. Annette Kolodny, The Lay of the Land (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), 1975.

  24. Leland Person, “The American Eve: Miscegenation and a Feminist Frontier Fiction,” American Quarterly 37 (Winter 1985): 668-85.

  25. David Mogen, “Frontier Myth and American Gothic,” Genre 14 (Fall 1981): 330-31.

  26. See, for example, Wyandote; or, The Hutted Knoll (1843), where Cooper's language is explicitly sexual and generative: “There is a pleasure in diving into a virgin forest and commencing the labours of civilization. … [This diving] approaches nearer to the feeling of creating, and is far more pregnant with anticipation and hopes. …” Quoted in Edwin Fussell, Frontier: American Literature and the American West (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 28; hereafter cited in text.

Mary Kelley (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11795

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 the basis of her literary achievements, this inveterately modest woman almost certainly would have declined. Not surprisingly, then, William asked that the autobiography be written for his and Kate's daughter Alice, a child to whom Sedgwick was devoted.

Nonetheless, the project seemed daunting. A woman who had remained unmarried despite the protestations of suitors, Sedgwick told William she had “‘boarded round’ so much, had my home in so many houses and so many hearts,” indeed had her life “so woven into the fabric of others that I seem to have had no separate individual existence.” Nowhere else in the entire body of Sedgwick's writings did she reveal more about the character of her richly textured relationships with her parents, her brothers and sisters, her nieces and nephews than in this letter to Minot. Nowhere else did she signal more strikingly the impact those relationships had upon her sense of self. Ironically, this conception of herself as intertwined with the lives of those whom she cherished also meant that she would not refuse William's request, that she would consider it her “filial duty.” Telling him that “perhaps I might tell a short and pleasant story to my darling Alice,” Sedgwick displayed her typical modesty. Just as typically, she achieved much more than she promised in her autobiography of a childhood and adolescence that had spanned the opening years of the early republic. Gathering together the threads of memory, Sedgwick wove together a deeply personal narrative and an illuminating portrayal of a newly independent America.1

Sedgwick also kept a journal throughout much of her adult life. Beginning in the summer of 1821, when she was thirty-one, Sedgwick filled twelve volumes with meditations upon the author as an adult and the world she shared with other antebellum Americans. Taken together, the autobiography and the journals constitute Sedgwick's self-representation, child to adult. Moreover, they offer readers a dramatic representation of both the changes and the continuities characterizing relations of power in the decades between America's Revolution and its Civil War. More than a century before historians did so, Sedgwick situated power in its broadest context. Her autobiography and journals extended the meaning of power to include gender relations, and they addressed with equal insight social and political relations.

Ranked in the nineteenth century with Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and William Cullen Bryant as a founder of her nation's literature, Sedgwick published six novels and nearly one hundred tales and sketches in a career that spanned the four decades prior to the Civil War. Ranging from a revisionary portrayal of the conflict between Puritans and Indians to a dissection of a Jacksonian America dominated by commercialism, Sedgwick's fiction dealt with issues decidedly social and political in character. Portrayals of movements for reform, discourses on class relations, doctrinal debates between Congregationalists and Unitarians—all these issues and more were incorporated into a body of literature that spoke to the felt realities of early nineteenth-century Americans. Equally concerned with issues of gender, Sedgwick placed strong, independent, and articulate heroines at the center of her fiction. Sedgwick's model of gender relations presumed different roles for women and men. Nonetheless, she accorded women signal status as central social and cultural actors.

In the opening sentence of her autobiography, Sedgwick describes her project as a collection of “memories.”2 Begun in the sixty-fourth year of her life, Sedgwick's autobiography in the narrowest sense is exactly that—a commemorative text designed to inscribe the past upon the present. However, the design, the effort “to brighten the links of the chain that binds us to those who have gone before, and to keep it fast and strong,” has significance beyond this objective. Perhaps most important, Sedgwick departs from an autobiographical tradition in which the self moves inexorably toward separation and individuation. In sanctioning connection, in stressing reciprocal commitment, Sedgwick stood in contrast to other notable American autobiographers such as Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Adams, each of whom presents the self on a trajectory toward autonomy.3 Sedgwick's emphasis upon an identity constructed in relation to others locates her narrative in an alternative tradition initiated by the fourteenth-century Englishwoman Dame Julian of Norwich. Julian's Revelations, Margery Kempe's fifteenth-century Book of Margery Kempe, and Margaret Cavendish's True Relation two centuries later all define the self in relation to others. New Englander Anne Bradstreet inscribed the same relational self in her seventeenth-century “To My Dear Children.” So too did Sedgwick in the middle of the nineteenth century.4

Born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on 28 December 1789, Catharine Maria was the third daughter and sixth child of the Sedgwicks. Descended from one of the most distinguished families in the Connecticut River Valley, Pamela Dwight had married Theodore Sedgwick in 1774. She had chosen a husband who rapidly achieved the standing of her parents, the socially prominent Joseph and Abigail Dwight. Theodore's election to the Massachusetts legislature, first the house and then the senate, had elevated the Sedgwicks to one of the state's leading families prior to their daughter's birth. The next decade brought national distinction. Elected to the United States House of Representatives, in which he served as speaker, and the Senate, Theodore became one of the early republic's most influential Federalists. His proud daughter recalled that Theodore and his allies in the “Federal party loved their country and were devoted to it, as virtuous parents are to their children.”

However much these powerful Federalists may have been dedicated to their nation, they found their claims to leadership in a newly independent America challenged by those who sought a more egalitarian society. The hierarchy, the finely graded stratification, and the deference to a gentlemanly elite that had prevailed in colonial society no longer seemed secure.5 In the description of her mother's parents, Sedgwick illustrated the contrast between that earlier world and the one being born in the years following the American Revolution. A “gentleman par excellence of his time,” Joseph Dwight had been a highly successful lawyer and land speculator in the Connecticut River Valley. One of Stockbridge's prominent residents and trustee of its Indian school, Joseph's status had been conveyed to posterity in a painting that displayed his “most delicately beautiful hands.” Sedgwick presumed that her grandfather had simply wanted to show his descendants that he “had kept ‘clean hands,’ a commendable virtue, physically or morally speaking.” Perhaps he did, but those hands, free of the marks of hard labor, also served to distinguish Joseph as a member of the elite, a leader among his contemporaries. Virtually everything about Abigail Dwight had performed the same service. Described in terms of readily identifiable signifiers of status, the woman who shared in the management of the Indian school was “dignified,” “benevolent,” and “pleasing.” Like the hands that her husband displayed, the apparel that Abigail donned confirmed her social standing. The “dress, of rich silk, a high-crowned cap, with plaited border, and a watch, then so seldom worn as to be a distinction, all marked the gentlewoman, and inspired respect.”

In the midst of a transformation that was altering their nation's social and political premises, a post-revolutionary elite continued to defend the prerogatives that had set Joseph and Abigail apart even as challenges to their authority escalated. Infuriated that forms of deference signifying a hierarchical society were being cast aside, Theodore Sedgwick's brow had lowered when emboldened artisans presented themselves at the front door of his home. He did more than glower when a still more presumptuous representative of the coming order stood at the same door and refused to remove his hat. The lad had been forcibly removed by the elder Sedgwick, albeit with the hat still securely on his head. Clearly, as his daughter remarked wryly, Theodore had been “born too soon to relish the freedoms of democracy.” The same might be said for Pamela Sedgwick. She had insisted that the family and the servants be segregated—household help, Catharine recalled, had been “restricted to the kitchen table.” Sedgwick's recollections documented the increasing resistance to Pamela's practice. “Now Catharine,” said a local resident when the young Sedgwick had been sent to recruit the woman's daughter for a servant, “‘we are all made out of the same clay, we have got one Maker and one Judge, and we've got to lay down in the grave side by side. Why can't you sit down to the table together?”

The conflict between those defending the older order and their challengers took on a political cast in the competition between the nation's parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans.6 The political philosophy of loyal Federalist Theodore bore all the marks of a party committed to the maintenance of a traditional hierarchy—a paternalistic approach to politics, a belief that only elite leadership could sustain the nation, and a haughty distrust of the lower orders. Theodore's commitment to the republican experiment was not the issue. Service as a legislator in the Massachusetts General Court, leadership in the nation's Congress, and tenure on the Massachusetts Supreme Court all testified to his dedication to republican government founded under the Constitution. Instead, it was the very meaning of republicanism that was being contested during the three decades of Theodore's career. Sedgwick recalled that her father and other prominent Federalists “hoped a republic might exist and prosper.” Indeed, they entertained the hope that it might “be the happiest government in the world, but not without a strong aristocratic element.” It was that last caveat, that insistence upon a “strong aristocratic element,” that separated leading Federalists from those dedicated to a republicanism in which all of the enfranchised played a role in the conduct of politics.

The Federalists' opposition to increased popular participation was informed by their allegiance to a traditional social structure that divided the world into gentlemen and lower orders. Men like Theodore who identified “all sound principles, truth, justice, and patriotism” with a gentlemanly elite had no truck with the lower orders, at least as political entities. They, as Sedgwick recalled, were dismissed by her father “as ‘Jacobins,’ ‘sans culottes,’ and ‘miscreants.’” Theodore's epithets notwithstanding, he surely recognized, as his daughter did, that the forces opposing him possessed an “intense desire to grasp the power and place that had been denied to them, and a determination to work out the theories of the government.” With the election of 1800, Theodore believed they had accomplished exactly that. The defeat of his party at the polls and the rejection of the republicanism with which he identified led Theodore to resign his Congressional seat. Still in control of Massachusetts, the Federalists appointed him to the state's highest court. Disillusioned but still eager to wield influence, he remained there until his death in 1813.

Despite the highly publicized hostility between the rival parties, politics in the early republic was not without a lighter side. And despite Theodore's sober sense of purpose, his daughter caught the pranks, the lampoons, and the unpretentious humor of the times. She recorded these memories in her autobiography. They also became the subject of “A Reminiscence of Federalism,” a story Sedgwick based upon a summer she spent in Bennington, Vermont, during the last decade of the eighteenth century. Bennington's main street, as she noted in the autobiography, “extended a long way, some mile and a half, from a hill at one end to a plain at the other,” a section of town where the old horse Clover was left to graze. Clover was no ordinary horse. His distinction was that his superannuated sides had been “pasted over with lampoons in which the rival factions vented their wit or their malignity safe from personal responsibility, for Clover could tell no tales.” Daily, indeed hourly, Clover “trudged from the hill, a walking gazette, his ragged and grizzled sides covered with the militant missives, and returned bearing the responses of the valley, as unconscious of his hostile burden, as the mail is of its portentous contents.” In her story, which she published in 1835, Sedgwick allows one Democratic-Republican to voice his opinion that “distrust of the people was the great error of the Federalists”; the narrator responds that that perspective “will now perhaps be admitted with truth.”7 Sedgwick had come to the same opinion only in adulthood. The younger Sedgwick, as she readily admitted in her autobiography, had aligned herself with her father, looking upon every member of the opposition as “grasping, dishonest, and vulgar.” Every member of the rival party had been cast as “an enemy to his country.”

The hierarchy and deference under assault in the social and political relations of the early republic had also characterized gender relations in colonial society. Whether gentlewoman or member of the lower orders, a woman had been considered a man's subordinate. In a hierarchy that divided the world into the feminine and the masculine, a woman had been expected to defer to male authority in the household and in the world beyond its doors. Many of the underpinnings of this system remained intact in the years after the Revolution. Women were still subject to coverture, a legal tradition that submerged a wife's property in her husband's. They were still denied participation in the nation's body politic either as voters or as jurors. Simultaneously, however, subtle but discernible changes were becoming evident.

Enhanced opportunities for female education began to erase the disparity in literacy between white women and white men. Building upon the basic literacy taught in public schools, an increasing number of private academies and seminaries provided women a more extended and diversified education. Republican motherhood, an ideology that ascribed political significance to domestic responsibilities, made women's education critical to the survival of the newly independent nation. Expected to foster the necessary elements of virtue in their sons and to encourage the same in their husbands, mothers and wives became the educators of their nation's citizens. In fulfilling this obligation, women participated, albeit indirectly, in civil and political life. Standing as an archetype of gender relations, the institution of marriage registered continuity and change in the early republic. Women did remain subject to the intersecting strands of subordination and authority that had marked colonial marriages. Nonetheless, the practice of more egalitarian relations in some households signaled modifications in this pattern. Not least, the idea that a woman might remain unmarried and still have a meaningful life was glimpsed as a possibility. Within a generation, Catharine Maria Sedgwick would count herself among the women who made that idea a reality.8

The marriages of Theodore Sedgwick illustrated the persistence of older patterns of gender relations. Before he had reached the age of twenty-eight, Theodore had married twice, enhancing his status both times. In 1768 he married Eliza Mason, a member of a prominent family in Franklin, Connecticut. When he contracted smallpox three years after their marriage, Theodore immediately removed himself from the household and returned only after he had been certified as recovered. These precautions notwithstanding, Eliza, whose pregnancy had made inoculation inadvisable, became infected. The smallpox that her husband had barely survived killed her. Although Catharine Sedgwick believed that only “the canonized ‘year and a day’” had elapsed before her parents' marriage, Theodore actually married Pamela Dwight in 1774, three years after Eliza's death. Whatever their individual differences, Eliza and Pamela both practiced the deference toward Theodore that traditional gender relations mandated. And, as if to signify the wifely role she and Eliza shared, Pamela enshrined the memory of her predecessor in the name of her eldest child, Eliza Mason.

In characterizing her mother as “modest,” “humble,” and “reserved,” Sedgwick described the posture that Pamela had adopted toward her husband. Their conversations when Theodore was deciding whether to continue his political career betray the same deference. In a letter Sedgwick included in her autobiography, Pamela suggested that her husband consider the toll exacted by his career. “‘A wish to serve the true interests of our country is certainly a laudable ambition,’” she recognized, but should not Theodore consider that “‘the intention brings many cares with it.’” With striking ease and confidence, Pamela commented on the political realities her husband faced in the waning years of the eighteenth century—the government was as yet untried, the citizenry as yet untested. Both ease and confidence disappeared, however, when she enumerated the costs that mattered most to her. She could say only hesitantly that “‘your family deserves some attention.’” She could not say at all that she merited consideration: “‘I have not a distant wish you should sacrifice your happiness to mine, or your inclination to my opinion.’” Instead, should Theodore decide to continue to pursue a career that took him away from his family at least half of each year, Pamela duly assured him that “‘submission is my duty, and, however hard, I will try to practice what reason teaches me I am under obligation to do.’” At the top of the letter, which was deposited with the family's correspondence at the Massachusetts Historical Society, Sedgwick wrote in her own hand: “a beautiful and characteristic letter from my beloved mother, wise and tender.”9

Her daughter's sentiments notwithstanding, Pamela found the separations from her husband very hard indeed. Sedgwick herself acknowledged that her mother had been “left for many months in this cold northern country, with young children, a large household, and complicated concerns, and the necessity of economy.” Pamela's letters to her husband focused upon the isolation, the longing for companionship; indeed, her letters were a litany of loneliness. Theodore's departure occasioned a “very sensible pain,” although she had tried to conceal it so as not to distress him. Disappointed that his return was delayed yet again, she told him in another letter: “I sicken at the thought of your being absent for so long a time.” She found almost intolerable “this vale of Widowhood.” Perhaps most tellingly, Pamela confided in still another letter, “we are all like a body without a soul.”10

The costs of separation increased as Pamela's fragile health grew more precarious and her struggle with depression more desperate. In December 1791, she pleaded with her husband to return home and the next moment ordered him to stay away. The letter was short. It told Theodore that she had sunk deeply into herself. Friends had tried to tell her that she was ill, “but this I have no reason to believe.” Yet as the words tumbled from her pen she made Theodore believe: “But shall I tell, can I tell you that I have lost my understanding.” What was she to think, what could she think, she wondered, “what is my shame, what is my pain, what is my confusion to think of this what evils [a]wait my poor family without a guide, without a head.” She wanted him to return for the children, “for their sakes,” but surely not for his or for hers, “for your sake I wish you not to come, you must not come. It would only make us both more wretched.”11 Although Pamela rallied from that attack, others that followed were still more severe. In a letter that Sedgwick included in her autobiography, Theodore told his other daughters, Eliza and Frances, that as Pamela's condition deteriorated, he had struggled to decide whether to remain in Congress or resign his office: “‘I most sincerely endeavored to weigh all circumstances, and to discover what I ought to do.’” Theodore chose his career. Pamela's attacks of depression ended only with her death in 1807.

Ostensibly, Sedgwick defended her father's decision, declaring in the autobiography that Theodore's letters had been filled with the “most thoughtful love for my mother, the highest appreciation of her character.” Only devotion to his country had persuaded him to persist in his career; he had “felt it to be his duty to remain in public life at every private sacrifice.” Perhaps most important, Pamela's suffering had ended with her death. And his daughter insisted, Theodore's contribution “to establish the government, and to swell the amount of that political virtue which makes the history of the Federal party the record of the purest patriotism the world has known—that remains.

Simultaneously, however, Sedgwick subverted this defense of her father. In some of the most moving passages in the autobiography, she tallies the costs of Theodore's choice. Surely the largest toll had been exacted from Pamela. Acknowledging the pain her mother had suffered, Sedgwick notes that the separations seemed “to have been almost cruel to her.” She had been “oppressed with cares and responsibilities.” She had borne the “terrible weight of domestic cares.” But Sedgwick did not stop there. The daughter also exposed her own deeply ambivalent response. She also had her litany. She recalls her first words, “Theodore” and “Philadelphia,” words signifying her father's absence. She recalls childhood's sorrows and joys, matched to “Papa's going away” and “Papa's coming home.” She recalls the suffering she endured at the time of Pamela's death. “Beloved mother,” she exclaims, “even at this distance of time, the thought of what I suffered when you died thrills my soul!” And there is the decision to include the wrenchingly powerful eulogy. Penned by her brother Harry shortly after Pamela's death, it testified to their mother's endurance. Declaring that “her sufferings, in degree and duration, have been perhaps without a parallel,” Harry emphasized that she had nonetheless displayed “the invincible meekness and the gentleness of her heavenly temper.” Meekness, gentleness, in a word, subordination, highlighted the gender relations that Pamela practiced. It was the costs inherent in those relations that led Sedgwick to undermine the defense of her father. Unable to elide the evidence of her ambivalence, Theodore and Pamela's daughter scattered its traces through the text of her autobiography.

Theodore's absence and Pamela's illness obliged Catharine to look elsewhere for daily care, support, and guidance. She found all that and more in Elizabeth Freeman, an African-American who was the family's servant for twenty-six years. In the passage in the autobiography that describes “Mah Bet,” or Mumbet, Sedgwick remarks to Alice that those “who surround us in our childhood, whose atmosphere infolds us, as it were, have more to do with the formation of our characters than all our didactic and preceptive education.” It was Mumbet's “perception of justice,” her “uncompromising honesty,” her “conduct of high intelligence” that had left an indelible impression on Theodore and Pamela's daughter. When she described my “Mother—my nurse—my faithful friend” in a journal entry made only a month before Mumbet's death on 28 December 1829, Sedgwick had listed the qualities that would emerge later in the autobiography: a “strong love of justice,” “incorruptible integrity,” and “intelligent industry.” Mumbet also exhibited “strong judgment,” had an “iron resolution,” and demonstrated “quick and firm decision.” Embodying a power that sets her apart from other individuals in the autobiography and the journals, Mumbet emerges as the most exceptional individual encountered there, regardless of sex. Still more tellingly, she emerges as the woman with whom Sedgwick most deeply identifies, and, in turn, Sedgwick declares that Mumbet had “clung to us with a devotion and tenacity of love seldom equalled.”12

In the autobiography, however, Sedgwick is oblivious to the structural limitations of her relationship with the beloved Mumbet. Presented as if untouched by the disabilities of the racially based institution of slavery dominating late eighteenth-century America, the loyal servant is constructed exclusively in relation to Catharine and her family. It is almost as if the racial difference between Mumbet and Catharine, between black and white, were erased. Notwithstanding Sedgwick's devotion, racial difference did privilege Catharine and render Mumbet her subordinate.13

But Mumbet was also Elizabeth Freeman, the African-American who had challenged slavery's legality in the newly independent state of Massachusetts. It is Freeman whom Sedgwick celebrates in “Slavery in New England,” a chronicle published in Bentley's Miscellany in 1853. Here Sedgwick acknowledges the difference between herself and Mumbet; here too she acknowledges Mumbet's agency. Having decided that the Declaration of Independence applied to all Americans, the slave Freeman had approached Theodore Sedgwick early in 1781. “Won't the law give me my freedom?” she had asked Berkshire County's most prominent lawyer. After Freeman enlisted Theodore as her counsel and challenged the constitutionality of slavery in the county's court, the law did exactly that. Freeman's achievement established the precedent for slavery's abolition throughout Massachusetts. Immediately after the court's decision, Freeman joined the Sedgwicks as the family's servant. It was Mumbet's personal strength, her determination, her force, all of which had been highlighted in the autobiography and journals, that made possible Freeman's public pursuit of liberation, an act that Sedgwick applauded in “Slavery in New England.”14

Sedgwick's older siblings also played an influential role in her childhood. Deeply attached to all of her brothers and sisters, Sedgwick developed the strongest ties with her four brothers, Theodore, Harry, Robert, and Charles. Sharing with them “an intimate companionship and I think as true and loving a friendship as ever existed between brothers and sister,” she considered them her “chiefest blessing in life.” Long after her childhood had ended, Sedgwick told a friend that she had “no recollection beyond the time when they made my happiness.”15 Nearly a decade older and already away at school, the younger Theodore had little impact on his sister's early years. Of the others, Harry's “loving, generous disposition,” his “domestic affections,” strongly impressed his sister. Robert, designated as her “favorite,” served as “protector and companion.” And Charles, born two years after Sedgwick, “was the youngest of the family, and so held that peculiar relation to us all as junior.” That status made him no less beloved. Charles, as Sedgwick made clear in her autobiography and journals, was “a joy and thanksgiving to me.”

Born fourteen and eleven years before their younger sister, Eliza and Frances had a less decisive influence upon Catharine's childhood. Both, as Sedgwick reflected, “were just at that period when girls' eyes are dazzled with their own glowing future.” That future was marriage, of course. And it was the relationship between marital union and sibling separation that Sedgwick remembered about her sisters. In recalling her oldest sister, who had played a maternal role in her early childhood, Sedgwick focused upon the separation occasioned by Eliza's marriage. The ceremony that might have been regarded as a celebration of a newly formed union left the seven-year-old Catharine with “the impression that a wedding was rather a sundering than a forming of ties.” Deeply upset, she had cried at the wedding and had been taken away. Mumbet had tried to calm her, whispering “her ‘hush’ but for the first time it was impotent.” Later the bridegroom, Thaddeus Pomeroy, had come to her and, trying to soothe her, had said, “‘Your sister may stay with you this summer!’” Five decades later, Sedgwick had not forgotten her reaction: “May! How my whole being revolted at the word. He had the power to bind or loose my sister!” The significance of this incident cannot be lost on readers of the autobiography, for Sedgwick repeats it almost verbatim and in equally impassioned tones just two pages later.

As Sedgwick and her siblings prepared for their lives as adults, both their family status and their gender shaped the education their parents provided for them. Theodore, Harry, Robert, and Charles were all sent to preparatory schools that trained them in the classical languages, then the basic requirement for higher education. With the exception of Charles, the brothers all attended college before they began their apprenticeships as lawyers. These opportunities marked them as sons of an elite family. Less than one percent of the male population attended institutions of higher learning as late as 1840. None of the female population did so, at least in the eighteenth century. Oberlin, which did welcome women, did not open its doors until 1832.16 The family's standing also shaped the education offered Eliza, Frances, and Catharine, each of whom was provided the most advanced instruction then available to women: they attended a series of private schools in New York City, Albany, and Boston, where their programs combined a smattering of academics with preparation in social accomplishments.17

Sedgwick herself sharply distinguished between her formal and informal education. Her “school life,” she stated bluntly in her autobiography, “was a waste, my home life my only education.” This disclaimer notwithstanding, she did receive the formal schooling considered appropriate for the daughter of an elite family. Catharine first attended the local school in rural Stockbridge. When Catharine was eight, Pamela wrote to Theodore that she had sent their daughter to Bennington, Vermont, “as our school here is worse than none.”18 Catharine's letters to Theodore suggest that Pamela's opinion was at least slightly exaggerated. But in the autobiography Sedgwick did say that if there was “any other school a little more select or better chanced, I went to that.” Whatever the particular school, however, she noted wryly, “our minds were not weakened by too much study.” The demands were relatively insignificant and the curricula restricted to reading, spelling, geography, and arithmetic.

The family then enrolled their daughter in a series of schools in three different cities. Here, too, Catharine found the challenges slight. Recalling her experience in New York City with a mixture of levity and regret, she noted that as early as the age of eleven she had been sent there and “had the very best teaching of an eminent Professor of Dancing!” Her schooling at Mrs. Bell's in Albany continued in like fashion. Sedgwick commented that Mrs. Bell herself “rose late, was half the time out of her school, and did very little when in it.” Considering the instruction she offered when there, that may not have been a serious loss. In a letter written to her mother on 6 October 1803, the thirteen-year-old Catharine noted that she had “begun another piece of embroidery, a landscape. It has a very cultivated and rather a romantic appearance.” But the daughter had begun to take a stand regarding the relative merits of her education. Little time would be devoted to embroidery in the future, she told her mother. The study of geography and the practice of writing were much more important.19 So too was the mastery of a foreign language. In 1804, four years after she had begun French while in New York City, Catharine wrote to each parent describing her progress at Mrs. Payne's in Boston. In November she told Pamela that she was “very well contented and pleased with my new situation” and that she was pleased as well with her French instructor, “a very excellent one, I assure you.”20 Nearly two months later, on the day after her fifteenth birthday, she answered Theodore's inquiry about her progress in French: “I hardly find time to attend to anything else; I am very fond of it and it is my opinion that I come on very well.”21 Nonetheless, the cumulative experience was judged inadequate, and years later Sedgwick registered her intense and lasting disappointment in the autobiography: “I have all my life felt the want of more systematic training.”

Although it was equally unsystematic, Sedgwick regarded her informal education far more positively. Noting that her father and her brothers had “uncommon mental vigor,” she emphasizes that “their daily habits, and pursuits, and pleasures were intellectual, and I naturally imbided from them a kindred taste.” She pays particular tribute to her father, who read aloud to the family. She remembers listening at the age of eight to passages from Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Hume. The father who read aloud also pressed the daughter to read to herself. Telling her that he hoped she would “find it in your power to devote your mornings to reading,” he reminded Catharine that hers was a privileged position—“there are few who can make such improvements by it and it would to be lamented if this precious time should be lost.”22 The girl heeded her father's counsel. Indeed, the “love of reading” he had instilled in her became to her “‘education.’” By the age of eleven, she was reading constantly, “chiefly novels.” When she was twelve, Catharine added Rollin's multi-volume Ancient History, which introduced her to “Cyrus's greatness.” Lighter fare included the increasingly popular children's miscellanies collected by Anna Barbauld and Arnaud Berquin.

Sedgwick, then, had little education in the “common sense,” but there were “peculiar circumstances in [her] condition that in some degree supplied these great deficiencies.” They were peculiar circumstances. Sedgwick was basically untutored and undirected, but as the result of living in a cultured household, “there was much chance seed dropped in the fresh furrow, and some of it was good seed.” She also boldly adds, “some of it, I may say, fell on good ground.” Sedgwick's metaphor highlights the paradoxical character of her education. Arbitrary, unstructured, and unpredictable as that education was, it had been obtained from a family that valued learning and considered the transmission of culture a responsibility, its possession a birthright.

Whether formal or informal, however, Sedgwick's education had not been designed to prepare her for a public career. Presuming that a woman's existence would be centered in the home, elite families focused on preparing their daughters for the roles of wife and mother. Companion to husband and instructor to children, the educated woman was expected to dedicate herself to her family. This ideal of the wife and mother aside, the physical and emotional demands of domesticity made it difficult to engage in other pursuits. Ideology and circumstance, then, located a woman within the household and made the role she played there central to her identity. Any career beyond the home was decidedly unlikely. In contrast to nine out of ten women in the nineteenth century, Sedgwick remained unmarried. However, that unusual status did not make her eligible for a career. Instead, it was assumed that an unmarried woman would either remain with her parental family or attach herself to her siblings' families. Whatever the familial locus, the single woman's life was still defined in the context of domesticity.

Nonetheless, Sedgwick challenged prevailing experience and expectation. Her siblings, female and male, played significant, albeit starkly different, roles in their sister's decision to remain single. The experiences of Eliza and Frances were cautionary tales. Each of their marriages made tangible a gender hierarchy in which women were relatively powerless. The consequences for Frances were disastrous. Although Sedgwick describes the marriage only sparingly in her autobiography, she captures its tone and temper in a single phrase—Frances “endured much heroically.” In letters written to her other siblings, Sedgwick elaborated upon her sister's desperately unhappy union with Ebenezer Watson. The reason for Frances's distress was simple. As Sedgwick wrote to Eliza about Frances's husband, “Mr. Watson is brutal in his conduct to her and does and has for a long time rendered her miserable.” With a demeanor that Sedgwick described as “oppressive,” as “essentially diabolical,” Ebenezer tyrannized over Frances. Why, then, did Frances remain with her husband? Again the answer was simple. Frances, as Sedgwick told Eliza in the same letter, “would leave him—but she cannot bear a separation from the children.” This was no idle concern. Nineteenth-century legislation governing custody of children in the event of separation or divorce accorded the husband almost exclusive rights. Frances's situation was, then, “one of those hopeless miseries over which we must mourn without being able to remove it.”23 Throughout the crises that beset the marriage, Frances's brothers and sisters continued to provide sympathy and support. A resigned Frances remained in the marriage. Shortly before her elder sister's death in June 1842, Sedgwick wrote to a friend that Frances had been “through a life of vexing trials that would have cooled any love, exhausted any enthusiasm but hers.”24 The evidence suggests that was only a slight exaggeration.

In contrast to her sister Frances's experience, Eliza sustained a deeply caring marriage with Thaddeus Pomeroy. Nonetheless, this union as well entailed hardship. Eliza, Sedgwick recalls in the autobiography, had a “hard life of it—indifferent health and the painful drudgery of bearing and nurturing twelve children.” Just as important, nineteenth-century gender relations dictated that the resolution of marital incompatibilities was Eliza's responsibility. Thaddeus, as Sedgwick described him, “was a man after the old pattern—resolute, fearless, enduring, generous, with alterations of tenderness and austerity, of impulsiveness and rigidity.” Unfortunately, some of these characteristics “were trying to [Eliza's] gentle disposition and unvarying and quiet devotion to duty.” Four months before her sister's death in 1827, Sedgwick testified to Eliza's success in adapting to a marriage that resembled her parents'. Eliza, she declared in her journals, “can look back upon a life in which her duties have been well sustained.” Her sister had been “an example of a Christian daughter and sister—wife and mother—friend and benefactor.”25 Sedgwick praised the obvious constancy. She commended the effort well performed. Only later, in the autobiography, did she remark upon the costs. Only then did she attribute those costs to patriarchal gender relations.

While the experiences of Frances and Eliza contributed to Sedgwick's decision not to marry, her brothers, all of whom welcomed her into their households, played the crucial role. Offering care, affection, and companionship, Theodore, Harry, Robert, and Charles provided their sister with a familial base and made it possible for Sedgwick to create a marriage of circumstance. In a letter that she wrote when she was fifty-one, Sedgwick told her close friend Louisa Minot (mother of William; mother-in-law of Kate) that “the affection that others give to husbands and children I have given to my brothers.” She recognized that hers was an unusual situation. “Few,” she noted, “can understand the dependence and intensity of my love for them.”26 Developed in childhood, that dependence and intensity increased in the wake of Theodore Sedgwick's death, which occurred shortly after his youngest daughter's twenty-third birthday. Writing to her eldest brother ten days after their father had died on 24 January 1813, Sedgwick told Theodore II that she longed to see him, longed to tell him that she felt “for all my brothers new sensations of love and dependence.”27

In the decade following her father's death, Sedgwick's bond with two of her brothers increased in depth and strength. Each of these relationships had its particular character, each its particular expression of affection. Playfulness, remarkable wit, and shared sensibilities marked the intimacy Catharine shared with Harry. The attachment with Robert was charged with passion. Writing to him six months after their father's death, Sedgwick proclaimed, “I do love you, with a love surpassing at least the ordinary love of woman.” Six years later, she described him as “as much a part of me as the lifeblood that flows through my heart.” Robert's declarations of affection were equally intense, his need for her equally strong. “My dear Kate,” he told her on more than one occasion, “I know not how I could live without you.”28

The trajectory of these relationships changed sharply in the 1820s, however. The years of mental illness that eventually cost Harry his life transformed all his relationships, not least the one that he had established with his sister Catharine. From 1827 until Harry's death late in 1831, Sedgwick's journals are filled with expressions of overwhelming loss. In one of the many entries commenting on Harry's deteriorating condition, she lamented his “darkened mind,” his “troubled spirit.” Still another entry described that once powerful mind as “a broken instrument.” The spontaneity, the clarity, the discernment were gone forever. “Oh, it is too much,” his sister cried out.29

Sedgwick's desolation was sharpened by another loss she had experienced earlier in the decade. The situation was very different, although the impact seemed only slightly less. In December 1821, Robert had told his sister that he had decided to marry Elizabeth Ellery. “We cannot walk so close together as we have done,” Sedgwick responded. That recognition devastated her: “No one can ever know all that I have, and must feel, because no one has ever felt the sheltering love, the tenderness, the friendship that left me nothing to desire.” Despite Robert's efforts to dissuade his sister, Sedgwick tried to lessen her dependence upon him. At the time of his marriage, Robert complained that she no longer spoke in “that language of the heart, by which you are accustomed so faithfully to interpret its emotions.” Nearly a year passed before Sedgwick felt sufficiently detached to acknowledge that her reticence had been motivated by the need to have his presence and professions of affection become “less necessary.”30 The connection, the sense of reciprocal commitment, established between sister and brother had become essential to Sedgwick; the process of disengagement had been extremely painful.

Ultimately, Sedgwick achieved her objective of lessened dependence, although a deep attachment clearly persisted. After Harry's declining health required him and his wife Jane to leave New York City, Sedgwick spent her winters there with Robert and his family. She also traveled with them in Europe for fifteen months. But the intimacy, the mutual reliance Catharine and Robert expressed in their letters prior to Robert's marriage, disappeared from their correspondence. Sedgwick herself alluded to the difference in a journal entry dated 2 December 1837. The passage describes her relationships with members of her family, including Robert. But the sentences about him have been carefully inked out. In the margin alongside the passage, Sedgwick added the following on 24 July 1846, nearly five years after her brother's death: “Here I had written a lamentation over the transference of the first place in my dear brother Robert's heart. He had been father, lover as well as brother to me, and when in the inevitable concentration of a closer tie I felt an aching void, I expressed it as I should not.”31 Sedgwick immediately added, “years passed on and I had proof that the love of our early years for a time without its usual demonstrations was there in that tenderest of hearts.” That restored intimacy was Robert's gift to his sister in the final months before his death in September 1841.

The vacuum left by Harry and Robert was increasingly filled by Charles. The bond Sedgwick developed with the only brother younger than herself is documented in a correspondence that spans nearly half a century. Theirs became a relationship in which reciprocity was perhaps the strongest hallmark. It seems appropriate that Sedgwick, an individual who had constituted herself in relation to others, should have experienced an exceptional mutuality in the sibling relationship that lasted the longest. Charles would express to his sister his desire to “make my house, myself, my all as conducive to your happiness as it is possible it should be.” Catharine prefigured the success of his endeavor in her earlier comment that she had known “nothing of love—of memory—of hope—of which you are not an essential part.”32

The losses and shifting intensities notwithstanding, Sedgwick established deeply meaningful relationships with her brothers that sustained her until Charles's death in 1856. Still, in entry upon entry in her journal, Sedgwick considered the consequences of her decision to remain single. As each of her brothers married, she became “first to none,” as she phrased it in one of the early volumes. Being “second best” was inevitably difficult. It caused her the “keenest suffering.” It surely constituted the “chief misery of single life.” And, as she recorded in the journal's last entry on 28 December 1854, she still felt “so acutely—so unworthily the inevitable change from the time when I was first in many hearts to being first in none.”33

But if Sedgwick chose to highlight the costs of her decision in most of her journal entries, she also left meditations there that located that decision in a larger and more balanced context. Yes, she had “suffered,” she noted on 29 December 1834, the day after her forty-fifth birthday. But her life's more positive dimension was openly acknowledged—“for the most part I can look back upon a very happy life.” Her literary career had brought her “far more of the world's respect than I ever expected.” Her cherished friendships had extended, undiminished, through the years. The most important ties, the connections upon which she had constructed her core identity, had been more complicated. The marriages of her brothers had meant that “a portion of what was mine has been diverted into other channels.” Resignedly she commented, “my heart has ached and does ache.” Resignation was balanced by resolution, however. She would not “repine,” she would not be “exacting.”34 In another entry recorded two years later, Sedgwick mediated upon the alternative. The death of William Jarvis, one of her former suitors, provided the occasion. Whatever loneliness she had suffered, whatever pain her secondary status had entailed, Jarvis's death reminded Sedgwick of her conviction that a successful marriage required much more than the “liking” she had felt for the then “young man of five and twenty.”35

It was not so much that Sedgwick regretted her decision to remain single; indeed, evidence indicates that she did not. And yet a relentlessly honest Sedgwick meditated upon the consequences of her choice throughout her life. That she vacillated, this time calmly accepting those consequences, that time lamenting them, suggests ambivalence. But Sedgwick was no simple woman, and neither was her ambivalence simple. Its complicated character she herself expressed concisely, profoundly, and perhaps unconsciously. “From my own experience,” she said, “I would not advise any one to remain unmarried.” For, she immediately added, “my experience has been a singularly happy one.”36

Sedgwick's brothers were central to the choice she made about marriage. They were no less important in their sister's literary career. Strongly and consistently supportive, Theodore, Harry, Robert, and Charles encouraged the initially reluctant author, applauded the novels and stories, and negotiated with the publishers. In a letter written a decade before Sedgwick's appearance as a novelist, Harry displayed the enthusiasm with which he and his brothers fostered her career. Telling Catharine that he had agreed to edit Boston's Weekly Messenger every third week, he declared that he intended to print a portion of her recent letter—“a delightful scrap of yours on the sacred character of a pastor.” In his effort to bolster the confidence of female authors, he needed the “ammunition of a petticoated youth of high and early promise.” None other than his sister would provide the necessary armament: “How confidently shall I claim for ‘my fair countrywomen’ the need of their genius; how triumphantly shall I prove their precocity of intellect.”37 Harry's confidence in his sister was manifest. So too was his determination that she cultivate her talent. In asserting that the country must no longer neglect the genius of its women, he laid claim upon Sedgwick to display her own. Harry was also the first brother to persuade her to enlarge the form and scope of a religious tract she had begun shortly after she left orthodox Congregationalism for Unitarianism.

Theodore and Robert then joined forces with Harry, and they convinced their sister that the novel that emerged from the tract should be published. Having read 130 pages of A New England Tale shortly after its publication in 1822, Theodore told Sedgwick that the novel “exceeds all my expectations, fond and flattering as they were.” He had never doubted her abilities, but having seen them confirmed, his heart was filled with “pride and pleasure.” With the publication of Sedgwick's second novel two years later, Robert delighted in recounting to his sister that “wherever I go I receive compliments, felicitations, and even homage for the honor I have come to, by my relation to the author of Redwood.” Charles “rejoiced beyond all expression at the progress of the book” he was reading in manuscript. The volume this time was Hope Leslie, Sedgwick's third novel, which appeared shortly after his heartening letter in the spring of 1827. Three years later, he told Sedgwick in mock horror that she must end her literary career or his “family will be ruined.” Adults and children alike were locked away in their rooms absorbed with Clarence, Sedgwick's fourth novel.38 So long as each was able, all of Sedgwick's brothers stayed the course, prompting, bolstering, and persuading their sister that her talent demanded literary expression. Dedicating Clarence “To my Brothers—my best friends,” Sedgwick acknowledged their signal importance to her career.

The elite standing of her family and the gender conventions of her century intersected in Sedgwick's career. The daughter of an influential Federalist, she nonetheless discarded the political convictions of her father and came to support the more egalitarian democracy he had found so threatening. However, two letters, both expressing Sedgwick's pleasure at favorable reactions to her fiction, highlight a lingering elitism that qualified her support for egalitarian democracy. “In this country,” she succinctly informed her friend Louisa Minot, “we must do everything for the majority.39 Later elaborating upon her responsibilities to those who were numerically dominant, Sedgwick expressed her opinion to clergyman William Ellery Channing that “there is an immense moral field opening demanding laborers.” She, of course, defined herself as one of those laborers; “neither pride nor humility should withold [sic] us from the work to which we are clearly ‘sent.’”40

In suggesting that elite status entailed particular responsibilities to the larger society, Sedgwick had to address a basic question: Was there any role for individuals of privilege in an increasingly democratic antebellum America? Despite the claims that resonated through these decades, America's democracy remained decidedly limited—barriers to participation either as voters or as jurors remained in place for African-American men and for women of all races. Universal suffrage for white men had made them equal at the polls. In defining the elite's obligations as cultural rather than political, then, Sedgwick envisioned a privileged class that might yet be critical to the success of a society that defined itself as democratic. Those who could no longer expect to dominate at the polls could retain power and authority in the domain of culture. And there they could continue to “do everything for the majority.” But was it possible for a woman to invest herself with the obligations she had accorded an elite? Entitled by her family's status to enrich herself intellectually and culturally, Sedgwick took a further step and defined herself as a participant in the construction of culture. Had she clung to the political model of elite dominance, she, like all women regardless of status, would have been excluded from participation in the national project. In combining the increasingly popular idea that women should be moral guardians with the long-standing conviction that culture should be informed by moral as well as aesthetic purpose, Sedgwick was able to circumvent barriers based on gender and to transform the legacy that Theodore Sedgwick had intended only for his sons. She could, therefore, see herself as Channing's equal and insist that they both dedicate themselves to the “work to which we are clearly ‘sent.’”41

The consequences of the obligations Sedgwick so willingly embraced were not always welcomed, however. Ranked with the early nineteenth century's most prominent writers, Sedgwick acknowledged the pleasure of distinction. Yes, she conceded in a journal entry recorded shortly after the publication of Hope Leslie, she delighted in being one of antebellum America's most notable literary figures, in “being able to command a high station wherever I go.” But that distinction also entailed what her brother Charles aptly termed “Lafayettism,” a condition in which the subject became the possession of her public. Having been “introduced to multitudes at [Saratoga] Springs who paid this compliment to what they deemed my literary success,” Sedgwick found the experience distasteful. She had “to fritter away in general courtesies time and thought and feeling.” It was a “disadvantage” that she felt deeply. That Sedgwick sought the betterment of those same multitudes was obvious. That she sought influence as a cultural arbiter was equally so. Nonetheless, she still longed for the deference that would have insulated her from the claims an increasingly aggressive public made upon its famous. She still longed to be aloof.42

The moral nature of the cultural obligations Sedgwick assigned elite women is evident in the reflections on literary women that are scattered throughout her autobiography and journals. Sometimes the subject she chooses is herself. Shortly after the publication of Hope Leslie, Sedgwick recorded a meditation on the meaning of fame. Noting in her journal that “my fond friends expect a great accession of fame to me,” she asked herself that spring of 1827, “fame—what is it?” The praise that had marked the publication of her novel was dismissed as nothing more than the transient “breath of man.” Fame was welcomed only if it was endowed with purpose, only if her achievements “produced some good feeling.”43 Almost as frequently, the subject is other women who have broken ground as participants in the construction of culture. Sedgwick's meditations in this regard appear almost as reflections in a mirror. In contemplating other literary women, this participant in her nation's intellectual and cultural enterprise contemplated herself. Nonetheless, Sedgwick had to look abroad for counterparts during the formative decades of her career. In contrast to the Englishwomen with whom she compared herself, she stood nearly alone as a prominent American writer who happened to be a woman.

The English writer Harriet Martineau, who visited the United States in the early 1830s, is the subject of one of the journals' longer entries. Considering Sedgwick's earlier reservations about the political economist, the impression Martineau made upon her when they met is all the more telling. At first Sedgwick had thought that the pursuit of such a masculine enterprise “was not the loveliest manifestation of woman.” But Martineau, whom Sedgwick calls “extraordinary,” had allayed this concern almost immediately. She had been “so modest, gentle, and kind.” She had exhibited such a venerable combination of “genius and virtue.” That Sedgwick considered virtue more important becomes obvious in a second entry comparing Martineau to Anna Barbauld, Maria Edgeworth, Anna Jameson, and Felicia Hemans, all of whom had been successful in their literary careers. None, however, had achieved Martineau's prominence. Sedgwick asks herself why. Certainly, the others had “shown as powerful a genius as hers”; indeed, Sedgwick considers some of them superior in this regard. Martineau had distinguished herself, rather, by her singular commitment of “God's good gifts to the use of his creatures.” She had made the common good the sine qua non of her career. Martineau had also been decidedly inclusive in her definition of those creatures. Leaving to others “the intellectual amusement or advancement of the gifted and educated,” Martineau had focused upon the multitudes. That egalitarianism had made “us all cry Hail thou favored among women!”44

The two entries reveal at least as much about Sedgwick as about Martineau, their putative subject. Perhaps most notably, they demonstrate the remarkable agility with which Sedgwick was able to negotiate antebellum America's gender conventions. Erasing her initial suspicion that political economy is most properly a masculine undertaking, Sedgwick makes its practitioner the embodiment of femininity. Still more tellingly, she complicates the common premise that men alone are lords of creation, a popular phrase that signals the gender conventions limiting participation in the construction of culture. In ascribing creativity, or “genius,” to Martineau, Barbauld, Edgeworth, Jameson, and Hemans, Sedgwick openly contradicts those who locate generative power exclusively in the masculine. Yet for all the boldness of her challenge, the burden of Sedgwick's commentary is more in keeping with than set against prevailing gender conventions. Most strikingly, Sedgwick makes “virtue,” a concept increasingly associated with women, an equally important qualification for participation in the construction of culture. Although the precise meaning of virtue was contested among antebellum Americans, all generally agreed that dedication to the common good was central to its definition and that women's potential for such dedication exceeded men's. Negotiating the highly charged gender conventions and designing a readily identifiable persona from those conventions, Sedgwick had made culture Martineau's domain. Simultaneously, she had done the same for herself.

In a letter that is emblematic of the devotion Sedgwick inspired in virtually everyone with whom she shared herself, the youngest of her siblings told her that she had been the recipient of many gifts. By far the one for which she should be most grateful was the most obvious—“the power of your sympathy,” as Charles described his sister's deep and sustaining identification with others.45 The designation was appropriate for Sedgwick the individual as well as for the gender conventions of her century. In her autobiography, in her journals, in her fiction, in short, in all of her writings, she had insisted upon the signal importance of connectedness. Indeed, she had presented her life as entirely interwoven with the lives of others dear to her. Nineteenth-century gender conventions, which located in women a special capacity for selflessness, also privileged such connection as feminine.

Yet Charles neglected to mention the equal significance Sedgwick attached to the freedom to choose. Based on the premise that women had a claim on individual fulfillment, choice had enormous implications for women in a century in which they were expected to subordinate themselves to the needs and desires of men. In her writings and in the most important decisions taken in her life, Sedgwick made those implications tangible. The issues she selected covered a broad spectrum—decisions regarding religious affiliation, vocational commitment, and marital identity were included in her domain. The gender conventions of her century constructed connection and choice almost as a binary opposition. Inflected as feminine and masculine, choice appeared possible only for men. But Sedgwick deconstructed this opposition and made connection and choice complementary imperatives for both sexes. Insisting that women should freely and fully choose a life for themselves, she suggested that only then could they just as freely and fully practice connection. No longer marked as exclusively feminine, connection could be a mutual practice for women and men. In this as in so much else, she displayed the insight, or as Charles phrased it, the power of her sympathy, which made her autobiography and her journals compelling.


  1. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to William Minot, 5 October 1851, Catharine Maria Sedgwick Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, Mass. All quotations from MHS collections are by permission.

  2. Autobiography of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, C. M. Sedgwick Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society. Unless otherwise noted, all subsequent references derive from this source.

  3. This point was made by Georges Gusdorf, in “Conditions and Limits of Autobiography,” an influential essay published in 1956 (trans. James Olney, in his edition Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980], pp. 28-48). Autobiography, as Gusdorf has defined it, entails a “conscious awareness of the singularity of each individual life” (p. 30). Whatever its merits for analysis of the male autobiographical self, Gusdorf's theory is based solely upon an analysis of men's experiences. Susan Stanford Friedman has highlighted the gendered character of this individualistic theory in “Women's Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice” (in The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988], pp. 34-62). Until recently, scholarship on autobiography has focused almost exclusively on male texts. As her title suggests, Sidonie Smith's A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987) shifts the angle of vision. I have found Smith's commentary on current theories of women's autobiography very useful. She has explored the complicated relationship between experience and representation in women's autobiography in the highly suggestive “Construing Truths in Lying Mouths: Truthtelling in Women's Autobiography,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 23 (1990): 145-63. See also Estelle Jelinek, The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present (Boston: Twayne, 1986); Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988); Personal Narratives Group, ed., Interpreting Women's Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989); Margo Cully, ed., American Women's Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992). For commentary on the varied forms of life writing, including letters, journals, and autobiographies analyzed in this article, see Susan Groag Bell and Marilyn Yalom, eds., Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990), pp. 1-11.

  4. In her analysis of the autobiographies of Dame Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Margaret Cavendish, and Anne Bradstreet, Mary Mason highlights characteristics that distinguish women's from men's construction of the self (“The Other Voice: Autobiographies of Women Writers,” in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, pp. 207-35). Carol Holly has employed a similar strategy in analyzing the autobiographies of Sedgwick and Lucy Larcom (“Nineteenth-Century Autobiographies of Affiliation: The Case of Catharine Sedgwick and Lucy Larcom,” in American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Paul John Eakin [Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991], pp. 216-34). See also Rose Norman, “New England Girlhoods in Nineteenth-Century Autobiography,” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 8 (1991): 104-17.

  5. The unparalleled social and political changes that occurred in the decades following the Revolution are insightfully explored in Gordon S. Wood's “The Democratization of Mind in the American Revolution,” in Leadership in the American Revolution: Papers Presented at the Third Symposium, May 9 and 10, 1974 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1974), pp. 63-89. These changes have received extended treatment in Wood's recently published The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992). Robert E. Shalhope has analyzed the same phenomenon in his incisive “Republicanism, Liberalism, and Democracy: Political Culture in the Early Republic,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 102 (1992): 99-152.

  6. The conduct and character of Massachusetts politics are described by Ronald P. Formisano, in The Transformation of Political Culture: Massachusetts Parties, 1790s-1840s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983). The Federalists are analyzed in James M. Banner Jr.'s To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970). Paul Goodman does the same for the opposition in The Democratic-Republicans of Massachusetts: Politics in a Young Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964). See also Linda K. Kerber's analysis of the Federalist ideology in Federalists in Dissent: Imagery and Ideology in Jeffersonian America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970).

  7. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, “A Reminiscence of Federalism,” in Tales and Sketches (Philadelphia, 1835), pp. 24, 30.

  8. There is now a considerable body of scholarship that examines the Revolution in relation to women. Linda Kerber has written extensively on the Revolution's legal and political implications. She also identified Republican Motherhood in her pathbreaking article “The Republican Mother: Women and the Enlightenment—An American Perspective,” American Quarterly 28 (1976): 187-205. See also Rosemarie Zagarri, “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother,” American Quarterly 44 (1992): 192-215. Jan Lewis commented upon a republican wife's responsibility to her husband in “The Republican Wife: Virtue and Seduction in the Early Republic,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 44 (1987): 696-721. Both Kerber and Mary Beth Norton have addressed the significance of women's increased educational opportunities. More recently, I have done the same in “‘Vindicating the Equality of Female Intellect’: Women and Authority in the Early Republic,” Prospects: An Annual Journal of American Cultural Studies 17 (1992): 1-27. Norton suggested that the choice to remain unmarried became viable in the years after the Revolution. See Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980); “The Paradox of Women's Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805,” American Historical Review 97 (1992): 349-78; Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1980).

  9. Pamela Dwight Sedgwick to Theodore Sedgwick, 18 November [179?], Sedgwick IV, Massachusetts Historical Society.

  10. Pamela Dwight Sedgwick to Theodore Sedgwick, 31 January 1789, 26 June 1790, 14 February 1791, Sedgwick III.

  11. Pamela Dwight Sedgwick to Theodore Sedgwick, 4 December 1791, Sedgwick III.

  12. Journals of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 29 November 1829, C. M. Sedgwick Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

  13. In her illuminating essay on the neglected dimensions of difference, Elsa Barkley Brown has analyzed the relational character of difference. See “‘What Has Happened Here’: The Politics of Difference in Women's History and Feminist Politics,” Feminist Studies 18 (1992): 295-312. See also Nell Irvin Painter's introduction to The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), pp. 1-67.

  14. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, “Slavery in New England,” Bentley's Miscellany 34 (1853): 417-24. Freeman's challenge to the constitutionality of slavery is the subject of Arthur Zilversmit's “Quok Walker, Mumbet, and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 25 (1968): 614-24. See also William O'Brien, “Did the Jennison Case Outlaw Slavery in Massachusetts,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 17 (1960): 219-41; John D. Cushing, “The Cushing Court and the Abolition of Slavery in Massachusetts: More Notes on the Quok Walker Case,” American Journal of Legal History 5 (1961): 118-44; and Elaine MacEacheren, “Emancipation of Slavery in Massachusetts: A Reexamination, 1770-1790,” Journal of Negro History 55 (1970): 289-306.

  15. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Orville Dewey, 7 September 1841, in Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, ed. Mary E. Dewey (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1872), p. 278.

  16. Maris Vinovskis and Richard Bernard have demonstrated that only a tiny percentage of the population attended college before the Civil War. Basing their findings on federal censuses, they show that 0.8٪ were enrolled in 1840, 0.8٪ in 1850, and 1.0٪ in 1860. See Vinovskis and Bernard, “Beyond Catharine Beecher: Female Education in the Antebellum Period,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 3 (1978): 859. Lawrence Cremin addresses education more generally in American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970). Imaginative in approach and convincing in argument, Cremin's volume nonetheless suffers from a failure to distinguish between education offered females and males; only men receive extensive consideration.

  17. Women's education is the subject of Thomas Woody, A History of Women's Education in the United States (New York: Science Press, 1929). Published more than fifty years ago, Woody's two volumes remain the basic source, although they are more descriptive than analytic. Barbara Miller Solomon's insightful study In The Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985) focuses on higher education.

  18. Pamela Dwight Sedgwick to Theodore Sedgwick, 9 July 1798, Sedgwick III.

  19. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, 6 October 1803, Sedgwick IV.

  20. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, 11 November 1803, Sedgwick IV.

  21. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Theodore Sedgwick, 29 December 1804, Sedgwick IV.

  22. Theodore Sedgwick to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 23 April 1806, Sedgwick III.

  23. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Eliza Pomeroy, 1 December 1822, Sedgwick IV.

  24. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Orville Dewey, 12 June 1842, in Life and Letters, pp. 281-82.

  25. Sedgwick, Journals, 9 July [1827].

  26. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Louisa Minot, 5 September 1841, Sedgwick IV.

  27. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Theodore Sedgwick II, 3 February 1813, Sedgwick III.

  28. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Robert Sedgwick, 2 July 1813, C. M. Sedgwick Papers; Catharine to Robert, 21 November 1819, C. M. Sedgwick Papers; Robert to Catharine, 20 November 1813, Sedgwick IV.

  29. Sedgwick, Journals, 10 June [1827] and 31 December 1828.

  30. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Robert Sedgwick, December 1821, C. M. Sedgwick Papers; Robert to Catharine, 9 August 1822, Sedgwick IV; Catharine to Robert, 11 June 1823, C. M. Sedgwick Papers.

  31. Sedgwick, Journals, 2 December 1837.

  32. Charles Sedgwick to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 2 April 1848, Sedgwick IV; Catharine to Charles, 2 February 1829, C. M. Sedgwick Papers.

  33. Sedgwick, Journals, 18 May [1828], 5 August [1830], 2 December 1837, and 28 December 1854.

  34. Sedgwick, Journals, 29 December 1834. She made another notable entry in this regard on 2 December 1837.

  35. Sedgwick, Journals, 12 October 1836.

  36. Sedgwick, Journals, 18 May [1828].

  37. Harry Sedgwick to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 22 June 1812, Sedgwick IV.

  38. Theodore Sedgwick to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, 6 May 1822, Life and Letters, p. 152; Robert Sedgwick to Catharine, 17 July 1824, Sedgwick IV; Charles Sedgwick to Catharine, 28 March 1827, Sedgwick IV; Charles to Catharine, 21 May 1830, Sedgwick IV.

  39. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to Louisa Minot, 26 November 1836, Sedgwick IV.

  40. Catharine Maria Sedgwick to William Ellery Channing, 24 August 1837, C. M. Sedgwick Papers. The perspective of post-Revolutionary writers is the subject of Emory Elliott's Revolutionary Writers: Literature and Authority in the New Republic, 1725-1810 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982). Positing a crisis of authority as the signal experience of these writers, Elliott suggests that they forged an identity more in keeping with the democratizing tendencies of the early republic. The historical context for this development is provided in Joseph J. Ellis's After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979). Elliott and Ellis, each of whom considers only men, do not include gender as an analytical category. Gender is central to Cathy Davidson's highly suggestive study of these decades. See Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), esp. pp. 3-79. I have discussed gender and its relationship to literary authority in antebellum America in Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), esp. pp. 111-214. Michael Warner analyzes the implications of transformations in print discourse and reading that took place in eighteenth-century America in The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990). Richard Brown's study of the same phenomenon extends the analysis into the nineteenth century; see his Knowledge Is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  41. In a study published nearly sixty years ago, William Charvat identified how antebellum Americans linked the aesthetic and the moral when defining the purpose of culture. The importance that Unitarian leaders such as William Ellery Channing attached to this linkage has been explored by Daniel Walker Howe; Lawrence Buell has done the same for New England's writers more generally. The related tie between the moral and the feminine has received consideration from scholars studying women and antebellum reform. Lori Ginzberg's recent study of elite women's participation in organized benevolence is particularly insightful in this regard. Perhaps most notably, she has highlighted a strategy justifying female participation that is remarkably similar to Sedgwick's. See Charvat, The Origins of American Critical Thought, 1810-1835 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1936); Howe, The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); Buell, New England Literary Culture: From Revolution through Renaissance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics and Class in the 19th-Century United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

  42. Michael T. Gilmore's analysis of Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau, and Melville identifies a similar ambivalence in their reaction to popularity; they simultaneously sought to cultivate a larger and less elite public and to resist its claims. Donald M. Scott has examined the changing relationship between knowledge and the marketplace. No longer the possession of an elite, knowledge itself had become a commodity available for purchase by any literate American. Stow Persons's insightful study explores the implications of all these changes. See Gilmore, American Romanticism and the Marketplace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), esp. pp. 1-17; Scott, “Knowledge and the Marketplace,” in The Mythmaking Frame of Mind: Social Imagination and American Culture, ed. James Gilbert et al. (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992), pp. 99-112; Persons, The Decline of American Gentility (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973).

  43. Sedgwick, Journals, 10 June 1827.

  44. Sedgwick, Journals, 8 October [1834] and 9 August 1835.

  45. Charles Sedgwick to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, [June 1837], Sedgwick IV.

Further Reading

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Foster, Edward Halsey. Catharine Maria Sedgwick. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974, 171 p.

A full-length biography of Sedgwick.


Bauermeister, Erica R. “The Lamplighter, The Wide, Wide, World, and Hope Leslie: Reconsidering the Recipes for Nineteenth-Century American Women's Novels.” In Legacy 8, No. 1 (Spring 1991): 17-28.

A comparative study of three novels written by prominent nineteenth-century women writers, commenting on their standing as autonomous works of literature.

Castiglia, Christopher. “In Praise of Extra-Vagrant Women: Hope Leslie and the Captivity Romance.” In Legacy 6, No. 2 (Fall 1989): 3-16.

An analysis of Hope Leslie as a frontier romance that subverts racial and gender stereotypes.

Gossett, Suzanne and Barbara Ann Bardes. “Women and Political Power in the Republic: Two Early American Novels.” In Legacy 2, No. 2 (Fall 1985): 13-30.

An analysis and comparison of Hope Leslie and Sarah Josepha Hale's Northwood as fictive expressions of the contemporary political culture.

Gould, Philip. “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War.” In American Literature 66, No. 4 (December 1994): 641-62.

Examines Sedgwick's revisionary history of the Pequot War in Hope Leslie and discusses the significance of its “anti-patriarchalism.”

Holly, Carol. “Nineteenth-Century Autobiographies of Affiliation: The Case of Catharine Sedgwick and Lucy Larcom.” In American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Paul John Eakin, pp. 216-34. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

A discussion of nineteenth-century women's autobiographies as texts of affiliation that present the autobiographical act as an intimate, interactive, and female event.

Karafilis, Maria. “Catherine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie: The Crisis between Ethical Political Action and U.S. Literary Nationalism in the New Republic.” In American Transcendental Quarterly 12, No. 4 (December 1998): 327-44.

Proposes that a conflict exists in Hope Leslie between Sedgwick's desire for an alternative model of governance and her desire to foster a domestic national literature.

Nelson, Dana. “Sympathy as Strategy in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.” In The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender, and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Shirley Samuels, pp. 191-202. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Contends that the sympathetic frame of reference employed by Sedgwick and other female authors in their frontier romances fostered a more positive cultural vision by attempting to promote similarities between races and cultures.

Ross, Cheri Louise. “(Re)Writing the Frontier Romance: Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.” In College Language Association Journal 39, No. 3 (March 1996): 320-40.

Examination of Hope Leslie as a frontier romance that transforms the genre by giving it a feminist, non-racist nature.

Zagarell, Sandra A. “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut and Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.” In Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6, No. 2 (Fall 1987): 225-45.

Discussion of Sedgwick and Sigourney's works as examples of women's writing that offers an expanded view of America as a nation grounded in inclusiveness and a sense of community.

Additional coverage of Sedgwick's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 74, and 183.

T. Gregory Garvey (essay date 1994)

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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 women's writing have noted, Sedgwick serves as a kind of “breakthrough” figure, an author who holds the distinction of standing near the beginning of a line of writers that would dominate the antebellum era. Nina Baym comments on Sedgwick's unique position by pointing out that “Sedgwick's career was not typical, … She achieved considerable prestige in her own time, was ranked with James Fenimore Cooper for her historical writing, and continued to produce actively for more than thirty years” (54). Also, Mary Kelley, whose interests are more psychological than Baym's, accounts for Sedgwick's ability to make peace with her own transgression of gender norms by arguing that Sedgwick “had been able to transgress traditional boundaries and enter the world beyond the home by denying to herself and to the world that she had committed any transgression at all” (287). Early in her career, though, Sedgwick's growing public acclaim created anxieties that had to be faced before they could be resolved or suppressed.

Sedgwick's major works appeared well before women authors came to dominate the marketplace in the 1850s. Her first novel, A New-England Tale, was published in 1822, and her second, Redwood, appeared two years later. The recognition that these novels received by the time that she published Hope Leslie in 1827 placed Sedgwick in the public spotlight. This publicity created private anxieties that Sedgwick was compelled to address even though she sought to minimize her own presence as a public figure. In her letters, repeated allusions to the tension that authorship created underscore the uniqueness of her position. Shortly after the publication of A New-England Tale, Sedgwick received a letter from her brother Harry which chided her to “have done with” the “womanish fears” that she had been expressing. In the letter, he assumes that his sister's fears were caused by the risk that her book would be unpopular and consoles her by claiming that “I don't know of anything which now gives me so much excitement as the certain prospect of your future eminence” (Dewey 152).

Ironically, this prospect of eminence seems to have been the main source of Sedgwick's fears. In an undated letter to a female friend, Sedgwick refers to her just-published novel: “I am more anxious than I can express to you to remain unknown, but, that, I fear, is impossible now” (154). Another shows Sedgwick dealing with her anxieties somewhat differently. Responding to an invitation to stay with friends in Boston during the summer of 1822, Sedgwick speaks directly of the pressures that her fame was creating:

I should be delighted to visit Boston in the course of the summer, but I should neither go nor stay with any reference to my little tract. I protest against being supposed to make any pretensions as an author; my production is a very small affair any way, and only intended for the young and the humble and not for you erudite, pro-di-g-ous Boston folks.


This brief passage reveals a variety of sensitivities; a knee-jerk resistance to being forced into the public spotlight, indignation at inflated expectations regarding her personality, and finally, a sarcastic self-justification that displays her wit even as it situates her motivation within a traditionally feminine realm.

All of these reactions represent different tactics for dealing with a changed relationship to the public realm. Kelley goes to the heart of the psychological aspect of this change by observing that a fundamental tension informing Sedgwick's novels is between her sense of social vulnerability and her desire to play a role in the life of the young nation. Kelley concludes that Sedgwick's ability to champion an expansion of woman's sphere beyond domestic settings was blunted by “deep inner restraints” that derived from her own socialization (Private 167). By Kelley's logic, these “inner” restraints ironically mirrored “outer” normative pressures and created the private psychological context in which Sedgwick strove to pursue her career as an author.

On an equally personal level, there was also a set of pressures that worked against general expectations of feminine passivity and submissiveness. In important ways, Sedgwick's impulse to participate in the public life of the nation reflects the experiences of her childhood. Sedgwick seems to have regarded public service as the duty, if not the birthright, of her family. Indeed, she perceived her own literary career as a manifestation of an ongoing family tradition. Her father, Theodore Sedgwick, had been Speaker of the House of Representatives during George Washington's presidency. Her three brothers were also active in national politics.

Even as the favorite daughter of a blue-blooded New England family though, Sedgwick knew that the forms of service open to her father and brothers were closed to her. In a searching letter that she sent to her father in 1812, she considers the different types of fulfillment society held out to men and women:

I have regarded your life to find some rules of action to apply to my own, but I have relinquished the scrutiny with the same feeling of disappointment that the humble architect of a cottage would have, turning from the survey of a lofty palace, in which he had almost absurdly hoped to find a model for his little dwelling. A life dignified by usefulness, in which it has been the object of delight to do good, and the happiness to do it in an extended sphere, does, however, furnish some points of imitation for the most limited routine of domestic life. Wisdom and virtue are never at a loss for occasions and time for their exercise, and the same light that lightens the world is applied to individual use and gratification. You may benefit a nation, my dear papa, and I may improve the condition of a fellow-being.

(Dewey 91)

This letter marks Sedgwick's emerging awareness that her own realm of action is “most limited.” Not only do “lofty palace” and “little dwelling” serve as architectural metaphors which contrast her father's and her own spheres of action, but Sedgwick's musing throughout the letter conveys an uneasy tone, as if she is trying to reconcile herself to the circumscribed boundaries of domesticity when she clearly would prefer to act “in an extended sphere.”

Working in a world where women authors had yet to fully justify their place on the shelves of booksellers, the relationship between Sedgwick's desire to act in public and the conventional impulses that this letter also reveals takes on a heightened significance. Sedgwick's conventionality stands in tension with the subtle dangers that would coincide with any attempt to participate in the public life of the nation. In Hope Leslie, this tension is displaced onto Sedgwick's heroines who balance their desire to act against their equally strong fears of male reprisal. Nonetheless, the two heroines of the novel, Hope Leslie and the Indian princess Magawisca, disregard social conventions and intervene in the political affairs of their societies. Though successful and morally justified, these interventions are met by a variety of punishments—Hope is placed under overlordship; Magawisca is imprisoned and physically maimed.

Most importantly, though, even as Sedgwick dramatizes the fears that were generated by her own role as a woman author, she also defines a set of conditions under which women's intervention in political affairs becomes not only legitimate, but necessary. By making a desire to avoid impending moral crises the dominant motivational impulse of her heroines, Sedgwick justifies their interventions into male realms of power. In effect, she asserts that the female conscience is as valid a source of social authority as is the legal power held by men. Thus through the effort to legitimate her own transgression of gender norms, Hope Leslie both dramatizes the pressure that authorship created and seeks to release those pressures by exploring the advantages that American culture stood to gain by expanding women's responsibility for moral values into the public arena.

Even her decision to locate the novel in seventeenth-century New England underscores this basic tension between her desire to serve the public and the internalized impulses which made such service appear inappropriate and potentially dangerous. In the Puritan society which she portrays, the terms of women's containment prefigure the conditions of early nineteenth-century America. The Puritan “helpmeet” was ideally pious, modest, submissive, and invisible to the public eye (Ulrich 5-10). The elements of true womanhood in the nineteenth century that Barbara Welter describes in her classic essay almost duplicate these criteria. Welter defines the “four cardinal virtues” of femininity in Sedgwick's age as piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity (20ff). Nonetheless, by portraying her women characters as civic-minded individuals who are unjustly persecuted as witches and spies, Sedgwick also revises the history of Puritan New England. In this way Sedgwick not only provides herself with the safety of an historically distant stage on which to investigate the tensions that were embedded in the world of her experience, but also reinvents the earlier context by redefining the motivations that impelled her seventeenth-century women characters to transgress the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Despite the psychological inhibitions that her own socialization imposed on her, Sedgwick thus makes Hope Leslie an instrument of social progress. In it, she models the terms on which women might legitimately enter the political arena.

Using the war between the Puritans and the Pequod Indians to establish a background of social disorder, the basic struggle of Hope Leslie is a contest over the foundations on which legitimate authority ought to rest. Though the patriarchs of both cultures hold legal authority, their willingness to make moral compromises in the name of political expediency precipitates social crises in each society. As a counterbalance, Sedgwick establishes conscience as a structuring principle in the moral economies of both the Puritan and the Pequod communities. The role that conscience plays as a motivation to action is introduced in the prefatory scenes of the novel. Hope's adoptive father, Fletcher, emigrates to Massachusetts Bay during the mid-seventeenth-century English civil wars in order to avoid complicity in what he considers an unjust conflict. He then establishes a homestead on the wooded outskirts of Boston where Hope, the orphaned daughter of his first love, is placed in his care. The pastoral home that they establish, though, is disturbed by the outbreak of war. Magawisca, the Indian Princess who had been captured by the Puritans, is placed in the Fletcher household as a servant. While Fletcher and Hope are in Boston, his homestead is attacked by Magawisca's father, Chief Mononotto, who rescues his daughter, but also kills Fletcher's wife and infant son. Fletcher's surviving son, Everell, is taken hostage by the Indians. It is against this chaotic background that Hope and Magawisca form an alliance and work to preserve the moral integrity of their two communities.

Though the cultural differences between Hope and Magawisca's experience are central features of the novel, Sedgwick makes little distinction between the impulses on which the leaders of the Puritan and Indian societies act. However, she does distinguish the impulses that motivate action in men from those that motivate action in women. As various intrigues develop, political, rather than moral or ethical considerations lead Governor Winthrop of Boston and Chief Mononotto of the Pequod Indians to make potentially disastrous errors in judgment. Winthrop's first concern is to preserve the established norms of the Puritan community. He contrives to “put jesses on” the unruly Hope by arranging her betrothal to the rakish Sir Gardiner. Later, Winthrop subordinates ethics to the exigencies of practical politics by insisting that Magawisca be placed in prison, even though he understands that she might die as a result. Within the Pequod community, Chief Mononotto is equally guilty of misusing legal authority. Mononotto cynically decides to sacrifice his captive, Everell Fletcher, as a means of silencing critics within his own tribe: “Brothers,” says Mononotto, “My people have told me I bore a woman's heart towards the enemy. Ye shall see. I will pour out this English boy's blood to the last drop, and give his flesh and bones to the dogs and wolves” (92).

The threats which male authorities pose to the moral order of both communities ultimately compel women to intervene on behalf of the innocent. Sedgwick's portrait of a public realm in which political considerations come before moral ones prepares the way for woman's entrance not only onto the public stage, but into the realm of politics. The conditions under which Hope and Magawisca intercede in public affairs, though, make it clear that their motivation is not a desire to participate in public life for its own sake. Rather, they are motivated by a desire to redress the moral inequities that the warring patriarchs create. Hope, for example, takes “counsel only in her heart,” which tells her that “the rights of innocence [are] paramount to all other rights” (120).

Thus, even as Sedgwick uses conscience to justify openly subversive action by women, she draws on conventional beliefs by ascribing the motivation for women's action to a morally driven desire to resolve crises (Bardes and Gossett 22). Women's intervention is given a regulatory and reactive function. It only becomes legitimate when legally constituted authority fails to function properly. But despite its reactive quality, Sedgwick sees woman's conscience as an authoritative source of public justice, the court of last appeal which authorizes Hope's intervention in political affairs.

Hope and Magawisca's interventions serve to dissipate the threats that are created by potentially tragic situations. As the agents of crisis resolution, they work to reassert the primacy of moral justice over political expediency. In a study of romance conventions in this novel, Michael Davitt Bell observed that Northrop Frye's definition of comic drama captures the pattern through which Sedgwick compels moral/female authority to struggle against legal/male authority: “At the beginning of the [novel] the obstructing characters are in charge of the [novel's] society, and the audience recognizes that they are usurpers. At the end of the [novel] the device in the plot that brings hero and heroine together causes a new society to crystallize around the hero[ine]” (163). Throughout Hope Leslie the patriarchs function as “obstructing characters” threatening to reduce their communities to moral chaos as they pursue political ends. This danger demands that someone from outside the legal power structure intervene to ensure that moral standards will be upheld. The “device in the plot” which ultimately “causes a new society to crystalize around the hero[ine]” is a pattern of direct public action by women.

In one episode, Hope literally saves the life of an Indian herbalist who is unjustly sentenced to hang because the Puritan court concluded that only through sorcery could she have saved the victim of a rattlesnake bite. The herbalist Nelema views her act of mercy altruistically, musing: “I, the last of my race, [am] bidden to heal a servant in the house of our enemies” (104). Hope perceives the injustice of the old woman's condemnation, but when she confronts magistrate Pynchon, the judge scolds her as “forward” and admonishes Hope to leave Nelema's fate to the legal authorities. Yet Magistrate Pynchon's refusal to give her a voice in the process of “justice” fails to render Hope ineffectual. Rather, it compels her to realize the “rights of innocence” through subterfuge. She masterminds a jailbreak and sets Nelema free.

In addition to illustrating the justificatory force of conscience, this clandestine rescue also illustrates the reactive nature of Sedgwick's legitimation of intervention by women. Although Hope takes the law into her own hands, she does so only after all conventional means of rescuing Nelema have been exhausted. Sedgwick thus implicitly casts the context in which women can enter the public realm as a breakdown in the functioning of women's moral influence. By Sedgwick's logic, moral insight is rooted in woman's conscience. This conscience ideally functions to structure interaction between men and women such that standards of moral, ethical, and social behavior pass from women into the male subconscious. Being thus continually “influenced” by the women around them, men are to embody the content of the female conscience in the structure of public institutions. According to this schema, women's authority transcends categories of public and private because men become the vehicle for extending female authority throughout public institutions. Ideally, then, women's intervention in the public realm would become unnecessary.

However, in Hope Leslie, the patriarchs have become corrupted by the very public realm that they are responsible for managing. The link that carries women's influence into the public arena has broken down, and women must repair it lest the entire structure collapse. The Nelema episode is typical of the pattern that Sedgwick establishes: a problematic exercise of legal authority by the patriarchs threatens to rupture the moral order of the community, whereupon one of the novel's heroines risks her own punishment by circumventing male authority and independently bringing the demands of her conscience into reality. It is in these moments of social crisis that Sedgwick's reliance on conscience as a legitimation of political action comes into sharp focus.

Aptly enough, Sedgwick chooses legal trials as the settings in which she dramatizes the Puritan authorities' inability to cope with situations where moral and legal justice are in conflict. The crisis situations that emerge from misuses of authority in Hope Leslie function to call the legitimacy of the established social order into question and create what Jurgen Habermas refers to as a “legitimation crisis.” In practice, Habermas asserts, “If governmental crisis management fails, it lags behind practical demands. The penalty for this failure is withdrawal of legitimation. Thus, the scope for action [by the established government] contracts precisely at those moments when it needs to be drastically expanded” (69).

For example, when the Puritans put Magawisca on trial for espionage, the court becomes enmeshed in a thicket of conflicting loyalties. The villainous Sir Gardiner proves willing to lie under a Protestant oath, but he balks at lying under a Catholic oath. Reverend John Elliot eloquently argues that the law of mercy should rule. But a magistrate from the bench contends that the court should not stay “the course of justice” (293). Even though the magistrates scrupulously follow all conventional legal procedures, they prove incapable of discerning truth from falsehood in order to arrive at the appropriate verdict of “not guilty.” The narrator sums up the confusion between legal and moral justice: “Their reason, guided by the best lights they possessed, decided against her—the voice of nature crying out for her” (294). The court, being unable to arrive at a verdict, sends Magawisca to languish in prison until she can be retried. In this situation of paralysis, Hope intervenes to free Magawisca and resolve the crisis.

Thus Sedgwick manipulates the legitimation crisis that her male protagonists create so that legal resolution becomes impossible. In such situations of legal paralysis, moral action by Hope and Magawisca, despite its risks, becomes the instrument of final justice. In effect, female intervention is justified as both a moral and a practical necessity.

These interventions, though, are paid for both by fear of male reprisal and by actual punishment. The competing demands that social prescription and conscience place on Sedgwick's heroines reflect a conflict between external expectations and internal impulses that mirrors contradictions inherent in the polarization of society into private and public realms. Out of this polarization emerges the primary practical dilemma which Hope and Magawisca must resolve, a dilemma that dramatizes the conflicting aspiration and trepidation that Sedgwick felt in her own consciousness. In the seventeenth-century world that Sedgwick reconstructs, as in the New England of her day, external normative forces demanded that women be passive. Yet if women were to heed the voice of conscience, they would be compelled to intervene. Still, as the dangers that Hope and Magawisca face make clear, when women respond to the demands of their consciences, they risk becoming victims themselves.

Each time that Hope or Magawisca violates the boundaries of her place as a Puritan or Indian maiden, she risks punishment not because of the harm her actions create, but because she crosses the line into traditionally male realms of power. Magistrate Pynchon, for example, recognizes that Hope's clandestine rescue of Nelema poses a greater threat to existing social norms than the Indian's “sorcery”: “While [Pynchon] easily reconciled himself to the loss of the prisoner, he felt the necessity of taking instant and efficient measures to subdue to becoming deference and obedience, the rash and lawless girl, who had dared to interpose between justice and its victim” (121). The reactions against female action that Sedgwick attributes to her male characters imply a fear of reprisal that underscores the vulnerability of all women who presume to intervene in public affairs. Magistrate Pynchon's reaction to Nelema's escape can be regarded as a reflection of Sedgwick's own sense of vulnerability as one of her nation's first women novelists.

The danger of male reprisal that Sedgwick's heroines encounter takes its most extreme form as Magawisca subverts the summary trial and condemnation of Everell Fletcher. Everell's execution has “the air of hasty preparation” as the Pequod gather “to witness what they believed to be” the course of “exact and necessary justice” (91). Yet Everell is an innocent captive, and ironically, of all the Puritan characters, he is the most sympathetic to the Pequod cause. Sedgwick makes it clear that the execution is politically motivated and manifestly unjust. The prospect of this crime compels Magawisca to risk her own life in order to save Everell. She leaps in front of the condemned man as her father's tomahawk swings toward Everell's neck. The tragic result is—as Sedgwick phrases it—that her arm is “lopped” off.

Like her heroines, Sedgwick legitimated her own public career by portraying herself as a moral counselor. But for a woman to insinuate her authority beyond the range of passive, domestic influence by projecting a voice onto the public stage was still a politically radical act. Joanne Dobson sums up the terms of this conceptual division between the private and public spheres by noting that mid-nineteenth-century opinion ascribed to women, “the unique and awesome, yet seductively flattering, responsibility of mediating moral values in a morally deficient society, and that their divinely ordained arena for doing so was a domestic one” (224). One wishes that Dobson had chosen “but” rather than “and” to introduce the final clause of her sentence. For it is this geographical restriction that generated Sedgwick's “deep inner restraints” as well as her anxiety concerning direct male reprisal for public action.

Changing social conditions added to the delicacy of Sedgwick's position on the margin of both the private and the public realms. For during the period of Sedgwick's rise to prominence, barriers preventing women from circumventing traditional norms were being vigorously debated. Under the pressure of urbanization, industrialization, and democratization, Jacksonian Americans were compelled to revaluate a host of legal, social, and domestic conventions. Many of these had traditionally regulated gender relations (Smith-Rosenberg 79-87). As this period of upheaval progressed, ideals of womanhood came into more and more obvious conflict with the actual conditions of women's lives. Women were entering the public realm as factory operatives, authors, and advocates for moral reform. But they were also being encouraged to marry and subsume their identities into those of their husbands. Once married, women still could not sign contracts, nor could they control their own earnings or property. Given the contradictions between the conditions of women's lives and prevailing cultural demands that women remain both passive and dependent, one can see how the triumphs and punishments of her heroines enact Sedgwick's desire to loosen restrictions on female action. One can also sense the dangers that Sedgwick would have perceived in this same desire.

As a single woman, Sedgwick sought to balance these tensions in her own life, constructing an identity that had both private and public components. Not only did her public career as an author span thirty years, but she approximated a conventional private life by maintaining close connections with the families of her brothers. Although striking this balance between private and public lives allowed her an unusual degree of personal independence, it also entailed an almost hypersensitive awareness of her own anomalous position within the social structure. Kelley considers Sedgwick's choice to remain single but also stay within the orbit of her siblings' families an “effective compromise” which permitted her to maintain both “intimacy and autonomy” (“Woman” 213). One wonders, though, how effective this compromise could have been. Even though it seems to have been a source of genuine happiness in Sedgwick's life, it also must have created a set of tensions that revolved around the act of maintaining the balance between autonomy and intimacy. Her brothers' willingness to accept her into their households provided Sedgwick with a high level of security, but by living in such close proximity to their families, she must also have been acutely conscious that her position was both marginal and vulnerable. There are times when she seemed to feel the need to withdraw in order to gain a degree of distance from her own conflicting desires. When her brother Robert married, for example, Sedgwick felt compelled to temporarily withdraw from the family circle in order to make his affection “less Necessary” (Dewey 160).

The delicate and imperfect balance that Sedgwick sustained between her private and public presences is reflected in the nuanced contradictions through which Sedgwick resolves various plot lines in Hope Leslie. Despite her justification of women's presence in political affairs, Sedgwick almost certainly would have denied that Hope Leslie was seeking to transform prevailing constructions of womanhood. The advice that she would give to young women in Means and Ends and Live and Let Live bears witness to the continuing conventionality of her attitudes. Indeed, if her later writings can be taken as an indication, she became increasingly conservative during the 1850s and 1860s.

In many respects it is this tension between Sedgwick's competing impulses to accept and reject traditional constructions of femininity that gives Hope Leslie enduring value. Sedgwick's desire to resolve this tension by imagining women who could integrate the private and public realms is reflected in the futures that she envisions for the characters in the novel. In Hope, Sedgwick seems to provide the model for a new, woman-centered, social order. Hope marries Everell but does not then recede into domestic oblivion. Instead, she incorporates most of the community into her family. Minor characters such as Mister Craddock and Dame Grafton are accepted as “life-members” of the new household. Even Barnaby Tuttle, a jailer Hope tricked to gain Magawisca's freedom, is given an “annual stipend from our heroine” so that he could pass his old age “versifying psalms.” Hope thus becomes the moral—and economic—center of a small community. In essence, the public sphere is subsumed into the private, where Hope's “influence” can reach beyond Everell and pervade the entire community.

But is it really Hope who prefigures the future? Sedgwick gives the last word in the novel to Hope's cousin Esther Downing, the “pattern maiden of the republic.” The future Sedgwick imagines for Esther complicates the vision with which she completes her picture of Hope. Esther forgoes marriage and symbolically sacrifices private intimacy in order to bestow her “disinterested devotion” on all “mankind” (350). This resolution is especially telling as it is a projection of the conditions of Sedgwick's own life as a single woman and a writer. In this scenario, the private woman is co-opted by the public sphere where she can serve as moral ballast. In neither Hope's nor Esther's case, then, does Sedgwick's expansion of women's moral authority finally break down the boundary which was a primary source of her own anxiety as a writer, the boundary between the “extended sphere” of the public realm and the “limited routine” of the private realm. These resolutions, such as they are, suggest the depth of Sedgwick's ambivalence regarding the transgressive nature of her own chosen career. Ultimately, they suggest the irreconcilability of the tensions that Sedgwick experienced as an actor on both the public and private stages.

Though Sedgwick is understandably incapable of even imagining a world where women can hold equal influence in their houses and in the town hall, she does identify a set of conditions that justify women's presence in political affairs. However, in 1827, despite the legitimating power of woman's conscience, even legitimate intervention does not preclude the possibility of reprisal. Further, according to Sedgwick's vision, the woman who hopes to affect morals in an “extended sphere” must either accept the community into her household—as Hope does—or she must sacrifice domestic pleasures and have her moral influence coopted by the public realm—as Esther does. Although woman's conscience offers a legitimate motivation for public action, in practice, Sedgwick sees it enacted only through secret circumventions of the boundary between the private and public realms—a boundary that compels the demands of conscience to struggle against deeply seated fears of retribution.

Works Cited

Bardes, Barbara Ann, and Suzanne Gossett. Declarations of Independence: Women and Political Power in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Bell, Michael Davitt. “Historical Romance Convention in Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.” American Quarterly 22 (1970): 313-321.

Berg, Barbara. The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Dewey, Mary E., ed. Life and Letters of Catharine Maria Sedgwick. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871.

Dobson, Joanne. “The Hidden Hand: Subversion of Cultural Ideology in Three Mid-Nineteenth Century American Women's Novels.” American Quarterly 33 (1986): 224.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Habermas, Jurgen. Legitimation Crisis. Trans. Thomas McCarthy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975.

Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

———. “A Woman Alone: Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Spinsterhood in Nineteenth Century America.” New England Quarterly 51 (1978): 209-225.

Sedgwick, Catharine. Hope Leslie. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987 [1827].

———. A New-England Tale; or, Sketches of New-England Character and Manners. New York: E. Bliss and White, 1822.

———. Redwood; A Tale. New York: E. Bliss and White, 1824.

———. Means and Ends; or, Self-Training. Boston: Marsh, Capen, Lyon and Webb, 1840.

———. Live and Let Live; or, Domestic Service Illustrated. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1837.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carol. Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.

Ulrich, Laura. Good Wives: Image and Reality in the lives of Women in Northern New England, 1650-1750. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

Welch, Richard E. Theodore Sedgwick. Federalist. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1965.

Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1976.

Maria Lamonaca (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7170

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 thoughts; and I read Shakespeare to her—and fatigued her to the last degree. I accustomed myself to giving her, as if it were quite casually, little scraps of useful information, or sound opinion—and she started from them when I let them off, as if they had been crackers. No matter how incidentally or naturally I endeavored to form my little wife's mind, I could not help seeing that she always had an instinctive perception of what I was about, and became prey to the keenest apprehensions. In particular, it was clear to me, that she thought Shakespeare a terrible fellow …

(Charles Dickens, David Copperfield)

This description of David Copperfield's attempts to “form” his wife's mind highlights issues of female education in Victorian society, particularly anxieties over the preparation—or lack thereof—of young women for marriage and motherhood. Dora, deprived of the benefits of motherly instruction, wreaks havoc on the Copperfield household. She can neither cook, nor manage servants, nor maintain the household accounts. Copperfield's gift of a domestic advice manual—a “Cookery-book”—comes to naught; it functions mainly as a perch for a dog. Most troubling to Copperfield, however, is not Dora's domestic ineptitude, but rather her unsuitability as an intellectual companion. While mentally accomplished, highly literate Victorian women were often derided as “strong-minded women” and “bluestockings,” an opposing current of thought attempted to justify female intellectual prowess. Such writers as Sarah Ellis viewed the mental cultivation of a woman essential to her calling as a future wife; the educated woman would be “a companion who will raise the tone of his mind … from low anxieties and vulgar cares.”1 This paper attempts to examine the nineteenth-century construction of an ideal, highly literate woman—woman as accomplished reader—particularly as it is presented in domestic advice manuals and conduct books of the era. This inquiry will focus on two conduct books, Means and Ends; or Self-Training (1840) by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Characteristics of Women (1832) by Anna Jameson. While the texts themselves reveal much about contemporary thought on the subject of literate/intellectual women, equally revealing are the motives and circumstances behind Sedgwick's and Jameson's work.

An especially important consideration in this study is how Sedgwick's and Jameson's conduct manuals “market” literacy. What is their conception of female literacy, and why do they endorse it? A major question posed by historical literacy studies, as Karl Kaestle phrases it, is: “Does literacy have a liberating or constraining effect on individuals' lives?”2 Do Jameson and Sedgwick portray literacy as a means of self-discipline or as a strategy of empowerment? It is all too easy, it seems, to label conduct manuals solely as an example of the “constraining effect” of literacy. A close reading of Sedgwick's and Jameson's books, however, reveals a multidimensional construction of literacy, one which seems to embody the personal concerns and ambivalences of the authors themselves.

The fact that Victorian conduct manuals encouraged literate practices in women often becomes obscured by other aspects of the genre. Much contemporary scholarship emphasizes the repressive nature of these books as a means of social control. “Although a female genre, often written by women and directed at female readers,” states Nancy Armstrong, “conduct books of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries … were attuned to the economic interests that they designated as the domain of the male.”3 Both Nancy Armstrong and Mary Poovey interpret the conduct book genre as an ideological tool of the rising middle class. The ideal woman of the conduct book, a submissive household angel, supported her husband's endeavors in the workplace, thereby affirming capitalist values.4 Viewed in strictly economic terms, the conduct book becomes a means of commodifying women. It defines a woman whose “sexual identity has been suppressed by a class that valued her chiefly for material reasons.”5 These arguments are entirely plausible; what, after all, could be more repressive to women than the cult of the Household Angel? An important consideration, however, is whether conduct books, despite their political implications, advanced the abilities or position of Victorian women in any respect.6

The view of conduct books as a means of social control emphasizes their role in regulating women's literacy, restricting and silencing the woman reader/writer. These books discussed, often in exhaustive detail, what specifically women should and should not read. Along with the spread of literacy in the nineteenth century, Carla Peterson points out, a persistent suspicion of books as moral “poison” remained embedded in European culture.7 Fictional literature—novels and romances—posed the greatest threat to the highly impressionable minds of young women. Thomas Broadhurst, in his Advice to Young Ladies on the Improvement of the Mind and Conduct of Life (1810), warns against the woman who “to the culpable neglect of the most important obligations, is daily absorbed by philosophic and literary speculations, or soaring aloft amidst the enchanted regions of fiction and romance.”8 Some writers, like Broadhurst, felt that imaginative literature drew women away from household duties; others worried that it gave women false, deceptively glamorous views of the world. Others condemned the novel—with its scenes of passion—as a threat to the purity and innocence of young girls.9 Conduct manuals devoted less attention, it seems, to the regulation of writing practices, but some issued admonitions against the “literary woman.” The woman writer, once published, abandoned the private sphere and immodestly thrust herself into the public arena. Hannah More, in Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799), argues that women's knowledge “is not often like the learning of men, to be reproduced in some literary composition, nor ever in any learned profession, but to come out in conduct.”10

Conduct manuals simultaneously encouraged and restrained women's reading practices, for “reading was at once the most useful and the most dangerous way to take up a woman's time.”11 A woman could read romance novels, and neglect her housework or she could read the Bible, and instruct her children. Reading, furthermore, was an activity which kept the woman within the confines of her home, and out of the contaminating public sphere. It could (as the immense popularity of conduct books shows) instruct women in appropriate feminine behaviour and duties, and thus contribute to the formation of the private, domestic sphere. Undoubtedly, what was considered “acceptable” reading for women varied, but conduct manuals frequently recommended the Bible, devotional works, poetry, various forms of non-fiction, and certain “polite novels” by “lady novelists.”12 Conduct books, although strictly regulating women's reading, at once encouraged it as a duty. Typically, they justified women's reading as education for marriage and motherhood. Sarah Newton considers such mixed messages in regard to women's literacy, ultimately, as restrictive ones. “These anti-intellectual messages,” she states; “even when they seem contradictory, become powerful arguments for the woman to focus her curiosity within rigorously guarded role limitations.”13 While many conduct books undoubtedly sought to limit women's intellectual development, elements of Catharine Sedgwick's and Anna Jameson's works seem to encourage women to cultivate interests in matters outside the domestic sphere. These writers, in many respects, embraced highly conventional views of women's place in society. At the same time, however, they evince a keen awareness of social inequalities between the sexes, and argue for improvements in women's education and social status. This current of thought, arguably, contributed to the growth of a female intellectual elite which sought social and political reform. Furthermore, later in the century, educational reformers applied conduct book ideology—the belief that educated women made better wives and mothers—to their appeals for higher education for women. The conduct book ideal of the literate woman, therefore, was not a liberating end in itself for women, but part of a gradual process of social enlightenment and reform.

This paper's assessment of Jameson's and Sedgwick's books differs from the general perception of conduct books as overwhelmingly conservative in character. Conduct books, Newton argues, stubbornly resisted the growing current of female political activism in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. “As women become more vocal and political,” she states, “American conduct writers continue to find both mission and market … these later writers find that their task is to affirm and defend it [women's traditional place in society].14 Although conduct books did, to a large extent, serve a conservative political agenda through their construction of a conventional feminine ideal, many conduct book writers—by virtue of their identity as female authors—were unconventional women who upheld progressive ideas. In the early nineteenth century, women were overwhelmingly denied “access to the means of literary production.”15 Women such as Sedgwick and Jameson, then, as published women writers, were through this fact alone quite extraordinary. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867), an American novelist ranked in her day with leading male writers, published Means and Ends; or Self-Training in 1840. Anna Jameson (1794-1860), a British writer, wrote essays, art criticism and travel narratives, along with the 1832 Characteristics of Women. These two writers make for an interesting parallel study. Although Sedgwick was American and Jameson British, the writings of each were well received in the other's native country. The women, only 5 years apart in age, were contemporaries and personal friends. Each greatly admired the work of the other; they met in 1837 during Anna's trip to the USA and Canada, and kept up a correspondence thereafter. Both Sedgwick and Jameson were, in many respects, nonconformists to the Victorian feminine ideal. Their education, while largely informal and self-directed, was unusually broad for a woman of the period. Both received extraordinary support from male relatives in pursuing their literary work. While marriage and motherhood was the ideal, both women remained independent—Sedgwick through choice, and Jameson by way of a failed marriage. Although Sedgwick and Jameson, in their books, constructed a female intellectual along the lines of polarized gender roles, each called for the improvement of women's social and political status.

Catharine Maria Sedgwick was born in 1789 in Stockholm, Massachusetts. She was the third of six children in a highly distinguished family. Her father, Theodore Sedgwick, served in the Massachusetts legislature, both houses of Congress, and sat on the bench of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Her family life, it seems, was somewhat troubled by her mother's recurrent bouts of depression and mental illness. Sedgwick was therefore left much to herself as a child; later, she lamented the “want of female supervision” in her early years. Perhaps this lack inspired Sedgwick to act, through her writing, as a moral guide to other young women. Sedgwick also expressed regret over the inadequacy of her formal education. Of the district schools she attended, she states, “Our minds were not weakened by too much study—reading, spelling, and Dwight's Geography were the only paths of knowledge into which we were led.”16 At the age of 11 Sedgwick attended a boarding school in Albany where she learned a smattering of “accomplishments”—dancing and French.

Although Sedgwick deplored the inadequacy of her formal education, she appreciated her home schooling. “I was reared in an atmosphere of high intelligence,” she remarks. “My father had uncommon mental vigor. So had my brothers. Their daily habits, and pursuits, and pleasures were intellectual, and I naturally imbibed from them a kindred taste.”17 Sedgwick's father regularly read Hume, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Hudibras to the family. Sedgwick also recalls reading Rollin's Ancient History to herself at the tender age of 10. “My school life was a waste,” Sedgwick concludes, “my home life my only instruction.”18 She also read less scholarly texts. Another passage from her letters states: “I read constantly, but chiefly novels [italics mine]. I remember little of that winter, but falling romantically in love with a handsome young man … It was the fancy of a few weeks of a girl of eleven! I knew him afterwards, a cold selfish but still handsome man.”19 Here Sedgwick seems to imply that novel-reading had a direct effect on her foolish fancies; she would have behaved differently, the reader infers, if she had known better.

In the course of her literary career, Sedgwick wrote numerous didactic tales and sketches, but she is best known for her six novels: A New England Tale (1822), Redwood (1824), Hope Leslie (1827), Clarence (1830), The Linwoods (1835), and Married or Single? (1847). Sedgwick, initially, published with reluctance; probably she wished to avoid public notoriety as a female author. Interestingly, her four brothers had the greatest influence on her writing. Charles, Harry, Theodore and Robert praised Catharine's work, and conducted transactions with her publishers. In 1821, Catharine wrote to a friend, “My dear brother Theodore makes a most extravagant estimate of my powers. It is one thing to write a spurt of a letter, and another to write a book.”20 Shortly afterwards, Harry persuaded Catharine to expand a religious tract she had written—originally intended for Sunday School instruction—into a full-length novel. The result, A New England Tale, was published anonymously in 1822, but her identity became known in due course. From the very beginning, the public received her work enthusiastically.

Although Sedgwick wrote only a few works explicitly designed as conduct or advice manuals, “everything she wrote,” states Mary Walsh, “had a lesson to convey.”21 She seemed to view herself less as a writer of imaginative literature than as an educator and moral guide. After the publication of a domestic manual in 1837, Live and Let Live—a discussion on how to secure competent servants—Sedgwick writes, “I thank heaven that I am not now working for the poor and perishable rewards of literary ambition … Neither pride nor humility should withhold us from the work to which we are clearly “sent.” … There is much sin from mere ignorance …”22 One Reverend Dr Channing praised Sedgwick for this same book; in a letter to her he writes, “Thousands will be the better and happier for it; thousands, as they read it, will feel their deficiencies, and resolve to do better.”23 This seems like unduly exalted praise for a manual on domestic help, but the sanctity of the Victorian home, after all, was at stake. It should be no surprise, furthermore, that Sedgwick's novels are highly moralistic as well. This moralism, argues Walsh, ultimately compromises Sedgwick's writings. “The ever prevailing shadow of didacticism is over her work,” she states, “and for this reason alone her novels make no appeal to the modern reader.”24

In the first chapter of Means and Ends; or Self-Training, Sedgwick clearly states her authorial intent. She means to address an audience of fellow “young countrywomen,” 10 to 16 years in age: “I have written the following pages to aid you in your self-education … [The book] has been written with a deep interest for your welfare and improvement, and I should be sorry if it proved a total failure” (pp. 10, 12).25 Sedgwick defines her conception of education for women: “It is not enough, believe me, to get hard lessons in arithmetic, grammar, and geography, French, Italian, and Music … More than all this is required to make you a good wife and mother” (p. 16). Although Sedgwick stresses the necessary moral dimension of a woman's training, she encourages intellectual development as well. In Chapter XI, “What to Read, How to Read,” Sedgwick eloquently praises the book: “What is a book, my young friends? Is it not a cabinet which contains the most interesting creation of God, the mind of a human being, a portion of the Divine mind?” (p. 222). She discusses the importance of reading in the formation of good character. “Resolve to devote a portion of every day, for a year to come, to reading,” she advises (p. 226).

Sedgwick spends a goodly portion of the chapter advising what girls should and should not read, but “The selection of books is next in importance to a love for reading” (p. 226, italics mine). Clearly, she stresses the importance of reading first and attempts to regulate it only afterwards. Interestingly, Sedgwick—a writer of didactic tales herself—actually discourages the reading of religious tracts. Many are badly written, she feels, and thus, “You are attracted by a story, and, to get a little pure gold, you receive a great deal of dross” (p. 227). Rather, she encourages her audience to read the Bible daily. In addition, she recommends histories of the USA, travel narratives, good biographies, and certain works of “English Literature,” including Shakespeare. “In the wide department of fictitious writing,” she warns, “let your consciences restrain and direct your inclination …” (p. 229). Sedgwick, however, gives her readers a few hints. “You have no excuse for reading the profligate and romantic novels of the last century, or the no less profligate and far more insidious romances of the present day, such as Mr Bulwer's, and the trash that fills the circulating libraries” (p. 232). She concludes the chapter with advice on the care of texts, including the strict rejoinder, “Do not wet the fingers to turn over the leaves of books!” (p. 232).

Although Sedgwick, like many of her contemporaries, attempts to regulate women's reading practices, she nonetheless encourages her audience to read widely, educate themselves, and develop critical thinking skills. Furthermore, in her final chapter, “Might Makes Right,” she addresses the issue of women's rights. Sedgwick condemns those who agitate for equality with men. “It has been well and truly said,” she states, “that when a woman claims the rights of a man, she surrenders her own rights” (p. 253). Sedgwick has no wish to see women voting or sitting in legislatures, but she does acknowledge the need to improve women's lot in society. In particular, she mentions laws which deny a married woman's right to hold property, and prevent a separated woman from taking custody of her own children.

Sedgwick proposes that women attain certain rights not by demanding them outright, but by educating themselves and thereby proving themselves worthy. “Women as yet, for the most part, have exercised but half their powers.” Sedgwick expresses confidence that if women but prove their rational and intellectual capabilities, men will grant them their rights. Hence her chapter title, “Might Makes Right.” While this view seems anything but enlightened in the present day, it was, arguably, progressive for the times. Although Sedgwick advocates different duties for men and women, she never ranks women's intellectual abilities below those of men. Furthermore, she encourages women to cultivate an interest in topics traditionally considered male terrain, such as politics. She argues,

Make yourself acquainted thoroughly with [your country's] institutions, its past and present condition, its extent, climate laws, productions, and commerce. All these subjects come within our own sphere—they may be called domestic matters. Think you, if a woman was well instructed and well read on these topics, would she be as incapable of business, and therefore as dependent as she now is?

(p. 229)

Sedgwick expresses concern over a woman's ability to depend on herself. As an unmarried woman (albeit a financially secure one) herself, she realized that despite the ideal, not all women would become wives and mothers. Thus she upheld self-education also as a preparation for earning a living.

In Means and Ends, Sedgwick presents mental acuity as a natural, desirable, even essential feminine trait. When women are highly (self-) educated, men “may hold more communion on their great social duties with their mothers, wives and sisters” (p. 254). In this manner, she implies, women can have an enormous influence upon social and political reform, all without leaving their appropriate sphere. The female intellectual, then, is always a domestic intellectual. Sedgwick saw herself, as a “literary woman” in a similar light. In 1835, Sedgwick wrote in her journal, “My author's existence has always seemed something accidental, extraneous, and independent of my inner self. My books have been a pleasant occupation … But they constitute no portion of my happiness—that is such I derive from the dearest relations of life”.26 Although Sedgwick never married, she remained with her family all her life. As she implies here, she regarded her true calling not as an author, but as a devoted sister and aunt. Mary Dewey, Sedgwick's earliest biographer, wrote admiringly of her in 1871, “She could make a cake as well as books, and provide for all the household exigencies as ingeniously as she could conduct a story …”.27

Like Catharine Sedgwick, Anna Jameson idealized a distinctly feminine intellectual as well. This author was born Anna Murphy, in Dublin, in 1794. Her father, who shortly thereafter moved his family to London, was a miniature portrait painter who struggled to support his wife and five daughters. Nonetheless, the girls had a governess who supervised their education. When she left the family in 1806, Anna, at age 12, took charge over the education of herself and her sisters. Geraldine MacPherson, Anna's niece and earliest biographer, states that, “Anna's education progressed, chiefly at her own will and pleasure, with an extensive breadth and desultory character as conspicuous as its ambition.”28 She was encouraged by her father, who took pride in his intellectually precocious oldest daughter. Anna studied French, Italian and Spanish, developed a passion for poetry, as well as Sir William Jones's Indian and Persian romances. Her reading varied from classical works such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, to religious tracts by Hannah More. Interestingly, Jameson's opinion of such didactic tracts is as negative as Sedgwick's, although for different reasons: “It is most certain that more moral mischief was done to me by some of those than by all Shakespeare's plays together. These so-called pious tracts first introduced me to the knowledge of the vices of vulgar life, and the excitements of a vulgar religion …”.29

Regarding Jameson's mention of Shakespeare, he was, according to Clara Thomas, “on the forbidden shelf” in the Jameson home. This is especially interesting in relation to the Sedgwick household, which endorsed the reading of Shakespeare. Although a significant number of conduct manuals recommended the author as well, others worried about his influence on young, impressionable readers. In The Young Ladies' Reader (1845), Sarah Ellis states, “It is scarcely possible to imagine a prudent and judicious mother allowing the unrestrained and private reading of Shakespeare amongst her children …”.30 However, she continues, a mother “thoroughly imbibed with a sense of the beautiful and pure” could read aloud selected passages “to improve the taste of those around her.” Anna, however, read Shakespeare in secret, and considered herself no worse for the experience. “I had read him all through between seven and ten years old,” she recalls. “He never did me any moral mischief. He never soiled my mind with any disordered image. What was exceptional and coarse in language I passed by without attracting any meaning whatever to.”31 Jameson, in fact, seems to feel that regulating a child's reading achieves little, if anything. Drawing upon her own experience, she states, “it was not the forbidden books that did the mischief, except in their being read furtively.” Rather, certain “approved” reading disturbed her as a child, religious tracts, for example, and violent passages from the Old Testament and Goldsmith's History of England.

Jameson, obliged to help support her family financially, took three successive positions as a governess between 1810 and 1825. Later, in 1845, she complained bitterly about her former profession in a work entitled On Mothers and Governesses. “I have never in my life heard of a governess who was such by choice,” she states.32 This is the only avenue for impoverished middle-class women, she points out, and laments the fact that governesses are held in such low esteem. The proper education of governesses, she argues, would raise the status of their profession in the eyes of society. “A college expressly to teach women the art of teaching would be very useful; we want good and efficient female teachers for all classes …”.33 As much as Jameson later disparaged the profession, her tenure as governess provided the springboard for her subsequent writing career. In 1821 she accompanied her employers on a European tour. Her experiences and observations on this tour served as the material for her first book, The Diary of an Ennuyee (1826), which was expanded and reissued in 1834 as Visits and Sketches.

Jameson, much like Catharine Sedgwick, was at first a reluctant author. In 1825 she left her position to marry Robert Jameson, a barrister. Although the marriage was a miserable failure, Robert did encourage his wife's literary abilities. At his prompting, she wrote short pieces of her travels, published anonymously, for London Magazine; shortly thereafter, he secured the office of an “eccentric cobbler-bookseller” to publish Anna's Diary.34 Anna seemed to embark on the venture as a joke. Geraldine MacPherson describes her attitude: ‘“You may print it if you like,” said Mrs Jameson, adding, half in jest, “if it sells for anything more than will pay the expenses, you shall give me a Spanish guitar for my share of the profits.”’35 Jameson and her publisher, nonetheless, took an extreme measure to protect the author's identity. ‘A final paragraph was added … Herein it was stated that “the writer died on her way home at Autun, in her twenty-sixth year, and had been buried in the garden of the Capuchin Monastery near that city.”’36 Despite Anna's reluctance to draw attention to herself as a female author, her identity became known along with the success of her first book. Once Anna separated from Robert in 1829, writing became more a necessity than a hobby. In order to support herself, her parents, and two unmarried sisters, Jameson wrote well over a dozen books in her lifetime. She was best known as an art critic, although her criticism, like Sedgwick's novels, contains a heavy dose of moral didacticism. This strand runs throughout her oeuvre, as certain titles of her books reveal: Memoirs and Essays on Art, Literature and Social Morals (1846), Legends of the Madonna (1852), The History of Our Lord, as Exemplified in Works of Art (published posthumously, 1864).

Jameson's Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical (1832) is technically literary criticism; however, the work presents literary analysis in a sort of conduct manual format. Despite the ambiguity of its genre, Jameson clearly wrote the book—a study of Shakespeare's heroines—in order to define a womanly ideal. At the very outset, the author denies any motives for writing which would be considered unfeminine. “Accident made me an authoress,” she states, “and not now, nor ever, have I written to flatter any prevailing fashion of the day for the sake of profit … This little book was undertaken without the thought of fame or money …” (p. ii).37 According to this disclaimer, Jameson writes not for public display, nor as a means to earn her own living (a less believable claim, however). Rather, her purpose is to enlighten and instruct, but in as unobtrusive a manner as possible. “I do not choose presumptuously to fling … opinions in the face of the world, in the form of essays on morality, or treatises on education. I have rather chosen to illustrate certain positions by examples, and leave my readers to deduce the moral themselves, and draw their own inferences” (p. v). Jameson, obviously, feels it necessary to preface her work with an apology for the female author/intellectual.

Jameson's Characteristics, unlike Means and Ends, does not explicitly discuss women's reading practices. Its use of Shakespearean heroines for moral examples, however, assumes a thorough grounding in Shakespeare (and a fairly high degree of literacy) among its audience. Furthermore, its primary concern is the state of women's education and contemporary views of the female intellectual. “It appears to me that the condition of women in society,” she states, “as at present constituted, is false in itself and injurious to them,—that the education of women … at present conducted, is founded in mistaken principles, and tends to increase fearfully the sum of misery and error in both sexes …” (p. v). Jameson is not concerned here with a lack of opportunity for women's intellectual development. Rather, she fears that women are becoming educated at the expense of their moral instincts and sympathies. The current system of education, she argues, “inundates us with hard, clever, sophisticated girls … with whom vanity and expediency take place of conscience and affection” (p. xxxi). While the poorly-taught woman, as Sedgwick emphasizes, is an unfit wife and mother, problems can develop from the wrong sort of education also. A woman's education, Jameson argues, must not neglect her moral development. “A time is coming perhaps,” she states, “when the education of women will be considered with a view to their future destination as the mother and nurses of legislatures and statesmen; and the cultivation of their powers of reflection and moral feelings supersede the … [means] by which they are now crammed with knowledge and accomplishments” (p. xxxi).

Through her discussion of Shakespeare's heroines, Jameson means “to illustrate the various modifications of which the female character is susceptible, with their causes and results” (p. iv). She has chosen Shakespeare's work, because in his plays “the male and female characters bear precisely the same relation to each other that they do in nature and society—they are not equal in prominence or power” (p. xv). For example, Shakespeare's women are capable of great emotion, but men surpass them even in this: “Juliet is the most impassioned of his female characters,” she writes, “but what are her passions to those that shake the soul of Othello?” (p. xv). Still, Shakespeare's heroines exhibit a superior moral sensibility. While Lady Macbeth and Richard III are both depraved characters, Lady Macbeth suffers womanly pangs of remorse, while Richard, as a male villain, “has neither pity, love nor fear” (p. xvi). This technique of Jameson's shows itself most amusingly in her discussion of Much Ado About Nothing. She describes the scene where Beatrice orders Benedict to kill Claudio as having a “comic effect,” for she thinks that Beatrice, as a good, virtuous woman, must surely be joking.

Jameson divides Shakespeare's heroines into four types: characters of intellect, characters of passion and imagination, characters of the affections, and characters of history. She discusses “characters of intellect” first however; and since her preface addresses questions of women's education, this appears as her greatest interest. Women's intellects, Jameson states explicitly, are inferior to those of men. They are also qualitatively different. “In man the intellectual faculties exist more self-posed and self-directed—more indifferent of the rest of the character.” Women's intellect, however, is “modified by the sympathies and moral qualities” (p. 39). This “feminine” quality of the intellect, however, is natural and desirable in a woman. Male authors, argues Jameson, have traditionally misrepresented women of intellect. “Men of genius have committed some signal mistakes … they could form no conception of intellect which was not masculine, and therefore have either suppressed the feminine element altogether and drawn coarse caricatures, or they have made them completely artificial” (p. 40).

Jameson lauds Shakespeare because, she argues, he presents realistic, believable portraits of intellectual women. She discusses four heroines in this chapter, those “at once distinguished by their mental superiority”: Portia (Merchant of Venice), Isabella (Measure for Measure), Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) and Rosalind (As You Like It). “The wit which is lavished on each,” she declares, “is profound, or pointed, or sparkling, or playful—but always feminine; like spirits distilled from flowers, it always reminds us of its origin;—it is volatile essence, sweet as powerful” (p. 41). Jameson, incidentally, praises all Shakespeare's heroines in this same flowery and effusive vein, for two volumes. As part of her discussion on Portia, Jameson implies that women's intellect is inherently feminine. “I never yet met in real life, nor ever read in tale or history, of any woman, distinguished for intellect of highest order, who was not also remarkable for [feminine qualities] … which is compatible with the most serious habits of thought, and the most profound sensibility …” (p. 50). This statement seems directly to contradict the concerns Jameson states in her preface. If all intellectual women are inherently feminine, how can any form of education remove this quality? Despite Jameson's ambivalence in this passage, she obviously believes that intellect and femininity are highly compatible. In this respect, her views on female intellect are analogous to Sedgwick's in Means and Ends.

As Jameson's argument in Characteristics indicates, her views on the position of women are highly conservative to a modern day reader. Nonetheless, her construction of the female intellectual, like Sedgwick's, is an attempt to bridge traditional views of women with women's increasing literacy and educational opportunity. Although Jameson does not explicitly address the subject of women's rights in this book, she became increasingly outspoken on the topic in succeeding years. Her lifelong concern for the education and welfare of women is particularly evident in On Mothers and Governesses (1845), and The Communion of Labor: A Second Lecture on the Social Employments of Women (1856). One of her most scathing criticisms of women's position in society appears in Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada (1838), the result of a 9 month North American tour. Jameson describes the Native American women she encountered, and states that their lot, in some ways, is superior to that of European women. The Native American woman, she argues, “is sure of protection, sure of maintenance, at least while the man has it; sure of kind treatment; sure that she will never have her children taken from her but by death …”.38 Jameson's observation did not pass uncriticized by male reviewers.

It is interesting to consider how Jameson's view of herself as a female intellectual and writer compares with that of Catharine Sedgwick. While Sedgwick saw her identity as an author as secondary and extraneous to her family life, Jameson was much less tied, by dint of frequent travel, to her family. Furthermore, writing for Jameson must have taken a far more central role, as she made her livelihood from it. Although Jameson originally published with reluctance, she later vigorously defends the role of the woman writer. In Winter Sketches, she depicts writing as a necessary means of advancement for women. “Women must find means to fill up the void of existence. Men, our natural protectors, our lawgivers, our masters, throw us upon our own resources … We have gone away from nature, and we must—if we can, substitute another nature. Art, literature and science, remain to us …”.39 Here Jameson views the role of female intellectual as an inevitable response to social inequalities. She expresses contempt for those who ridicule female writers. During her visit to Toronto in 1837, she describes the society she encountered: “The cold narrow minds, the confined ideas, the by-gone prejudices of the society, are hardly conceivable … The women here express, vulgarly enough, an extreme fear of the “authoress” and I am anything but popular.”40

Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Anna Jameson were but two contributors to an enormous body of conduct literature for women in nineteenth-century England and the USA. As scholars have noted, these books served a highly conservative purpose. By encouraging women to conform to a womanly ideal, conduct books prescribed rigid norms of behaviour which confined women to a domestic sphere, and thus reinforced Victorian patriarchal structures. The books addressed all aspects of a woman's life: dress, household training, manners, morals, health (Means and Ends devotes a chapter to “Care of the Skin”), and mental development. Very often, this last topic referred primarily to women's self-education, or private reading practices. Regarding the subject of women's literacy, conduct books often sent mixed messages to their readers. Like everything else in a woman's life, reading must serve a morally edifying purpose and conform to certain standards. Women's minds, then, were to be molded and shaped by the “right” sort of reading. This attitude took for granted a woman who was mentally docile, easily impressionable and likely to be swayed by any argument. The literate woman, having read the proper books, would be a suitable companion for her husband, and thus strengthen the power of the domestic sphere and perpetuate the status quo. In Catharine Sedgwick's Means and Ends, however, this strand of thought coexists with the idea of female intellectual development as a politically powerful force. Sedgwick encourages her readers to develop critical thinking skills and cultivate interests not traditionally regarded as part of a woman's sphere. In this manner, women can improve their position in society. Furthermore, she acknowledges the economic necessity of independent, self-supporting women. Anna Jameson, in Characteristics of Women, regards women's intellects as inferior to those of men. Nonetheless, by praising Shakespeare's “Women of Intellect,” she portrays strength of mind as an admirable and necessary quality in a woman. In other of her didactic works, Jameson, like Sedgwick, calls for reforms in women's social, educational and economic positions.

A closer examination of the multiple constructions of literacy in Means and Ends and Characteristics of Women reveals four primary definitions. For both Jameson and Sedgwick, female literacy was a means of self-discipline and training; it contributed to the formation of a “good character.” A woman of “good character” reinforced a conservative, patriarchal social order. The second construction of literacy in these books is an economic one. Literacy was portrayed as an economic investment; after all, the literate woman made a more desirable wife and mother, thus improving her chances for a good match. Although this dimension served a conservative agenda as well, an “economic” definition of literacy could also challenge the status quo. Sedgwick and Jameson both evince an awareness of literacy's importance for the single, unsupported woman. Literate women, they recognize, could more easily support themselves as part of a growing female workforce divorced from the domestic sphere. The third definition of literacy, as it appears in these conduct manuals, reinforces class hierarchies, and helps define a growing middle class. Literacy is a badge of wealth and social status, as the mistress of a comfortable, well-staffed household would have more leisure, and thus greater opportunity, to read all Shakespeare's plays, for example, or set aside an hour a day for reading. Sedgwick and Jameson, after all, were upper middle-class women writing for an upwardly mobile segment of society. The fourth of Sedgwick's and Jameson's definitions is literacy as a means of empowerment. Sedgwick encouraged women to educate themselves, and thus effect social reform through their fathers, brothers and husbands. Jameson used much of her didactic writing as an outlet for her concerns over women's role and welfare in society.

The multiple roles of literacy set forth by Jameson and Sedgwick highlight their complex ideological positions. Although both authors were progressive in their social/political outlook, they upheld the ideal of an intelligent yet traditionally feminine woman—a “domestic intellectual” of sorts. For these writers, women's literacy promised both continuity and change. Through perusal of the Bible, for example, a woman might read about the necessity of wifely submissiveness—and learn to conform to an age-old feminine ideal—while also developing a political consciousness through reading the newspapers. This construction of the domestic intellectual—at once progressive and highly traditional—seems to reflect the personal ambivalence of the authors themselves. Sedgwick and Jameson both shied away, at least initially, from the role of female writer, a persona typically mocked in the contemporary press as that of a masculinized woman. Both used writing, however, to carry out an acceptable female duty—the moral and spiritual edification of society. Both were highly intelligent, independent, and keenly aware of women's social and political wrongs—yet they never, in any respect, viewed themselves as crusaders for women's rights. Rather, Sedgwick and Jameson, as self-constructed domestic intellectuals, attempted to effect political change through quiet persuasion. Their conduct books cannot be interpreted so much as bulwarks of a conservative social order, but as the products of women living in a complex era and a rapidly changing society.


  1. Ellen Jordan (1991) “‘Making Good Wives and Mothers’? The Transformation of Middle-Class Girls' Education in Nineteenth-Century Britain”, p. 477, History of Education Quarterly, 31, pp. 439-462.

  2. Karl Kaestle (1988) “The History of Literacy and the History of Readers”, in Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry M. Kroll & Mike Rose (Eds) Perspectives on Literacy, p. 97 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press).

  3. Nancy Armstrong (1987) Desire and Domestic Fiction: a political history of the novel, p. 94 (New York: Oxford University Press).

  4. Mary Poovey (1984) The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, p. 10 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

  5. Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction, p. 95.

  6. We should acknowledge at this point the existence of a parallel conduct book tradition for men. Nancy Armstrong, in Desire and Domestic Fiction, notes that by the mid-eighteenth century, “the number of books specifying the qualities of a new kind of woman had well outstripped the number of those devoted to describing the aristocratic male” (p. 62). Conduct literature for men, she argues, evolved into other forms (such as political satire) while women's conduct books retained their popularity well into the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, Sarah Newton, in Learning to Behave, lists well over a hundred conduct books for men published in the USA in the nineteenth-century. While women's conduct literature prepared its readers for marriage and motherhood, men's advice manuals often patterned themselves after Poor Richard's Almanack, encouraging ambition and industrious habits as the means to economic success.

  7. Carla Peterson (1987) The Determined Reader, p. 13 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press).

  8. Quoted in Poovey, The Proper Lady, p. 68.

  9. Kate Flint (1993) The Woman Reader: 1837-1914, p. 214 (New York: Oxford University Press).

  10. Quoted in Poovey, The Proper Lady, p. 35.

  11. Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction, p. 100.

  12. Poovey, The Proper Lady, p. 97.

  13. Sarah E. Newton (1994) Learning to Behave, p. 76 (Westport: Greenwood Press).

  14. Ibid., p. 78.

  15. John Guillory (1993) Cultural Capital, p. 19 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

  16. Mary Kelly (Ed.) (1993) The Power of Her Sympathy: the autobiography and journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, p. 11 (Boston: The Massachusetts Historical Society).

  17. Ibid., p. 76.

  18. Ibid., p. 84.

  19. Ibid., p. 92.

  20. Mary E. Dewey (1871) The Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, p. 150 (New York: Harper & Brothers).

  21. Sister Mary Michael Walsh (1937) Catharine Maria Sedgwick, p. 6 (Washington: Catholic University of America).

  22. Dewey, The Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, p. 271.

  23. Ibid., p. 270.

  24. Walsh, Catharine Maria Sedgwick, p. 34.

  25. Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1840) Means and Ends, or Self-Training (Boston: Marsh, Capen Lyon & Webb)

  26. Kelly, The Power of Her Sympathy, p. 151.

  27. Dewey, The Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, p. 330.

  28. Geraldine MacPherson (1878) Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson, p. 12 (London: Longman, Green & Co.).

  29. Quoted in Clara Thomas (1967) Love and Work Enough: the life of Anna Jameson, p. 6 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press).

  30. Flint, The Woman Reader, p. 83.

  31. Quoted in Thomas, Love and Work Enough, p. 6.

  32. Ibid., p. 18.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Ibid., p. 28.

  35. Quoted in MacPherson, Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson, p. 41.

  36. Ibid., p. 42.

  37. Anna Jameson (1833) Characteristics of Women (Annapolis: J Hughes).

  38. Quoted in Thomas, Love and Work Enough, p. 138.

  39. Elizabeth Helsinger, Robin Lauterbach Sheets & William Veeder (Eds.) (1983) The Woman Question: Literary Issues, p. 24 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

  40. Quoted in Mrs Steuart Erskine (Ed.) (1915) Anna Jameson: letters and friendships, p. 150 (London: T. Fisher Unwin).

Philip Gould (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14639

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

It has been the fate of all the tribes to be like the Carthaginians, in having their history written by their enemies. Could they now come up from their graves, and tell the tale of their own wrongs, reveal their motives, and describe their actions, Indian history would put on a different garb from the one it now wears, and the voice of justice would cry much louder in their behalf than it has yet done.

—“Materials for American History,” North American Review (1826)

Shortly before Catharine Sedgwick published her third novel, Hope Leslie, in 1827, she wrote a letter home to her brother, Charles, recounting a recent trip to Boston that she had made by stagecoach. Along the way, as Sedgwick described it, she encountered an aged veteran of the Revolutionary War who somehow charmed her. To Sedgwick the incident was worthy of detail:

One old soldier I shall never forget. He was not like most of our old pensioners, a subject of pity on account of (perhaps) accidental virtue, but everything about him looked like the old age of humble frugal industrious virtue. And then he was so patient under the severest of all physical evils … so cheerful and bright, so confiding in kindness, and so trustful in his fellow-creatures. … [He wore] famous green mittens, knit as he said, with a tear in his eye, “by his youngest darter,” leaning on his cane, the horrid cancer decently dressed and sheltered, talking with a benign expression of his old friends, but his eye kindling, and his form straightening with a momentary vigor as he spoke of the heroic deeds of his youthful companions, and the serenity and meekness, and philosophy with which he spoke of the sufferings and the progress of them.2

On its surface, Sedgwick's encounter seems to be nothing more than a sentimental account of an endearing old man. Yet her narrative of the incident, I would argue, suggests her relation—specifically through writing—to a living, cultural symbol of Revolutionary republicanism. What kind of “man” is this? Or better yet: What kind of manhood does Sedgwick manage to re-create here? By claiming both his unique and ordinary qualities, Sedgwick locates this “old soldier” both within and without the fold of a identifiable type. This immediately raises the issue of his representativeness. As a masculine legacy of the Revolution, he is transformed, albeit subtly, by Sedgwick's pen into an androgynous ideal. The passage's rhetoric welds together his meekness and vigor, his tears and heroic deeds, figuring a new symbol of republican manhood whose classical virtues are subsumed by his capacity for feeling. His daughter's mittens—a domestic production, after all—literally and symbolically cover his hands. So the scene translates power from male subject to female writer, from classical vigor to sentimental pathos, and devilishly suggests that the very icon of Revolutionary manhood is itself diseased, and perhaps on its last leg. This is the theme of Hope Leslie's “recital” of the Pequot War.

The successful revision of this icon depends on the negotiation of the masculine language and ideology we examined in the preceding chapter. As I began to show, republican language of “virtue” was layered densely with gendered meaning during the transitional era of the early republic. “Virtue” signified not only the tenets of classical republicanism and liberal individualism but also the precepts of affect, benevolence, and pious, universal love that descended in large part from eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense philosophy. As the word began to signify new, modern republican adhesives of sociability and Christian benevolence, these traits became increasingly associated in early national America with women themselves and evolved into an ideology of domesticity during the antebellum era. The crucial point here is that during this era the gendered meanings of republican virtue could lend instability to the nature of “masculine” and “feminine” behavior. And as Sedgwick's letter to her brother shows, such instability afforded the chance to refashion the terms of civic ethics in a republic. By manipulating language, one could redefine along the lines of gender the very meaning of a “republic.”

In the next two chapters I take up the issue of gender politics in women's historical romance by situating two of the era's most popular historical romances, Hope Leslie and Lydia Child's Hobomok (1824), in this cultural and historical context. As I argued at the outset of this study, literary critics of all sorts have placed women's historical romance of the 1820s in context of the American Renaissance. In this schema, these texts are either failures that mark Hawthorne's later success or credible novels that should be considered part of the nation's literary flowering. In each case, the critical trajectory points forward, ignoring the specifically post-Revolutionary nature of the language and thematics of women's writing. Moreover, women's historical romance emerged during the 1820s in the context of an established, masculinized genre of nationalist history. Historians like Hannah Adams and Emma Willard were extraordinary women even to cultivate literary careers for themselves at this time. Yet there was little room for “revisionist” historiography at this time. Why, then, we should ask, did women writers even take up the subject of Puritanism? How do their historical productions about Puritanism compare to those of male “historians”? How did they engage contemporary, nationalist histories—and what were the cultural stakes of writing revisionary history via the medium of historical romance?

Virtually everyone recognizes the “antipatriarchal” nature of women's historical fiction. Yet this theme is made even more significant when recast as part of a larger gendered struggle over the nature of the republic, a struggle, I would argue, taking place in part through the medium of Puritan history. The transitional nature of the early republic, with all of its cultural and rhetorical instability, made such a struggle particularly resonant. Indeed, it made it possible. In this chapter and the next, I unravel the languages of republicanism in women's historical romance as a way of demonstrating that the political nature of Sedgwick's and Child's novels descends from the cultural experience of the American Revolution. This chapter demonstrates the immediate significance of Hope Leslie's revisionary history of the Pequot War, where Sedgwick thematizes the incompatibility of gendered forms of “republican” virtue. It provides a segue to Chapter 3, a more comprehensive reconsideration of the literary “conventions” of women's historical romance in the context of this period's changing political culture. Puritanism provided an arena in which to debate the protean, gendered meanings of republican “virtue,” a debate that directly involved a struggle over language itself.


The Pequot War has produced more than its share of historiographic controversy. This, as we shall see, is much more the case with present-day interpretations of the war than those current in early national America. In the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War, revisionist historians began with renewed fervor to question the reliability of Puritan accounts of the attack on the Pequot in 1637. Francis Jennings led the charge during the mid-1970s by pointing out a regional bias that supposedly had distorted an entire historiographic tradition: “During the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, the whole historical profession was dominated by historians who were not only trained in New England but at the same time were steeped in the accepted traditions of that region. Our histories generally show their imprint.”3 The revisionist refusal, however, to treat Puritan sources “as gospel” (as Jennings puts it) has itself come under attack. For instance, one critic of the revisionists' “radicalizing polemics” has argued that they tend to oversimplify ambiguities in Puritan histories and thereby unfairly assail Puritan military tactics and political motives alike.4 These historiographic debates are characterized by deep animosities, but more importantly, they reduce themselves to two crucial questions: Did Captain John Mason's attack on one of the two Pequot forts at Mystic constitute a “massacre”? And did the leaders of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay undertake a defensive operation, or a war of conquest? This debate continues to occupy early Americanists, presenting the vexing problem of how we interpret Puritan sources.5

As critics of Hope Leslie have noted, it is just this issue that lies at the heart of Catharine Sedgwick's revisionary history of the Pequot War. In the novel's crucial fourth chapter, which recounts the war from the point of view of Magawisca, a young Native American woman who witnessed the Puritan attack, Sedgwick interrogates seventeenth-century accounts of the conflict found in William Hubbard's A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New England (1677) and John Winthrop's The History of New England (1630-49), both of which had been reprinted in the decade before Hope Leslie's publication.6 Mary Kelley rightly admires Sedgwick for strategically “[m]ining the early histories”: “Sedgwick simultaneously turned the [Puritan] witnesses against themselves and introduced an alternative interpretation.”7 Sandra Zagarell similarly has concluded that Hope Leslie “challenges the official history of original settlement by exposing the repositories of the nation's early history, the Puritan narratives, as justifications of genocide.”8 More recently, Dana D. Nelson has extended and complicated antipatriarchal approaches by claiming that, taken together, Puritan and Native American versions of the war in Hope Leslie testify to “the political aspect of [all] historical representation”: “Thus through a sympathetic frame of reference, Sedgwick is able to establish a historical dialogue that had been suppressed from the Puritan accounts.”9

Whether Hope Leslie contains, then, a radical attack on Puritan histories or an uncannily prescient exercise in historical dialogics, the line of continuity in these readings locates Sedgwick vis-à-vis seventeenth-century historiography. None considers the novel primarily in an early republican cultural context—that is, by reading its history of the war in the context of post-Revolutionary discourse about the conflict. What were, in other words, the contemporary political and cultural issues imbedded within early national narratives about colonial military history? By comparing Sedgwick's history to those of her own era, rather than simply to the likes of Hubbard, Winthrop, and others, we might reconceive of Hope Leslie as an exercise in contemporary cultural criticism. This significantly lends new meanings to its “antipatriarchal” theme. In the context of contemporary histories, Hope Leslie both critiques the viability of masculine, classical republicanism and participates in a larger cultural debate over the nature of citizenship in the early American republic.

This debate was facilitated by the potently ambiguous meanings of “virtue.” As several historians of Revolutionary America have noted, during the eighteenth century numerous intellectual-historical pressures transformed the traditionally masculine meanings of “virtue.” Its classical context, of course, was exclusively masculine. “Virtue” derived from the Roman concept of virtu (the source of “virility”), signifying the austerity, patriotic vigilance, and martial valor theoretically requisite to republican life. Citizenship, as the ancient Romans conceived of it, was the ideal medium for men to express their collective personalities; the vivere civile—the ideal of active citizenship—generally described a situation whereby rulers served dutifully in politics and the masses in military defense. However, in a landmark essay exerting wide influence on scholars of women's history, Ruth Bloch has traced a number of intellectual developments during the eighteenth century that gradually feminized traditionally masculine meanings of virtue.10 “Virtue,” Bloch concludes, “if still regarded as essential to the public good in a republican state, became ever more difficult to distinguish from private benevolence, personal manners, and female sexual propriety.”11 Gordon Wood similarly has argued for the modern forms of love and benevolence that gradually emerged as the new adhesives of a republican order: “Virtue became less the harsh self-sacrifice of antiquity and more the willingness to get along with others for the sake of peace and prosperity. Virtue became identified with decency. Whereas the ancient classical virtue was martial and masculine … the new virtue was soft and feminized and capable of being expressed by women as well as men; some, in fact, thought it was even better expressed by women.”12

Changes in eighteenth-century civic culture later coalesced into what one historian has called the “discernible social theory” of domesticity.13 The view that women were the “natural” stewards of national morality helped to create what Linda Kerber has, in a now famous (and debated) phrase, called “republican motherhood.”14 From its Revolutionary-era genesis, as Kerber noted, this role imposed upon American women “the contradictory demands of domesticity and civic activism.”15 The republic's new guardians of civic ethics were at once politically valued and politically disenfranchised. While historians today have come to view with suspicion the gendered dichotomy of “private” and “public” spheres,16 the home theoretically became the site of inculcating republican virtue.17 For example, Benjamin Rush, the Revolutionary generation's most prolific writer on republican education, specifically stated that American women (and by this, of course, he meant white, middle- and upper-class women) “must concur in our plans of education for young men, or no laws will ever render them effectual.”18 One should recognize as well that Rush's gendered construction of republican morality and pedagogy (a subject I pursue at greater length in the next chapter) was premised on the same understanding of cyclical history as the New Ebenezer of Puritanism: “In the ordinary course of human affairs,” as Rush put it, “we shall probably too soon follow the footsteps of the nations of Europe in manners and vices. The first marks we shall see of our declension, will appear among our women.”19 Hence republican womanhood derived from those anxieties in Whiggish thinking that cast the republic as a fragile, fated thing.

Born from such anxieties, the cultural role of the republican woman helped to legitimate women's writing during this era. The image of the republican woman writer, however, pen in hand, righteously invested in America's civic and political health, was only tenuously empowering. Writers like Catharine Sedgwick certainly carried the “political” authority of moral propriety into the public sphere. Even as a very young woman, a decade before she wrote her first book, A New-England Tale (1822), Sedgwick appeared to be aware of the personal, literary, and ideological leverage that republican womanhood afforded. In 1812 she wrote a letter to her father, Theodore Sedgwick, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, which declared with ostensible humility, “You may benefit a nation, my dear papa, and I may improve the condition of a fellow being.”20 Despite her use of the metaphors of “cottage” and “palace,” to distinguish her sphere from her father's, Sedgwick subtly implied a gendered equivalence of their roles: “Wisdom and virtue are never at a loss for occasions and time for their exercise, and the same light that lightens the world is applied to individual use and gratification.”21 Throughout her literary career, Sedgwick's moral role, with its enabling and sometimes radical possibilities, was premised on the “light” that symbolically marks the beginnings of the evolution of republican womanhood into domesticity. Years later, an anonymous writer for the North American Review began his evaluation of Hope Leslie by legitimating women's writing in much the same way. “We hold it to be a fortunate thing for any country, that a portion of its literature should fall into the hands of the female sex; because their influence, in any walk of letters, is almost sure to be powerful and good.”22 In “the interests of virtue,” women's writing “nurture[d] the growth … of youthful intellect and feeling.”23 At the same time, however, he delimited women's writing to the “proper walks”—“the lighter kinds of literature”24—thereby circumscribing its politics within domestic space.

This newfound “political” role for women, however, raised a troubling question buried within the cant of republican motherhood. Which kind of “virtue” were women supposed to teach husbands and sons at home? This issue crucially involves the substance of republican citizenship. Male political theorists, of course, glossed over it, recognizing little problem in ideologically reconciling classical and domestic virtue. Men, after all, ideally incorporated benevolence and love into their social relations, even if times of political crisis demanded an exclusively “masculine” response of patriotic duty and martial courage (a subject taken up in Chapter 5). But the opposite was not true. Women had no access to the classical norms of republican citizenship. One should recognize that a lingering ideology of austere manhood contained misogynistic overtones (the abhorrence of “effeminacy,” for example, or the negatively feminine connotations of “luxury” and “indolence”). Moreover, masculine republicanism undervalued the affective ways in which women could forge truly political identities. How, then, did women writers treat a masculine ideology that in large part underwrote their own legal and political disenfranchisement? Divested of true representation, if not always political expression, women writers waged a cultural and ideological struggle within the republic by exploiting the contradictions in their political role.

Nowhere in early national culture was masculine republicanism more pronounced than in the heroic subject of military history. To put it simply, military history was meant to “inspire virtue” and “instill patriotism” in male citizens.25 Exploits of the American Revolution, the many frontier conflicts with Native Americans, and, to come to the issue at hand, the Pequot War, all helped codify a narrowly masculine understanding of citizenship that effectively heightened the difference between men and women as political beings. This is the cultural politics of Hope Leslie's revisionary history. Soaked in a rhetoric of Roman masculinity, the subject of the war in Sedgwick's own day served to memorialize classical virtu. Her novel, then, addresses decidedly contemporary issues of the republic by debunking an entire tradition of masculine iconography derived immediately (though not exclusively) from Revolutionary-era political culture. Hope Leslie's fourth chapter is just what she calls Magawisca'a narrative—a “recital,” or performance, of history, which competed with other contemporaneous performances over the meaning of virtue in early America.


Hope Leslie's “recital” of the Pequot War confronts a long-standing historiographic tradition. Puritan versions of the conflict tell the larger story of God's Providence in New England, and they typically begin with the murders during the 1630s of three Englishmen—John Stone, Walter Norton, and John Oldham—as a way of justifying Mason's expedition against the Pequot in what is now Mystic, Connecticut, in the spring of 1637. New England's early historians virtually ignored the fact that these three men were anything but saintly figures (Stone, for example, pirated a Plymouth ship, nearly stabbed Plymouth's governor, and was exiled from Massachusetts Bay for adultery and threats of violence; Oldham, as Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation attests, was quarrelsome enough to be called “Mad Jack” by the likes of Thomas Morton).26 Instead, they turned these three rogues into martyrs in order to confirm Native American “savagery” and thereby justify the war. In one of the most important firsthand accounts of the war, John Mason himself unwittingly confirms this rhetorical strategy by claiming that “the Beginning is the Moiety of the Whole.”27 Even providential history, Mason suggests, is manipulable: “If the Beginning be but obscure, and the Ground uncertain, its Continuance can hardly persuade to purchase belief: or if Truth be wanting in History, it proves but a fruitless Discourse.”28

From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, this narrative framing device for the war aimed “to purchase belief” and hold the moral high ground. The four histories by the actual participants in the war—Mason, John Underhill, Lion Gardiner, and Philip Vincent29—deftly contextualize the Puritan massacre in this way. Mason, for example, begins by recounting the fate of the “cruelly murdered” John Stone, who fell into the “bloody Design” of the Pequot,30 while Underhill similarly laments Oldham's death: “The Indians [the Eastern Niantics, a tributary of the Narragansetts] … knocked him in the head, and martyred him most barbarously, to the great grief of his poor distressed servants.”31 Gardiner and Vincent focused instead on Pequot “mischief” in Connecticut at Fort Saybrook and Wethersfield, but the narrative effect remains the same.32 Later Puritan historians, such as William Hubbard, easily adopted this narrative strategy because it worked so well in casting the war as a defensive operation against a most “fierce, cruel, and warlike People” who “treacherously and cruelly murthered Captain Stone, and Captain Norton.”33 Ever since the nineteenth-century antiquarian James Savage disparaged his abilities as a historian, most critics have noted how Hubbard's A General History of New England borrows extensively from John Winthrop's Journal. But what better way to stir up passions than the gruesome account of Oldham's murder that Winthrop provides: “[The Puritans] found John Oldham under the seine stark naked, his head cleft to the brains, and his hands and legs cut as if they had been cutting them off, yet warm.”34 Founded upon the dichotomy between “saint” and “savage,” the sensationalist rhetoric of Puritan narrative would seem to belie John Mason's claim that reliable history need not “stir up the affections of men.”35 Puritan history works affectively, consuming, like the flames of Mystic Fort, whatever sympathy readers might later have for the Pequot themselves.

Early nationals easily appropriated this narrative scheme. The deaths of these three “martyrs” later served the nationalistic bias of early republican historiography quite well. Connecticut's premier history-writer, Benjamin Trumbull, merely reinscribed the Puritan line as it was found in Mason and Hubbard by beginning his chapter on the war with the accusation that the “Indians in general were ever jealous of the English, from the first settlement of New-England, and wished to drive them from the country.”36 The “brutal” murders of Stone and Oldham soon follow, as they do in Abiel Holmes, Jedidiah Morse, and Epaphras Hoyt.37 Moreover, the subject of the war further demonstrates ways in which sectarian rivalries of post-Revolutionary New England collapse under the pressures of nationalist piety. No less than her orthodox adversary, Jedidiah Morse, Hannah Adams argued that the New England Fathers “had still an arduous task to secure themselves from the malevolence and jealousy of the natives … [taking] every precaution to avoid a war.”38

The perpetuation of this rhetorical frame for the war helps to explain the historiographic design of Hope Leslie. One might otherwise overlook Sedgwick's inversion of the chronological sequence of an entire historiographic tradition, as she transplants what she realizes are the embellished “stories” of the deaths of Norton, Stone, and Oldham to a moment after the massacre has occurred.39 In the preface to the novel, she manipulates uncertain generic distinctions and gender stereotypes by assuming with all humility the persona of the inadequate historian. Yet this very act devilishly signals her historiographic maneuver: “The antiquarian reader will perceive that some liberties have been taken with the received accounts of Sir Philip [or Sir Christopher] Gardiner, and a slight variation has been allowed in the chronology of the Pequod war” (5). By dislodging these stories from their traditional placement, Sedgwick is able to emancipate readerly sympathy for the Pequot, and thereby recover that element of pathos—that humanitarian impulse at the core of domestic ideology—which both Puritan historians and their early national descendents successfully suppress.

In lieu of the murders of the Big Three, Sedgwick reframes Magawisca's narrative with a scene between Everell Fletcher, a Puritan boy who is the novel's future hero, and Digby, an actual veteran of the war, which functions to invalidate masculine historiography. Indeed, as Digby dutifully guards the Fletcher freehold against the possibility of Indian conspiracies, he stands as a trope for the virtue of Puritan and republican vigilance. And as he begins to rehash the war for Everell, he becomes a living metaphor for a historiographic tradition with which Hope Leslie now competes:

The subject of the Pequod war once started, Digby and Everell were in no danger of sleeping at their post. Digby loved, as well as another man, and particularly those who have had brief military experience, to fight his battles o'er again; and Everell was at an age to listen with delight to tales of adventure and danger. They thus wore away the time till the imaginations of both relater and listener were at that pitch, when every shadow is embodied, and every passing sound bears a voice to the quickened sense.


In this instance Sedgwick wryly criticizes the historical reliability of status quo historiography, since even eyewitness accounts (what William Hubbard called “the mouths of some faithful witnesses”)40 derive from romantic imaginations. At stake here are the Horatian tenets that history offer both pleasure and instruction, the cultural foundations for historical print that Sedgwick problematizes by transferring supposedly “female” faculty psychology to male sensibilities.41 Both Digby and Everell are stirred up by the “adventure and danger” of a romantic, masculine history, which places them in an imaginative “pitch” distorting “sense” itself.

The ambiguous meaning of “sense” here exploits thematic possibilities arising from the complex legacies of Lockean epistemology and Common Sense morality. Sensation signifies a number of things: immediate impression, the (failed) capacity for reason, and sensibility as the affective source of moral behavior. After pontificating to Everell on the vulnerability of the senses, Digby is unable to recognize Magawisca as she emerges from the forest shadows—a fact that parallels his inability to recognize the ethical implications—because of his lack of moral feeling—of the Puritan massacre at Mystic. Digby fails, then, on simultaneously moral and epistemological counts: Magawisca he mistakes for a man and the Pequot for “a kind of beast” (42). Confounded by his own misperception at the moment Magawisca emerges from the woods, Digby asks, completely dumbfounded, “‘Could I have been so deceived?’” (44). As a representative male historian, his inadequacy devolves upon a deformed moral sense. Sedgwick thus dramatizes a larger defect in masculine historiography by destabilizing the rigid categorical oppositions (reality and illusion, male and female, history and romance) upon which it is founded. Both Everell and Hope Leslie's contemporary reader clearly need another historian.


But what kind of historian? And what was at stake in rewriting this kind of history?

These issues involve the nature of the war's representation in Sedgwick's own era as well as the historiographic and ideological relations between commonwealth and republic. Certainly early national antiquarians, both textbook writers and more “original” historians, naturally borrowed from Puritan sources. The theory and method surrounding their historiographic practice, however, should be understood in its immediate context, for too often critics mystify how and why nineteenth-century historians borrow from their predecessors. George H. Callcott, for example, has argued for the increasing scholarly rigor and sophistication with which nineteenth-century historians approached primary sources, suggesting that the ideal antebellum historian was a “lawyer” or a “judge” of historical evidence: “To use the sources was a simple dictum, but to criticize them, weigh their authenticity, and use them discretely was an art.”42 But Callcott simultaneously admits that the historian “felt no need to argue for originality, and he would not have understood why he should make a fetish of reworking material when what he wanted to say already had been better said by another.”43 Together, these two assessments only muddle the issue of historiography as a cultural and political practice. Why, one might ask, did early national history-writers assume that the narrative of the war “had been better said” by their Puritan ancestors?

Early nationals thematized the war principally in two ways, both of which involved important ideological relations between Puritan commonwealth and early American republic: the validation of American exceptionalism and the recovery of Revolutionary virtu. Didactic historians during Sedgwick's day co-opted the Puritan theological concept of “special Providences,” the rare intervention of divine agency to determine events, which was in this case apparent in Mason's success despite being greatly outnumbered. To dramatize the divinely miraculous nature of this underdog victory, they followed their Puritan forebears in misleadingly casting the Pequot as a rising power.44 Hannah Adams, for one, marveled at the “interposition of Divine Providence [that] was visible in restraining the savages from their [the Puritans'] infant settlements.”45 Trumbull emphasized the day of thanksgiving that the Puritans held afterward, noting that “in all the churches of New-England devout and animated praises were addressed to him, who giveth his people the victory, and causes them to dwell safely.”46 Such rhetoric deliberately blurred the meaning of the “people,” transferring its eschatological promise from commonwealth to republic.

Such a transferral involved translation as well. Much more dramatically than in Puritan histories, early national narrative of the war occasioned the opportunity to instruct readers in the political necessity of republican virtu. Early nationals mediated the Pequot War through a cultural discourse of Revolutionary republicanism. Even as Americans gradually sloughed off the atavistic codes of classical republicanism, they still periodically invoked it as a source of masculine identity. Its cultural use, of course, was contingent on rhetorical context. Even a proponent for a wholly “modern” Constitution, such as James Madison, could resort to it, declaring, for example, in the Federalist #57 that the “vigilant and and manly spirit” of the people must safeguard the republic against the power of the House of Representatives.47 This masculine ethos also informed Andrew Jackson's cultivation of the persona of “Old Hickory,” the hero of the War of 1812 who had saved the republic at the Battle of New Orleans. Timothy Dwight's handling of his ancestors' run-in with the Pequot begins to show how the period's historical discourse was shaped by a resilient ideology of masculine republicanism. In Travels in New-England and New-York, Dwight concluded:

Few efforts, made by man have been more strongly marked with wisdom in the projection, or with superior courage and conduct, in the execution. Every step appears to have been directed by that spirit, and prudence, which mankind have, with one voice, regarded with admiration and applause in the statesman and the hero.48

In this same vein, Benjamin Trumbull's history reveals an affinity with an older ideal of republicanism, where the selfless virtue of volunteer yeoman-citizens (as opposed to standing armies) ensures political survival: “The importance of the crisis was now come, when the very existence of Connecticut, under providence, was to be determined by the sword, in a single action; and to be decided by the good conduct of less than eighty brave men.”49 This is more than the clichéd patriotism it might initially appear to be. Trumbull's rhetoric mediates syntactically between passivity and activity, between the agencies, in other words, of divine providence and republican heroism. The phrase “by the sword” allies this militarism metonymically with a distinctly premodern mode of warfare.

The political logic of this historical metaphor is apparent as well in the association of colonial New England with an ancient myth of republican purity. In a Forefathers Day oration of 1820, for example, an Orthodox minister from Connecticut concluded that the “valour” of Mason's expedition prevented “an extermination of the rising colonies.”50 In his History of the Indian Wars (1824) Epaphras Hoyt employs a similar language: “Finding war unavoidable, the Connecticut people acted with vigour.”51 As we have seen, in the aftermath of the Revolution these words lent an exclusively masculine resonance to the historical trope of Puritanism. Here, specifically within the context of military history, their meanings draw upon an Anglo-Saxon mythology of manhood. In the 1828 American Dictionary, Noah Webster significantly noted that “vigor” derived from the Saxon word wigan, which meant to “carry on war,” and that (to recall Dwight's emphasis above on both wisdom and fortitude) it meant both “[s]trength of mind” and “force of body.”52 At least theoretically, then, these masculine qualities ensured one's ability to preserve one's property and hence one's independence. Moreover, the word's lexical origins place Puritan militarism within a larger mythology of the ancient purity of the Anglo-Saxon constitution, which to many American Revolutionaries had provided the historical roots of American “liberties” and hence a justification for independence. Revolutionary theorists as diverse as Thomas Jefferson (in “A Summary View of the Rights of British America” [1774]) and Noah Webster (in his conceptualization of the relation between politics and a national language) looked to the mythic purity of the ancient Germanic tribes as the source of English liberties. The Norman invasion in 1066 disrupted Saxon liberties which the American struggle of 1776 in effect recovered.53 The submerged lexical associations between Puritanism and Saxonism thus further place colonial history within the framework of Whig ideology.

Surprisingly enough, in light of the period's overt racism, what might be called the valor/ization of Puritanism was paralleled by the Pequot themselves. As Neal Salisbury has noted, to Puritan historians “the Pequot's most offensive traits were their ‘pride’ and their ‘insolence.’”54 Early nationals easily marshaled these racist epithets to reinforce the saint/sinner dichotomy upon which the narrativity of the war was constructed.55 Lion Gardiner was careful to include a scene where, during an interlude in the fighting, the Pequot approached the Puritan patrol outside Fort Saybrook and asked “if we did use to kill women and children?” Gardiner's blunt reply, “We said they should see that hereafter,” supposedly elicited a moment of Pequot bravado: “We are Pequits, and have killed Englishman, and can kill them as mosquetoes, and we will go to Conectecott and kill men, women, and children.”56 The subtext of contesting masculinities in these Puritan histories (apparent, for example, in Winthrop's and Hubbard's account of John Gallop's heroism, or Mason's bristling over the Narragansett slights upon Puritan valor) endured into early national discourse. Jedidiah Morse, for one, noted how the Pequot became cocky with their initial successes and mocked the Puritans, calling them “‘all one sqaw.’”57

Paradoxically, however, the Pequot stood as a model of republican virtue. Juggling their admiration for the Pequot's “manly resistance,” and the obvious benefit of the war's outcome, historians refashioned the Pequot according to conflicting imperatives of gender and race. After narrating their utter defeat, historians such as David Ramsay uncannily refashioned savage pride into civic valor: “In this first essay of their arms, the colonists of New England displayed both courage and perseverance; but instead of treating a vanquished foe with the respect due to an independent people, who made a gallant effort to defend their property, the rights and the freedom of their nation, the victors urged upon them the desolations of war.”58 In this context, the Pequot sachem Sassacus could be transformed from the most ignoble of savages to the paragon of patriotism. “In an enlightened age and country,” Timothy Dwight maintained, Sassacus “might perhaps have been a Charles, or an Alexander.”59 Once they were defeated, the Pequot exemplified, according to Hannah Adams, “the spirit of a people contending for their country and existence.”60 And Abiel Holmes's claim that the Pequot refused “dependence”61 suggests more than one might at first expect. This code word derives specifically from Revolutionary political assumptions juxtaposing liberty and enslavement, and signals the need for arms to ensure freedom. Such an odd configuration of Native American republicanism was, of course, not restricted to the Pequot alone. Cadwallader Colden, after all, had done virtually the same thing in his History of the Five Nations (1727), and the praise Washington Irving heaped upon the Wampanoag sachem, Metacom, in “Philip of Pokanoket” was typical (as I discuss in Chapter 4) of post-Revolutionary histories about King Philip's War. Most important here is the double bind into which the Pequot were narratively placed by early republican history-writers. Alternatively cast as satanic savages and vigilant republicans, the Pequot were “othered” in simultaneously countervailing ways, bearing the early national inscriptions of both an ideal of citizenship and a foil for civilization.

This context helps explain the structural and rhetorical design of Hope Leslie. The novel's “recital” of the war consists of twin massacre scenes dramatizing a cyclical pattern of history in which gendered equivalences model a pattern of “savagery” transcending race. The symmetry of the two massacres—one Puritan, one Pequot—crucially works to subvert an ethos of masculine republicanism, specifically in the equivalence history-writers drew between Puritan and Pequot virtu. The novel's parallel massacre scenes invert this equivalence, disfigure it by redefining republican valor as male “savagery.” Hope Leslie shows that it is self-consciously engaged with the masculine cultural formulas surrounding narratives of the war. I should at this point distinguish my reading of this section of Hope Leslie from those who have noted Sedgwick's revision of racial stereotypes.62 Others duly have suggested the limitations of such a revision but have overlooked or simply ignored the ways in which Sedgwick substitutes gendered stereotypes for racial ones. Native American men in this instance become no less “savage” than their Puritan counterparts; they show that “masculine savage quality” Sedgwick attributed to Indian nature in her autobiography written later in life.63 Gender, in other words, distills race. And the context of republicanism in early national culture helps to explain why.

The issue is this: Hope Leslie's dual massacre scenes thematize the incompatibility of the gendered forms of republican “virtue.” The Puritan attack on Mystic, and Mononotto's revenge against the Fletcher household at Bethel, constitute analogous violations of the home. Sedgwick takes her cue from the repressed guilt in both Puritan and early national accounts about the killing of innocent women and children (Mason's tortuous insistence, for example, justifying his decision to attack that particular fort; or Jedidiah Morse's paradoxically titillated disgust with “a scene of sublimity and horror indescribably dreadful”).64 In this context, Magawisca describes the fort as a “nest, which the eagles of the tribe had built for their mates and their young” (47). She specifies that the torch used to light it on fire “was taken from our hearth-stone” (49), thus lending the massacre a particularly dark irony rooted in an emergent antebellum ideology of the home. More importantly, since the historical record located Sassacus and the rest of the ruling elders at another fort nearby, Sedgwick's placement of them at a council of chiefs implicitly argues that the public sphere of political duty (the vivere civile in classical terms) leaves the home tragically unprotected. Only the maternal figure Monoco can sense its imminent destruction. There is no middle ground here: The twin republican tenets of valor and duty together precipitate an inevitable disaster for domestic life. Later, as Pequot fugitives flee to a Connecticut swamp for protection, the final Puritan attack culminates in an explicit violation of sacred domestic space, as “the wailings of the dying children” resound after the English “penetrated the forest-screen” (53).

Virtually the same domestic idyll becomes the victim of the Pequot attack on Bethel. “All was joy in Mrs. Fletcher's dwelling” (60), the narrator notes as the family prepares for the arrival of Mr. Fletcher and Hope Leslie. Even as Sedgwick in this scene suggests that a wife's vanity may result from an unhealthy desire to please her husband (“in obedience to matrimonial duty, or, it may be, from some lingering of female vanity …” [61]), Sedgwick still idealizes the moment distinctly in terms of familial harmony: “A mother, encircled by her children, is always a beautiful spectacle” (61). Sedgwick here deploys a romantic trope whose sentimental surface almost obscures its political potency: “like diligent little housewives,” the minstrel birds seek “materials for their housekeeping” (61). The affinities between the “natural” and the domestic, however, are complicated by the scene's emphasis on the cultivated order of Anglo domestic space—a trait that significantly distinguishes the Fletcher home from the Pequot one. In light of what we have seen as the period's discourse of Puritan enterprise, Mrs. Fletcher's house tellingly reflects “the neatness of English taste”; “a rich bed of clover that overspread the lawn … rewarded the industry of the cultivators” (61, italics mine). What appears to be a series of replicating images, then, is subject to slippage, as the Pequot fort, Fletcher home, and house of Nature vary in degrees of cultivation, together demonstrating both the sanctity of domestic space and a liberal mythology of property rights.

In Chapter 4, I take up the importance of this ideology in reading James Fenimore Cooper's novel of the Connecticut frontier, The Wept of Wish-ton-Wish (1829), but for now we might recognize that similar details surrounding these two massacre scenes reinforce this gendered equivalence and suggest its empowering claims to universality. First of all, both patriarchal heads are significantly absent during the respective massacres. Second, Magawisca's desperate plea during the murder of Mrs. Fletcher and her child—“‘the mother—the children—oh they are all good—take vengeance on your enemies—but spare—spare our friends—our benefactors,” (63)—strikes the same cords of domestic pathos ringing out earlier at the attack on Mystic. Moreover, there is a biographical context for all of this. In her autobiography written to her niece, Sedgwick admitted as much: “There was a traditionary story of my mother's childhood which used to affect my imagination, for in my youth, dear Alice, the dark shadows of the Indians had hardly passed off our valleys, and tales about them made the stock terrors of our nurseries.”65 The real terror (the vulnerability of the “nurseries”) lies in the imagined violation of domestic space that Hope Leslie dramatizes in symmetrical scenes of massacre.

The difference here between Puritan and Pequot men dissolves almost entirely. Although the Pequot sachem Mononotto experiences a momentary pulse of feeling for his victims, his “obdurate heart” only really awakens at the “courage of the heroic girl.” At this moment, the Native American sachem significantly bears one of the early national era's most common epithets for the Puritan Fathers when he silences his daughter “sternly” (75).66 Sedgwick thus inverts the equivalence which her own culture drew between Puritan and Pequot valor, recasting republican manhood as a “savage” code of civic ethics.67 This thematic maneuver implicitly mocks those ethical and racial discrepancies in status quo historiography which failed to see the obvious equivalence between “white” and “red” savagery. For if Puritan histories unwittingly dramatize vengeful behavior on both sides, early nationals were unwilling to recognize an equivalence that would have shaken their moral high ground. David Ramsay in this respect merely parroted the Word of the Fathers on Pequot “nature”: “Revenge is the darling passion of savages, to secure the indulgence of which, there is no present advantage that they will not sacrifice, and no future consequence they will not totally disregard.”68 “When determined upon revenge,” Charles Goodrich assured his readers in 1829, “no danger would deter them; neither absence nor time could cool them.”69 Morse shuddered at the image of five Pequot heads perched on poles at Fort Saybrook, a result of vengeance taken by Lion Gardiner's men: “So contagious are malignant passions.”70 The hollowness of this racist dichotomy between saint and savage, which Morse cannot bear to admit but cannot completely hide either, gets a biting rebuttal by Sedgwick in an earlier scene in the novel where Digby and a Mohawk are traveling together to deliver Sassacus's scalp to the Puritan magistrates. In a moment of unforgiving irony, Sedgwick has Digby comment that the dried, bloody scalp “‘is an abomination to the soul and eye of a christian’” (25). Transporting the badge of Puritan triumph, Digby and the “fierce savage” are indubitably equated.

The gendered project of Hope Leslie's revision of military history is coterminous with a critique of America's millennial destiny constructed upon the smoldering ashes of Mystic Fort. Sedgwick's exposure of masculine republicanism subverts a theory of exceptional, progressive history by, oddly enough, invoking the Whiggish concept of cyclical time. If Puritans relied on typology (in Hubbard's reading of New England, for example, via the Israelites' victory over Amalek) to explain the war's meaning, early nationals perpetuated the theory of providential destiny. In this context, the symmetry of Hope Leslie's narrative design suggests a view of cyclical history that disrupts the historical teleology of nationalist narrative. Male vengeance occurs and reoccurs in inexorable cycles of retribution that parade falsely as republican virtue. The macabre image of Mrs. Fletcher's blood “trickling, drop by drop, from the edge of the flooring to the step” (67, italics added) not only gothically refigures the true nature of Revolutionary virtu but resonates as well, especially in light of these quid pro quo retributions, with a sense of inevitability. Historical process is key to gendered revision. As we have seen, the subject of Puritanism during the early republic was emplotted to fulfill both cyclical and progressive history. In this regard Hope Leslie's revisionism at once inscribes and redeploys this ambiguity. The novel bears the markings of its own historical emergence at the very moment it displaces progressive with cyclical history—at the very moment, in other words, when the trope of the home's destruction displaces that of the American Israel.

The novel's treatment of race, however, complicates its gendered intentions. Consider, for example, a moment during Hope Leslie's preface:

The Indians of North America are, perhaps, the only race of men of whom it may be said, that though conquered, they were never enslaved. They could not submit, and live. When made captives, they courted death and exulted in torture. These traits of their character will be viewed by an impartial observer, in a light very different from that in which they were regarded by our ancestors. In our histories, it was perhaps natural that they should be represented as “surly dogs,” who preferred to die rather than to live, from no other motives than a stupid or malignant obstinacy. Their own historians or poets, if they had such, would as naturally, and with more justice, have extolled their high-souled courage and patriotism.


The first part of the passage could be culled from the period's nationalist historiography. (How similar, for example, is Salma Hale's claim that Pequot “resistance was brave and obstinate” and that “for bravery in battle and fortitude in suffering [the Pequot] were not surpassed by any of the English troops.”).71 At this moment Hope Leslie participates in the cant of Revolutionary America by arguing in effect that the Pequot chose, in the words of New Hampshire's state motto, to live free or die. The new historian whom her reader presumably needs—the “impartial observer”—thus humanizes the Pequot within the sanctioned terms of masculine republican heroism. Her self-conscious departure from Puritan racism (in the brief but stinging allusion to William Hubbard in quotation marks in the excerpt above) rescues the racial other in a way that partakes in a cultural apotheosis of “republican” Native Americans.

What, then, one might ask, is the ethical status of the two massacre scenes? A close reading of Magawisca's history shows that this trope of Pequot valor actually problematizes the thematic trajectory of these scenes, their subversion of classical republican virtue. First of all, Magawisca refers to the Pequot as a “proud and prosperous” tribe (56). As a wavering heroine in the tradition of Sir Walter Scott, her unwillingness to inform Mrs. Fletcher of Mononotto's presence results from kinship ties, specifically because her “pride” is “enlisted on the side of her people” (55). Most importantly, Magawisca's actual account of a massacre of domestic innocents loses its initial intention. What at first looks like a “home” inhabited by women and children uncannily becomes a battleground where the Pequot braves “fought as if each man had a hundred lives” (48). William Bradford, Sedgwick argues to reinforce this point, mistook Pequot “courage” and “fortitude” for savagery. Interestingly enough, these textual inconsistencies actually create a parallel to issues raised by today's historians about the Pequot War. Sedgwick in effect prepares her reader for the kind of massacre that Francis Jennings and other revisionists have argued, but then quickly changes frequency during the conflict to emphasize the “manly spirit” of Samoset, who defends the home “with a prince-like courage” (49).72 Why?

The contradictions surrounding Hope Leslie's history of the Pequot War—the simultaneous appropriation and subversion of classical republicanism—derive from Sedgwick's complex relationship both to her immediate audience and to her period's prevailing ideologies of race. Her revisionary history belies the difficulty of carrying on simultaneous revisions of gender and race. A historiographic and ethical problem faced her: How does one both critique republican manhood and fully humanize the Pequot for a potentially dubious audience? In The First Settlers of New England (1829), Lydia Child faced a similar dilemma and marshaled the trope of Pequot manliness to similar ends. In Child's series of domestic dialogues, a mother/historian informs her children/readers that had “the Pequods quietly submitted to have their country ravaged, and fortresses built in their immediate vicinity to awe them into immediate subjection, they must have been less than men.”73 Both Sedgwick and Child in these instances resort to a culturally specific brand of ethnocentrism, which if they did not at least partly embrace, they nonetheless deployed to sway their readers on their readers' own terms. Revolutionary republicanism was apparently too misogynistic an ideology to embrace as a modern standard of civic behavior, and yet too powerful a polemical tool to resist. Hence the Pequot warrior himself emerges from this era as a protean text, a sign of cultural and gendered ambivalence, and the object of psychological and ideological projections of Anglo authors. The Pequot War becomes the fictive site of a thematic fracture between gender and race revealing in this case the cultural legacy of the American Revolution.


These thematic inconsistencies in Hope Leslie coincide with theoretical issues surrounding the very status of historical narrative. Indeed, this section of the novel raises the issue of the representational status of all history-writing; it does so within the context of the changing relations between “history” and historical “fiction” during this early republic. Sedgwick's narrative strategies obviously fulfill her objections to an exclusively masculine form of republicanism. But these strategies also expose an irrepressible (and yet unacknowledged) sense of the impossibility of composing “objective” history. The ideological disruption Sedgwick creates as a historian, of sorts, actually complicates her claims to authenticity. Her revisionary history, after all, manipulates narrative to defamiliarize readers. To put this in present-day theoretical terms, Sedgwick “reemplots”74 the Pequot War, divesting the deaths of Stone, Norton, and Oldham of their narrative power (which Jennings and others have recognized) to rationalize the later massacre at Mystic. By reframing the massacre at Mystic, and constructing parallel massacre scenes, Sedgwick's engagement in gender politics ultimately exposes the metahistorical status of Hope Leslie. Her novel's fourth chapter is exactly what she calls Magawisca's narrative—a “recital,” or performance, of history. So despite her intentions to award Magawisca narrative authority, the text's performative qualities suggest the inevitability of historical relativism.

A close look at the relationship between Magawisca's and Digby's histories bears this out. From the outset of Magawisca's narrative, Sedgwick complicates the subject of historical truth by suggesting that her Indian angel's history is an enumeration of events and an artistic performance. “[Magawisca] paused for a few moments, sighed deeply, and then began the recital of the last acts in the tragedy of her people; the principal circumstances of which are detailed in the chronicles of the times by the witnesses of the bloody scenes” (47). Through her own eyewitness, Sedgwick aims to compete with Puritan ones like John Mason and John Underhill, who, via William Hubbard and others, influenced early national discourse about the war. Yet she creates at this moment uncertainties about the status of “history.” Is it a dramatic performance—or merely an enumeration of facts? Magawisca's performance is implied by her need as an artist to pause and capture the moment, to marshall her resources before she stands and delivers. Magawisca's description recalls the generic ambiguity established in the novel's Preface when Sedgwick states that hypothetically either Pequot “historians or poets” (6) could have defended their people's cause.

Magawisca's performance further suggests the power of historical romance as a medium for revisionary history. The crucial point here is that Digby's and Magawisca's histories metaphorically express an increasing competitiveness (and familiarity) between history and historical romance, a subject that I addressed in the Introduction. In this instance the text of Hope Leslie inscribes its own context—that is, the discursive practices surrounding the production of all history-writing during this particular era. Everell Fletcher thus can be situated as the early republic's implied reader for whom the genres of history and historical fiction are competing. And this implied reader, Hope Leslie suggests, already has been corrupted by masculine nationalist historiography. The reader (perhaps unknowingly) comes to historical romance in need of help.

Like Hope Leslie's reader, Everell becomes easily seduced into the scene's paradoxically liberating and debilitating pathos: “‘Did they so rush on sleeping women and children?’ asked Everell, who was unconsciously lending all his interest to the party of the narrator” (48). As Magawisca's story progresses, Everell unwittingly loses his capacity to object to her “version,” and helplessly asks instead for more details about the fate of Sassacus. So the power of historical narrative would seem to lie along the axis of feeling and imagination. Yet the logical extension of such thinking destabilizes the authenticity of Magawisca's history. Sedgwick's apparent desire to authorize Magawisca is frustrated by language belying an irrepressible sense of the artificiality (as in “art” or “artifice”) of historical romance:

It [the war] was an important event to the infant colonies, and its magnitude probably somewhat heightened to the imaginations of the English … and Everell had heard [the events] detailed with the interest and particularity that belongs to recent adventures; but he had heard them in the language of the enemies and conquerors of the Pequods; and from Magawisca's lips they took a new form and hue; she seemed, to him, to embody nature's best gifts, and her feelings to be the inspiration of heaven. This new version of an old story reminded him of the man and the lion in the fable. But here it was not merely changing sculptors to give the advantage of one or another of the artist's subjects; but it was putting the chisel into the hand of truth, and giving it to whom it belonged.


The metaphor of the chisel at once legitimates Hope Leslie's artistic achievement and undermines the historicity of such a performance. The language surrounding this achievement suggests its purely representational quality: Magawisca's account is “a new version of an old story,” possessing only a new “hue and form” rather than a new substance. Compare this language to the epigraph at the start of this chapter. The reviewer of an early national history defending the Pequot (which tellingly equates the Puritans to the Ancient Romans) rhetorically raises the same theoretical problem: a “different garb” suggests form rather than substance, the inevitable dressings and redressings of language that we inevitably bestow upon the past. Historical narrative would seem to face the problem that the claim to “the hand of truth” is complicated by the lurking sense that only new “versions” can be told.

Sedgwick's intentions here would appear to be open to debate. Dana D. Nelson recently has argued against the notion that Magawisca's history simply subverts the patriarchal Word. In her view Sedgwick juxtaposes Digby's and Magawisca's histories in order to show the inevitably dialogic character of historical narrative.75 My argument coincides with Nelson so far as both of us recognize the representational nature of the two histories. But her understanding of Sedgwick's intentions ignores the cultural and historiographic contexts in which Hope Leslie emerged. First of all, the ideological stakes of writing history in this case—the gendered meanings of republicanism during this era—make it difficult for one to believe that Sedgwick stood so theoretically detached from Magawisca's account.

Moreover, the view that Sedgwick self-consciously upholds historical relativism depends on Everell's unreliability (because of his excessive emotionalism) as a standard for judging the “truth” of Magawisca's history. Yet to read Bakhtin backward, as Nelson does, in order to find an avatar of dialogism in Catharine Sedgwick herself, elides early national assumptions about the nature of historical writing. The romanticization of historiography during the antebellum era is crucial to gauging the relative status in Hope Leslie of Digby's and Magawisca's narratives. Early nationals increasingly understood historiography to be an affective and imaginative process. “You will struggle in vain,” Samuel Knapp declared in the preface to Lectures on American Literature (1829), “to make American history well understood by your pupils, unless biographical sketches, anecdotes and literary selections, are mingled with the mass of general facts. The heart must be affected, and the imagination seized, to make lasting impressions upon the memory.”76 Reviews of nationalist histories increasingly called for a work of “genius” that could buttress the nation's artistic reputation at home and abroad.77 The year of Hope Leslie's publication, a writer for the American Journal of Education defined a new American history in just these terms: “Our country is the monument of our great men. Our history is our national poetry. … If we are an intellectual people, it is to be hoped we are not merely so. It is hoped that we have [in the composition of history] imagination and feeling. Then let this history have an interesting form … let those parts of it appear which address the moral sentiments.”78

In this emergently romantic era Sedgwick herself understood Everell's response to Magawisca's “history” to approximate an affective ideal that she elsewhere endorsed. Indeed, the exchange between Magawisca and Everell actually models a dynamic of all history-writing that Sedgwick espoused in a letter (written the year after Hope Leslie's publication) to the renowned Swiss historian Jean-Charles-Leonard Simonde de Sismondi, author of the multivolumed History of the Italian Republics in the Middle Ages (1809-18):

But, after all, you cannot estimate the benefit, for you are not aware of the homage your writings have inspired … that you infuse into them a moral life, that you breathe your own soul into them, impart to them … a portion of your own identity. This seems to me to be one of their attractive and attaching peculiarities. It is this that makes us feel them to be the production of a being, whose affections and sympathies are kindred to our own.79

The passage marks an ostensibly odd moment where a writer of historical fiction tells a historian that she admires him as a historian because his work appeals to faculties associated with imaginative writing. Sedgwick situates history-writing's didacticism within a psychological, emotive dynamic allying the “affections and sympathies” of both reader and writer. The net result not only blurs the genres of history and romance (as we saw in the earlier scene with Digby and Everell) but also obviates the idea that, in Sedgwick's view, Everell's response somehow problematizes the reliability of Magawisca's historical narrative. Just the opposite: It further validates it.

An affective epistemology helps to explain the equivalence Hope Leslie draws between Digby's and Magawisca's “histories.” Hope Leslie registers both the performative nature of all history-writing and the increasing competition between the genres of history and fiction expressed in the juxtaposition of Digby's and Magawisca's accounts. Both historical narratives have the same audience; they produce essentially the same effects. Moreover, Hope Leslie reveals the instability of generic borders. The reasons for this lie in the convergence of two, important trends during the early republic: the proliferation of historical romance in the 1820s and the gradual romanticization of history. Chapter 5 explores the politics of faculty psychology in histories of the Salem witchcraft trials, and locates the uncertainty with which early nationals viewed the imagination, but here I wish to emphasize that during this transitional era historiography was increasingly subjected to romantic literary standards.

The similar cultural space that these dual genres inhabited in the early republic is metaphorically apparent in the equivalent receptions that Digby's and Magawisca's narratives elicit. If we recall the scene between Digby and Everell, where masculine war stories produce only “heightened imaginations,” revisionary history in the form of female romance produces much the same thing: “Everell's imagination, touched by the wand of feeling, presented a very different picture of those defenseless families of savages …”; he “did not fail to express to Magawisca with all the eloquence of a heated imagination, his sympathy and admiration of her heroic and suffering people” (54). Moreover, the power of imagination (as in the letter to Sismondi) involves both historian and audience. For the “wand of feeling” with which Magawisca touches Everell ambiguously refers to their mutually affected sensibilities. Through Magawisca, then, Sedgwick anticipates a principle of romantic historiography which valued the historian's passionate involvement in historical subject matter.80 The interaction leaves Magawisca and Everell in the same kind of “romantic abstraction” (54) that Digby and Everell earlier had experienced. And so if Digby's history manages to invalidate itself as nothing more than a specifically masculine romanticism, its feminized revision in Magawisca's performance similarly relies upon the purely manipulative function of language. As history and romance metaphorically vie for authority in Hope Leslie, they expose only an equivalent performativity.

In this context, then, Hope Leslie stages dual modes of history-writing whose epistemological claims inevitably are compromised by the very qualities of affect and imagination that lend them narrative power. Yet Hope Leslie's “recital” at least suggests the problematic implications of history-as-performance that early national histories generally suppressed. Most history-writers used the term simply to signify an enumeration of historical facts. The title of Jeremy Belknap's American Biography, for example, includes the phrase, “Comprehending a Recital of the Events connected with their Lives and Actions.” Those, like Belknap, who claimed historical accuracy refused to acknowledge how nationalist pieties may have complicated those claims. “Where is the American,” one orator asked in 1826, “who has not felt a glow of enthusiasm in listening to a recital of those events that led to our national emancipation?”81 David Ramsay similarly claimed a scrupulous fidelity to the facts: “The history of a war on the frontiers can be little else than a recital of the exploits, the sufferings, the escapes and deliverances of individuals, of single families, or small parties.”82 Ironically, the North American Review found that Ramsay was too close to the contemporary materials treated in the third volume of his history “to admit of a cool, philosophical recital.”83 Yet even here its signification slips as the reviewer in the next breath calls Ramsay's history a “performance.” Thus, predominantly male writers and reviewers alike deployed the term to denote a scrupulous fidelity to the facts, the kind of research that enhanced one's narrative and political authority.84

Hope Leslie's performance calls attention to yet another meaning of “recital.” The first entry for the word in Webster's 1828 American Dictionary defined it as a “Rehearsal; the repetition of the words of another or of a writing; as of the recital of a deed; the recital of testimony.” This suggests an act of ventriloquy. Certainly, as we have seen, this process aptly characterizes the transmission of Puritan narrative into early national historical discourse. Early nationals, in effect, followed the biblical epigraph to William Hubbard's A Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians, taken from Exodus 17.14, after God had granted the Israelites a victory over the tribe of Amalek: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write this for a Memorial in a Book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua, for I will utterly put out the Remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” From John Mason's account of the assault on Mystic Fort, through William Hubbard's paraphrasing of it, to its virtual ventriloquy in Benjamin Trumbull and his contemporaries, the Puritan story of the Pequot War continuously was “rehearsed.” Like Joshua himself, early nationals were reminded of the sacredness of national destiny and the purely secular means by which the republic would survive. In the very act of engaging the subject of the Pequot War, then, Sedgwick confronted—and disrupted—the word of the Fathers as it was “rehearsed” from the commonwealth to the republic.


The appearance of the Pequot War in Hope Leslie is thus no accident at all. The subject of the war in early national culture was laden with the masculine ideologies of Revolutionary republicanism, and it carried, like the Y chromosome, the genetic inheritance of a misogynistic understanding of the “republic,” which presumably would be passed on (through narrative) to future generations. Sedgwick's treatment of the war was impelled by a gender-specific republican politics of exclusion rooted in classical ideology, which understood the republic in terms of the capacity of male citizens to express their identities fully through active citizenship. Sedgwick's manufacturing of domestic pathos, and her redefinition of “savagery” along the lines of gender—as opposed strictly to race—should be understood in this context. Classical republican ideology merely highlighted the political and ethical inconsistencies in the Revolutionary settlement of 1787-8, ones that excluded women from citizenship and yet still asked them to contribute to the making of good citizens. Women had a political role with no political rights.

So the thinly veiled contest taking place in Hope Leslie between nationalist history and historical romance actually shows Sedgwick interrogating the ethical viability of her culture's association of Puritanism with “republicanism”—a word she already is begining to redefine in the early part of the novel. This crucial section of Hope Leslie signals her controversy with a political and cultural metaphor, her dismantling of what I have called the New Ebenezer of the early republic. In the next chapter, I explore this process of historical revision as cultural criticism, a process that further brings into focus the contemporary historicity of the “Puritans” in women's historical romance.

The representational status of Puritanism has important consequences for redefining the very terms of the debate about women's history-writing in general. In The Feminization of American Culture (1977), Ann Douglas argues that nineteenth-century female romance represented an “escape” from masculine history.85 Douglas noted that ministers like Jared Sparks turned away from the feminized province of the Unitarian pulpit in order to pursue the more masculine avocation of history. As Douglas saw it, this was a way for men to escape feminine “influence” and reassert their masculinity. Recent critics justifiably have argued that Douglas failed to see the seriousness of domestic politics in antebellum women's writing.86 Yet the typical corrective that women's history-writing represented anything but an “escape from history” misses the point. A contemporary reviewer of Hope Leslie rightly claimed that Sedgwick “has had the industry to study the early history of New England,”87 but today we should not define the novel's historicity so narrowly. Hope Leslie represents its own emergence in post-Revolutionary culture. And this explains why Douglas objected to Sedgwick's anachronistic language, which presumably reflected an “apostasy from history” and a “confused conscience,”88—traits characterizing, for Douglas, women's historical writing in general. What she (and many others) fail to see is the secondary importance of Puritanism in Hope Leslie. The novel's anachronistic language and thematics of “virtue” testify to its preeminent concerns with the status of civic ethics in the republic.

The “recital” that Hope Leslie offers begins to suggest the competition between alternative forms of “history” during this era. Published in 1827, the very year in which Massachusetts legislated the study of history into the public school curriculum, Hope Leslie registers a hyper self-consciousness about the discursive field of history-writing into which it enters. Much later in life, in her autobiography addressed to her niece's daughter, Sedgwick would time and again juxtapose the state and the home as contending spheres of education, emphasizing, of course, the superiority of the latter: “I believe, my dear Alice, that the people who surround us in our childhood, whose atmosphere infolds us, as it were, have more to do with the formation of our characters than all our didactic and preceptive education.”89 The antagonistic power relations between the state and the home are inscribed in Hope Leslie in the contest between Digby's and Magawisca's tales, or, in effect, masculine nationalist historiography and women's historical romance. Eight years after Hope Leslie, Sedgwick again suggested this tension in The Linwoods (1835), a historical novel set in Revolutionary America. While lightly chastising the “duty” that the meekly obedient Bessie Lee performs by “so virtuously” reading histories, the novel's heroine, Isabella Linwood, asks her, “If history then is mere fiction, why may we not read romances of our own choosing? My instincts have not misguided me, after all.”90 Isabella's iconoclasm toward status quo historiography expresses ex post facto Sedgwick's own in Hope Leslie. Isabella here testifies to Sedgwick's underlying assumptions about the competition for an immediate reading audience. The story of the Pequot War introduces narrative strategies that work ideally to emancipate the implied reader of the day who, like Everell, presumably has been corrupted.

Like Hope Leslie, who, we should remember, nearly married William Hubbard, Catharine Sedgwick vented herself “upon the ungainly ways of scholars” (154). But these scholars were not really the dead ghosts of John Mason and William Hubbard, but the very real, living spectres of Benjamin Trumbull, Jedidiah Morse, and others who exerted significant cultural power in early-nineteenth-century New England. In the next chapter I explore the narrative strategies with which both Sedgwick and Child conduct cultural criticism, articulating along the way the ambiguous ideological relations between republicanism and domesticity. Such criticism was made possible by the very instability of “virtue” itself during this transitional era. What did it mean—masculine vigilance or affectional benevolence? Who were the real stewards of republican virtue? Like the old war veteran of her letter to Charles, the “republican” heroes of Hope Leslie and Hobomok are subjected to complex surgical procedures in which the language and ideas of republicanism are forever changed.


  1. This unpublished letter comes from the Emma Embury Collection, which is in the inventory of the 19th-Century Shop in Baltimore, Maryland. I would like to thank Stephen Loewentheil for his cooperation in allowing me to consult and use this material.

  2. Letter to Charles Sedgwick, October 27, 1826, in Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick, ed. Mary Dewey (New York: Harper & Bros., 1872), 179-80.

  3. Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (New York: Norton, 1976), 181. Other important revisionist studies include Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 35-45; and Neal Salisbury, Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England, 1500-1643 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 203-35. These historians address traditional accounts of the war, which place greater faith in the reliability of Puritan sources, such as found in Alden T. Vaughan's New England Frontier: Puritans and Indians, 1620-1675 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1965). For an even earlier tradition of revisionist historians, see Vaughan, 134.

  4. Stephen T. Katz, “The Pequot War Reconsidered,” New England Quarterly 64 (June 1991), 207.

  5. See, for example, Alfred A. Cave's “Who Killed John Stone: A Note on the Origins of the Pequot War,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. 49 (July 1992), 509-21. For an even more recent interpretation of whether or not the expedition qualifies as an act of genocide, see Michael Freeman, “Puritans and Pequots: The Question of Genocide,” New England Quarterly 68 (June 1995), 278-93.

  6. See Edwin Halsey Foster, Catharine Maria Sedgwick (New York: Twayne, 1974), 73-80.

  7. Mary Kelley, “Introduction” to Hope Leslie; or Early Times in the Massachusetts (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), xxix, xxxi.

  8. Sandra Zagarell, “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (Fall 1987), 235. For commentary that is less specific on Sedgwick's relationship to Puritan historiography but that still notes the novel's “subversion of male myth/history,” see Christopher Castiglia, “In Praise of Extra-vagant Women: Hope Leslie and the Captivity Romance,” Legacy 6 (1989), 12, and Lucy Maddox, Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 105 and n. 14, 191.

  9. Dana Nelson, The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638-1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 72.

  10. Ruth H. Bloch, “The Gendered Meanings of Virtue in Revolutionary America,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 13 (1987), 37-58. Bloch argues that through the affective epistemology of Edwardsian religion, Scottish Common Sense thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson who posited an emotional moral sense, and the rise of literary sentimentalism, virtue became increasingly associated with the workings of the heart and hence with women themselves. See also Jay Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Partiarchal Authority, 1750-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

  11. Bloch, “Gendered Meanings,” 56.

  12. Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage, 1993), 216. See the entire section on “Benevolence,” 213-25, for this change.

  13. Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: “Woman's Sphere” in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), 96.

  14. Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980; New York: Norton, 1986). See also Mary Beth Norton's Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women (New York, 1980). Rosemarie Zagarri recently has traced the intellectual roots of republican womanhood to the “civil jurisprudential school” of the Scottish Enlightenment. See “Morals, Manners, and the Republican Mother,” American Quarterly 44 (June 1992), 192-215. For the importance of liberalism to women's political status, see Kerber's “The Republican Ideology of the Revolutionary Generation,” American Quarterly 37 (Fall 1985), 474-95, esp. 485.

  15. Kerber, Women of the Republic, 288.

  16. The very notion of “separate spheres” has come under increasing scrutiny by historians of American women. In this chapter and the next, I treat this issue as an ideological construct rather than as an accurate description of social and political reality. For recent challenges to the concept of “woman's sphere,” see Linda Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman's Place: The Rhetoric of Woman's History,” Journal of American History 75 (1988), 9-39, “Politics and Culture in Women's History: A Symposium,” Feminist Studies 6 (Spring 1980), 26-64; Kathy Peiss, “Going Public: Women in Nineteenth-Century Cultural History,” ALH (December 1991), 817-28; Lori D. Ginzberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990); and Mary Ryan, Women in Public: Between Banners and Ballots, 1825-1880 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990).

  17. As Cott has shown, a number of factors made the home the “natural” place for the formation of virtuous citizens. See Bonds, 19-62, for changes that gradually devalued the home as a site of economic production. In this regard, see also Gerda Lerner, “The Lady and the Mill Girl: Changes in the Status of Women in the Age of Jackson,” in The Majority Finds its Place: Placing Women in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 15-30, esp. 17-18, 25, 29. For the ideological legacy of Lockean and Rousseauist educational theories emphasizing the importance of nurturance, see Fliegelman, Prodigals and Pilgrims, 9-36.

  18. Benjamin Rush, “A Plan for the Establishment of Public Schools and the Diffusion of Knowledge in Pennsylvania; to which are added Thoughts upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic. Addressed to the Legislature and Citizens of the State,” 1786. In Essays, Literary, Moral and Philosophical (Philadelphia: Thomas and Samuel Bradford, 1798).

  19. Rush, “Thoughts Upon Female Education Accommodated to the Present State of Society, Manners, and Government in the United States of America,” in Essays, 89.

  20. Life and Letters, ed. Dewey, 91.

  21. Ibid., 91, italics added.

  22. North American Review 26 (April 1828), 403-20, 403 for citation.

  23. Ibid., 408.

  24. Ibid., 406.

  25. George H. Callcott, History in United States, 1800-1860: Its Practice and Purpose (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 104.

  26. William Bradford gives some account of the machinations of John Lyford and John Oldham. See Of Plymouth Plantation, rev. ed., ed. Samuel Eliot Morison (New York: Knopf, 1991), 147-69, esp. n. 8, 149-50. See also Jennings, 188-90, and Vaughan, 123-4.

  27. John Mason's “A Brief History of the Pequot War” was edited by Thomas Prince, who brought it to publication in Boston in 1736. It was reprinted in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 2nd ser. 8 (1826), 120-53, 126 for citation. All future citations refer to this edition. As others have shown, Hope Leslie reveals Sedgwick's familiarity with Winthrop, Hubbard, and Bradford. I suspect that she likely was familiar with the MHSC reprinting of John Mason, but its virtual transmission in William Hubbard effectively skirts this problem. Let me say here, however, that my discussion in this chapter concerns the intertextual relations of these Puritan (and early national) histories. My references to the reprinted narratives of Gardiner, Underhill, and Vincent—all of which postdate the publication of Hope Leslie—are premised on those rhetorical and ideological features common to Puritan historians.

  28. Mason, “Brief History,” 129.

  29. John Underhill, “Newes from America; or a New and Experimental Discoverie of New England,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd ser. 6 (1837), 1-28. Lion Gardiner, “Leift Lion Gardiner his Relation of the Pequot Warres” in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society 3rd ser. 3 (1833), 131-60, and in A History of the Pequot War (Cincinnati: William Dodge, 1860), 5-32. All citations in the essay come from the 1860 edition; P[hilip] Vincent, “A True Relation of the Late Battell Fought in New-England, between the English and the Pequet Salvages: In which were Slaine and Taken Prisoners about 700 of the Salvages, and Those which Escaped Had Their Heads Cut Off by the Mohocks; with the Present State of Things There” (London: Thomas Harper, 1638), reprinted with Underhill's narrative in Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 3rd ser. 6 (1837), 29-43.

  30. Mason, “Brief History,” 130.

  31. Underhill, “Newes from America,” 4.

  32. See Gardiner, “Relation,” 12-14, and Vincent, “True Relation,” 35-7.

  33. William Hubbard, The Present State of New England. Being a Narrative of the Troubles with the Indians in New-England, from the First Planting Therof in the Year 1607 to this Present Year 1677: But Chiefly of the Late Troubles in the Last Two Years, 1675 and 1676; to which is added a Discourse about the Warre with the Pequods in the Year 1637 (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1677), 116-17.

  34. John Winthrop, The History of New England from 1630 to 1649, ed. James Savage (Boston: Phelps & Farnham, 1825), 190; Hubbard's account is virtually the same. See A General History of New England from the Discovery to MDCLXXX (Cambridge, MA: Hilliard & Metcalf, 1815), 249.

  35. Mason, “Brief History,” 129.

  36. Benjamin Trumbull, A Complete History of Connecticut, Civil and Ecclesiastical (Hartford: Hudson & Goodwin, 1797), I:59-60.

  37. Abiel Holmes, American Annals (Cambridge, MA: Hilliard & Brown, 1829), I:235; Jedidiah Morse and Elijah Parish, A Compendious History of New England (London: William Burton, 1808), 93; Epaphras Hoyt, Antiquarian Researches: Comprising a History of the Indian Wars in the Country Bordering Connecticut River and Parts Adjacent (Greenfield, MA: Ansel Phelps, 1824), 44. Even the famous antiquarian Samuel Drake, who initially argued that the English settlers “were too proud to court the favor of the natives,” went on to recount the deaths of Norton, Stone, and Oldham. See the Appendix to his edition of Thomas Church's The History of King Philip's War (Exeter, NH: J&B Williams, 1829), 302-9.

  38. Hannah Adams, A Summary History of New England (Dedham, MA: H. Mann & J. H. Adams, 1799), 68.

  39. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie; or Early Times in the Massachusetts, ed. Mary Kelley (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 56. All quotations come from this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  40. Hubbard, Narrative of the Trouble with the Indians, 116.

  41. See Callcott, History in the United States, 139-47.

  42. Ibid., 125.

  43. Ibid., 136.

  44. For a corrective to this commonly held misconception, see Salisbury, Manitou and Providence, 211.

  45. Adams, Summary History, 68.

  46. Trumbull, Complete History of Connecticut, 87.

  47. The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: NAL Penguin, 1961), 353.

  48. Timothy Dwight, Travels in New-England and New-York (New Haven: T. Dwight, 1821-2), III:19, italics added.

  49. Trumbull, Complete History of Connecticut, 76.

  50. Noah Porter, “A Discourse on the Settlement and Progress of New England” (Hartford: Peter Gleason, 1821), 10.

  51. Epaphras Hoyt, Antiquarian Researches, 46.

  52. Noah Webster, An American Dictionary of the English Language (New York: S. Converse, 1828), unpaginated.

  53. See Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 57-61, and David P. Simpson, The Politics of American English, 1776-1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 81-90.

  54. Salisbury, Manitou and Providence, 224.

  55. See, for example, Adams, Summary History, 69; Trumbull, Complete History of Connecticut, 62; Dwight, Travels, III:12, and Morse and Parish, Compendious History, 95.

  56. Gardiner, “Relation” (1860), 17. See Jennings, Invasion of America, 211-13, for European and Native American codes of warfare and the false stereotypes that have been pinned on the Pequot in this regard.

  57. Morse and Parish, Compendious History, 95.

  58. Ramsay, History of the United States, I:85.

  59. Dwight, Travels in New-England, III:11.

  60. Adams, Summary History, 70.

  61. American Annals, I:241.

  62. See, for example, Kelley, “Introduction,” xxix, and Zagarell, “Expanding ‘America,’” 233, 237.

  63. See The Power of Her Sympathy: The Autobiography and Journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, ed. Mary Kelley (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993), 49.

  64. Morse and Parish, Compendious History, 97.

  65. See Kelley, ed., Power of Her Sympathy, 49.

  66. See, for example, Isaac Goodwin's “An Oration Delivered at Lancaster,” Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal 1 (Worcester: Rogers & Griffin, 1826), 327. Hawthorne's “Endicott and the Red Cross” investigates the ambiguities of Puritan rigor, as Endicott is described in this language. See The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, vol. IX, ed. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude M. Simpson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974), 431, 444.

  67. Ann Kibbey has argued for the “interchangeable” quality of Puritan and Pequot women as a way of showing the intimacy between Puritan racism and sexism. I would argue that despite the ostensible similarities, Sedgwick does not anticipate Kibbey's argument. Sedgwick issues much less of an indictment against “Puritan” sexism per se and more of one aimed at a political-cultural metaphor between Puritanism and republicanism that was popular during her own time. Sedgwick's feminization of Mystic Fort comments on the destructive capacity of male virtu, in which both Puritan and Native American men are implicated. Much of Kibbey's argument rests on the dubious conclusion that the diagram at the end of John Underhill's narrative symbolizes a vagina that “portrays both the Puritan men's genocidal violence and the sexual symbolism of their act” (110). Readers also might be warned that Kibbey gives an idiosyncratic interpretation of Underhill's narrative to make it evidence of the “association between the violence of the war and [Puritan] men's attitudes toward women” (109). Underhill's reference to his wife mocks his own stubbornness. Kibbey also misreads Underhill's treatment of two captive, Puritan women, whom he mentions certainly not to serve misogynistic ends but only to show that the Lord chastens whom He loves. This fulfills the promotional dimension of the narrative: “You that intend to go to New England, fear not a little trouble” (22). One also wonders how Kibbey so easily associates Hutchinson with all Puritan women, and Puritan women with Pequot women in Underhill's narrative. See The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism: A Study of Rhetoric, Prejudice, and Violence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

  68. Ramsay, History of the United States, I:84.

  69. Charles A. Goodrich, A History of the United States of America (New York: G. C. Smith, 1829), 15.

  70. Morse and Parish, Compendious History, 96.

  71. Salma Hale, History of the United States (London: John Miller, 1826), 43, 86.

  72. Sedgwick likely read Philip Vincent's “A True Relation of the Late Batell Fought in New England,” first published in 1638 and yet not reprinted in the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections until 1837. The description of Samoset's valor bears an uncanny resemblance to a passage in Vincent which is not present in any other of the firsthand Puritan accounts. Sedgwick reads as follows: “Samoset, the noble boy, defended the entrance with a prince-like courage, till they struck him down; prostrate and bleeding he again bent his bow, and had taken deadly aim at the English leader, when a sabre-blow severed his bowstring” (49).

    And Vincent: “A stout Pequet encounters [an English soldier at the entrance], shoots his arrow, drawn to the head, into his right arm, where it stuck. He slashed the salvage betwixt the arm and the shoulder, who, pressing towards the door, was killed by the English” (37).

    Edward Johnson's Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Saviour in New-England (1654), with which, as Mary Kelley has demonstrated, Sedgwick was familiar, does specify that there were bowmen at the entrances to the fort who “wounded the foremost of the English in the shoulder” but gives nothing of the particular details found in both Vincent and Sedgwick. See Wonder-Working Providence of Sions Savior in New England (1653), ed. J. Franklin Jameson (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910), 167, and Kelley, n.5, 359, for Sedgwick and Edward Johnson.

  73. Lydia Maria Child, The First Settlers of New England: or, Conquest of the Pequods, Narragansetts and Pokanokets. As Related by a Mother to her Children. By a Lady of Massachusetts (Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1829), 24.

  74. The term comes, of course, from Hayden White, Metahistory (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). White argues that “The same event [the attack upon Mystic Fort in this case] can serve as a different kind of element of many different historical stories, depending upon the role it is assigned in a specific motific characterization of the set to which it belongs” (7). See also “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in The Writing of History: Literary Form and Historical Understanding, ed. Robert H. Canary and Henry Kozicki (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978), 41-62. Selected essays have been compiled in The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987). While White has incurred the wrath of many historians, a more balanced theoretical dissent stressing the continuity between narrative and reality may be found in David Carr, Time, Narrative and History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986).

  75. See Nelson, The Word in Black and White, n.13, 159.

  76. Knapp, Lectures, unpaginated.

  77. I have taken up this issue in part in my Introduction. See, for example, the review of David Ramsay's History of the United States in the North American Review 6 (1818), 335-7, and the review of Charles Goodrich's History of the United States in the American Journal of Education 2 (1827), 683-7.

  78. American Journal of Education, 686.

  79. Dewey, ed., Life and Letters, 192.

  80. “History only becomes dramatic on two conditions: it must either have the passion of the politician or the imagination of the poet.” Quoted from the Edinburgh Review 105 (January 1857), 23, in Callcott, History in the United States, 148-9. See 147-50 for the importance of emotion to the efficacy of historical narrative. David Levin also noted the “vital feeling of the past” with which the romantic historian was imbued: “One concentrated on responding emotionally to its [in this case, European ruins'] sound, on putting oneself or one's reader in proper imaginative relation with it.” See History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Motley and Parkman (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1959), 7-8.

  81. See Goodwin in The Worcester Magazine and Historical Journal, 327.

  82. Ramsay, History of the United States, I:137.

  83. North American Review, 340.

  84. The entry for “recital” in the 1828 American Dictionary further suggests this lexical instability. Webster first distinguishes between an “enumeration” and a “narrative”; the latter he calls “a telling of the particulars of an adventure or of a series of events.” But this distinction collapses because it fails to distinguish between an “enumeration” and a “telling.” Another instance of this sense of “recital” may be found in one of the period's orations, where the speaker argues that war stories of the veterans of the War of 1812 actually swayed naive farmers and thus promoted a kind of dangerous militarism: “The poor inhabitant of a remote retreat, who listens with enthusiasm to the recital of the exploits of his countrymen, and associates himself in interest with those who never regarded him, discovers a patriotism which we cannot but esteem. … Let them be better informed, and know that the country which they love, demands their zeal only for its rights … and that those who excite it in behalf of their own personal renown, impose on their affections and betray their interest.” See Andrew Ritchie, “An Address Delivered to the Massachusetts Peace Society at their Third Anniversary” (Boston: Wells & Lilly, 1819), 14-15.

  85. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977; Anchor, 1988), 165-99.

  86. The extent of this rebuttal to Douglas is vast, but it originated principally in Nina Baym's Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978) and Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986). For a recent contribution to the politics of sentiment, see Shirley Samuels, ed., The Culture of Sentiment: Race, Gender and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), esp. 10-15, for a reassessment of the Douglas-Tompkins debate.

  87. North American Review 26 (April 1828), 413.

  88. Douglas, Feminization, 185.

  89. Kelley, ed., Power of Her Sympathy, 69-70.

  90. The Linwoods: or “Sixty Years Since” in America (New York: Harper & Bros., 1835), 64.

Douglas Ford (essay date 1997)

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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 treatment of both women and Native Americans,1 which leads to a question I hope to address: Does the novel negotiate race and gender within the context of domesticity in the same way, to the same ends? The novel's remarkable preface pushes race to the forefront, as it positions the narrative to challenge the dominant racist assumptions of nineteenth-century America by arguing that “the enlightened and accurate observer of human nature, will admit that the difference of character among the various races of the earth, arises mainly from difference of condition” (6). This statement assigns a bold mission for the novel, as it must contend with the discourses which produce the negative images of race which inform the literature of Sedgwick's period. Additionally, this preface introduces a complex preoccupation with language which this paper will explore, particularly in the crucial images the novel constructs for an “enlightened” reader, images bearing conflicting levels of signification.

Several critics have praised Sedgwick's narrative for transcending racist and sexist notions, an assessment based largely upon the protagonist, who acts decisively and independently upon a Puritan power structure that not only marginalizes her, but treats Native Americans unjustly. However, a schism opens between what Sedgwick's narrator says and how Sedgwick's readers—today as well as in antebellum America—may read the actions and statements of the text's characters. In effect, the novel's preface suggests a certain degree of faith that the “accurate” reader will fill this schism in a desirable manner. Suzanne Gossett and Barbara Bardes provide the sort of reading which reveals how this schism opens largely out of discursive conditions during Sedgwick's time:

Hope never speaks against male authority, but her actions demonstrate a similar sense of being exempt from its application. Of course she is a romantic projection, and her actions go unpunished because Sedgwick chooses that they shall. In 1827 Sedgwick could not assert that women are oppressed by their exclusion from the political process, but she designs her plot to drive the reader to this conclusion.


However, even as the textual events “drive the reader” toward a progressive conclusion concerning gender equality, the novel reveals a deeper, more problematic nature concerning questions of race. Indeed, Sedgwick's novel opens gaps where the cultural assumptions of Sedgwick's period sneak through, resulting in a tension in the text that operates contrary to the intentions Sedgwick outlines in her preface. The voice of Hope herself reveals anxiety, even some horror, at the crossing of the racial boundaries prescribed by the European settlers. This embedded conflict raises questions concerning how Sedgwick's audience may have envisioned an “accurate observer,” and for contemporary readers, the text continues to raise questions: Does such a position actually exist, and if so, in what form?

Signs of this tension have not gone unnoticed by the novel's commentators. In her reading of the text, Sandra Zagarell notices “forces” which Hope Leslie presents “stubbornly and openly unresolved,” such as Faith's refusal to return to the Puritan community (239). Indeed, Faith's presence in the text causes much of the novel's buried tension to rise to the surface. This tension reaches a particularly urgent pitch in the middle of the text, when Magawisca reunites Hope with Faith, whom the Pequods, led by Mononotto, had kidnapped in a raid upon the Fletcher home in the novel's first volume. This kidnapping results in a cultural transformation for Faith: she grows up neither speaking nor understanding English, she appears in “savage attire,” and as Hope learns, she has married Oneco (227). Furthermore, she responds to Hope's emotional embrace by “remain[ing] passive in her arms. Her eye was moistened, but she seemed rather abashed and confounded” (227). The manner in which Faith's response to the reunion differs from Hope's plays into what Louise K. Barnett in The Ignoble Savage outlines as “a characteristic common to all [Indian] stereotypes,” namely stoicism, which “ranges from a habitual failure to register facial expression to control over all forms of physical reaction during moments of intense stress” (76). Sedgwick's reunion scene bears traces of the overall pattern Barnett detects in other representations. While Faith's eye appears “moistened,” the narrator quickly qualifies this response by noting that her appearance suggests confusion and embarrassment; in other words, Faith's need to control her own emotion, and her confusion over her own disconcertment, might signify to the nineteenth-century reader “Indian” or “Other” as much as her attire or her language.

However, the complexity of this scene becomes evident in light of the multiple possibilities of interpretation it contains simultaneously, each affected by the cultural conditions which arrange perceptions of both the embarrassment and the “moistened” eye. That is, read through the lens which Barnett's scholarship provides, Faith's embarrassment exhibits itself, as I have suggested above, as a response to her own tear. In effect, the Indian that Faith has become shows embarrassment at the old feelings which Hope awakens in her. A reading of this kind leaves the “stoic Indian” stereotype intact within Sedgwick's novel. Or the tear itself represents Sedgwick's dismantling of racial stereotypes, affirming emotional expression as a capacity of Native Americans and not one limited to white European settlers. Faith herself, being a “conditioned” Indian and not Indian by birth, adds a further dimension of uncertainty to this scene; again, the extent to which we read her Otherness as reversible—as Hope does when she entertains methods of bribing Faith back into Puritan society—affects the way we read Sedgwick's handling of racial stereotypes. Does Faith embody Sedgwick's belief that race actually involves conditioning, as suggested in the preface, or does the tear signal that Faith lacks the “essence” of being Indian?

Before looking further into Sedgwick's negotiation of race within this scene and the rest of the text, the novel's preface warrants another look. As I have noted earlier, this preface suggests that racial differences occur “mainly from difference of condition.” Elsewhere, Sedgwick criticizes the way Puritan settlers represented Indians in their own writing:

These traits of their character will be viewed by an impartial observer, in a light very different from that in which they were regarded by our ancestors. In our histories, it was perhaps natural that they should be represented as “surly dogs,” who preferred to die rather than live, from no other motives than a stupid or malignant obstinacy.


The resurfacing of Faith in the narrative bears textual witness not only to Sedgwick's statement concerning racial conditioning, but also to the narrative's search for the type of impartial observation which Sedgwick describes above. In a sense, Faith becomes the site which Sedgwick installs for such an observer; yet this scene's instability, borne out of the conflicting meanings which occupy the same narrative space, demonstrates how different discourses overlap, including remnants of the Puritan discourses which Sedgwick sets her novel against in the preface. The scene of Hope's reunion with Faith becomes charged with a tension which reverberates through the rest of the novel, shifting the ground beneath the impartial observer, who, ideally, would embody a stable consciousness somehow outside the discourses which produce negative stereotypes.

Hope's difficulty in accepting Faith's cultural transformation becomes equally problematic, particularly when read in the context of her later actions, which involve her challenges to unjust Puritan rulings against Native American subjects: first Nelema, an old woman who saves Craddock from a snake bite, and later Magawisca. Twentieth-century critics read these later actions and rightly point out, as Carol J. Singley has, that the novel “undercuts” several romance conventions, specifically by “exposing injustice to women, American Indians, and the land”; these injustices, of course, perpetuate themselves through the discourses of a repressive Puritan power base, and as the conventions of the antebellum frontier romance suggest, some of these discourses survive into Sedgwick's era (40).

By looking for ways in which Hope Leslie “expos[es] injustices,” we tend to read the novel as subverting a single, monolithic ideology of a repressive mechanism, thus obstructing our view of the plurality of discourses which produce power. Michel Foucault draws a helpful distinction between the two in “Truth and Power.” Of three reasons why the “notion of ideology appears … to be difficult to make use of,” Foucault says of the first that,

like it or not, [ideology] always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth. Now I believe that the problem does not consist in drawing the line between that in a discourse which falls under the category of scientificity or truth, and that which comes under some other category, but in seeing historically two effects of truth are produced within discourses which in themselves are neither true nor false.


Thus it becomes helpful to view how Hope Leslie represents individual discourses which produce conflicting versions of “truth,” rather than a single, over-arching ideology. Such a view reveals that the novel internalizes such conflict and engages in processes more problematic than the straightforward correction of injustices brought about by a monolithic form of power. In other words, the novel's consideration of Native Americans and women as (to borrow an image employed by Singley) “two sides of the same coin” appears more complicated (41).2 Indeed, Foucault's explanation provides a reading lens which helps melt, so to speak, this coin—an image of wholeness, solidity, impregnability; we can then note ways in which the text, by incorporating a range of discourses, often inadvertently undercuts the progressive mission its preface has outlined.

Even as Sedgwick focuses her novel upon establishing a position for an “impartial observer,” her text becomes subject to the discursive materials of its era.3 In the first volume of the novel, the narrator says of Hope, “It has been seen that Hope Leslie was superior to some of the prejudices of the age,” suggesting that she serves as the point where this “impartial observer” becomes inscribed in the text (123). As the second volume begins, the text continues to inscribe around Hope a design by which its readers can decipher “truth” and “falsehood”; yet this design begins to show increased signs of unraveling as Hope finds herself needing to invent an explanation for her absence and the time she spent meeting Magawisca and Faith in the cemetery. Simple oppositions—such as “truth” or “falsehood”—show their limitations as Hope must develop skills of “diplomacy,” which the novel describes as “that art that contrives to give such a convenient indistinctness to the boundary line between truth and falsehood” (175). The novel increasingly scrutinizes how the notion of “truth” constructs itself while Hope serves as the voice through which more lines of discourse enter the novel, blurring the “boundary line between truth and falsehood.” The notion of an “impartial observer” thus shows signs of stress, as the novel struggles to locate the position for such a vista among the truth-shaping processes of diplomacy that go on throughout the novel.

To return to the usefulness of Singley's coin metaphor, the text confounds itself with Hope's eventual dilemma concerning her sister's transformation, to the crucial point that “truth” becomes increasingly subject to negotiating and bargaining. Philip Gould has already pointed out the ways in which Sedgwick's “recital” of the Pequot War bargains in a sense for the reader's sympathy by challenging the chronology of events leading up to the war, as described in Puritan accounts.4 The confrontation between Magawisca and Hope over Faith's cultural transformation reveals further instances of negotiation, particularly when Hope offers to buy her sister back into Puritan society with jewels and feathers; however, the true bargaining in this scene occurs in determining the very language suitable in describing the extent of that transformation. This bargaining puts Hope's diplomacy skills to the test, as she reveals some negative cultural assumptions when learning of Faith's marriage to Oneco: “‘God forbid!’ exclaimed Hope, shuddering as if a knife had been plunged in her bosom. ‘My sister married to an Indian!’” (188). Magawisca's response challenges the implied construction of “Indian” in Hope's outburst with an alternative construction:

“An Indian!” exclaimed Magawisca, recoiling with a look of proud contempt, that showed she reciprocated with full measure, the scorn expressed for her race. “Yes—an Indian, in whose veins runs the blood of the strongest, the fleetest of the children of the forest, who never turned their backs on friends or enemies, and whose souls have returned to the Great Spirit, stainless as they came from him. Think ye that your blood will be corrupted by mingling with this stream?”


In constructing an idealized vision of the Indian, this passage echoes the cadences of the preface's description of the Indians who “were never enslaved,” who “could not submit, and live,” and who “courted death, and exulted in torture” after being “made captives” (6).

In effect, Magawisca assumes the voice of the “liberal philanthropist” who, Sedgwick writes in her preface, “will not be offended by a representation which supposes that the elements of virtue and intellect are not withheld from any branch of the human family” (6). Nevertheless, nothing Magawisca says registers with Hope until the negotiation turns to the delicate weighing of religious terms: “‘Listen to me,’ [Magawisca] said; ‘your sister is of what you call the christian family. I believe ye have many names in that family. She hath been signed with the cross by a holy father from France; she bows to the crucifix’” (189, emphasis added). Hope finally responds with some degree of hesitance, reasoning that “any christian faith was better than none” (189). In effect, acceptance of Faith's marriage comes with conditions—conditions which, at their root level, hinge upon what to call Faith and agreement upon a proper signifier; indeed, Faith needs to belong to what Hope may “call the christian family.”

Price in Sedgwick's novel frequently revolves around language, and words often become a form of currency accepted for payment. When Magawisca becomes imprisoned thanks to the sinister manipulations of Sir Philip Gardiner, she can escape prison by verbally exchanging one set of principles for another. Hope overhears these conditions, which hinge upon Magawisca's being “induced to renounce her heathenish principles, and promise, instead of following her father to the forest, to remain here, and join the catechised Indians” (279). Like the novel's Puritan leaders, Hope also places considerable weight upon Christianity in the novel's represented systems of weights, balances, and exchanges. Yet, Sedgwick's novel also highlights the need for Hope to develop the ability to see value as it exists outside of these systems. An indication of this need comes in a scene in which Magawisca reappears after a period of absence, disguised and pretending to sell moccasins. When Mrs. Grafton walks in, wanting to know how much the moccasins cost, Hope claims not to know. Mrs. Grafton chides her, “Do not know! that's peculiar of you, Hope Leslie; you never inquire the price of any thing” (184). This statement becomes ironic in light of the fact that Hope actually seeks the price that will buy her sister back into Puritan culture. After Hope's diamond ring catches Faith's eye during their reunion scene, Hope tells Magawisca that if Faith “will come home with me, she shall be decked with jewels from head to foot, she shall have feathers from the most beautiful birds that wing the air, and flowers that never fade—tell her that all I possess shall be hers” (229-30).

This scene illustrates Hope's difficulty in looking beyond value as her culture prescribes it, and it dramatizes in remarkable fashion the attempt to locate and define Otherness beyond popular, sensational images. Indeed, elsewhere in this scene, Faith (or Mary, as the novel sometimes refers to her) reveals her own cultural signifier—a mantle, which emphasizes the finality of her cultural transformation:

[Hope] thought that if Mary's dress, which was singularly and gaudily decorated, had a less savage aspect, she might look more natural to her; and she signed to her to remove the mantle she wore, made of birds' feathers, woven together with threads of the wild nettle. … The removal of the mantle, instead of the effect designed, only served to make more striking the aboriginal peculiarities.


This scene poses the need to perceive Faith outside of the debilitating discourses which distort identity. By removing the mantle, Hope believes she can remove Faith's Otherness; yet, the persistence of Faith's “aboriginal peculiarities” unhinges this hope and, more important, complicates the novel's own representation of Faith to the impartial observer. While Hope needs the mantle removed in order to see Faith with a “less savage aspect,” Sedgwick actually needs the mantle to portray Faith's Otherness. In other words, the novel finds itself caught at cross purposes: it insists that Faith's mantle does not contain her cultural identity, that this identity exists as something apart from it; yet, the novel requires the mantle to make Faith's Otherness visible to its reader.

Sedgwick's novel dares to imagine a discourse which can make cultural distinctions clear and draw sympathy from its reader, but it ultimately finds itself confined by the limiting discourses actually available. Recent scholarship suggests that the prevalent forms of writing during Sedgwick's era reflect this situation, bearing witness to the unavailability of a truly liberating discourse. In “The Literary Debate Over ‘the Indian’ in the Nineteenth Century,” Sherry Sullivan analyzes two modes of writing—writing sympathetic to the Indian and antiprimitivist writing—but she argues that ultimately the two discourses “were one and the same.”5 She observes that “[b]oth interpreted ‘the Indian’ in terms of white civilization and ignored the actual, historical Indians before them. Both also agreed that white civilization was morally superior to ‘primitive’ Indian culture, as they understood it (though they disagreed as to whether it was a relative or an absolute superiority)” (25). Clearly sympathetic to the native inhabitants of North America, Sedgwick's novel dramatizes through Magawisca the conflict which Sullivan notices at large in sympathetic writing. Indeed, by the end of the novel, Magawisca must leave the settlement for the wilderness, despite the consternation of Hope and Everell, who desire her to remain and become assimilated into the Christian community. Of course, Magawisca does not choose to remain, the novel thus maintaining Magawisca's strong, independent nature. Yet, expressing Magawisca's virtue becomes problematic, for the novel finds such expression only in terms valued by the white Puritan culture which she rejects. Filtered through Hope's eyes, Magawisca's belief in a “Great Spirit” invites “the thought that a mind so disposed to religious impressions and affections might enjoy the brighter light of Christian revelation—a revelation so much higher, nobler, and fuller, than that which proceeds from the voice of nature” (332). The novel asks us to sympathize with Magawisca, but by and large this sympathy comes by understanding Magawisca's virtue as Christian-like.

Furthermore, the novel provides a rare, though not solitary, example of interracial marriage in antebellum fiction, but even such an example comes with conditions. Barnett once again assesses an overall pattern in fiction of this period, and she notes the rules by which sexual relations could—or to be more specific, could not—take place: “Because whites are depicted as superior in all ways, they must be more sexually desirable than Indians.” Barnett goes on to explain that as a result, “fictive male Indians often desire white women,” though only “exceptional cases” occur in which these Indians “succeed in possessing them” (113). Barnett's generalization provides a context for Faith's marriage to Oneco, suggesting that even in this “exceptional case,” Sedgwick's novel on a surface level actually subscribes to a discourse which constructs superiority in whiteness. Adding support to this notion, the novel hints at the possibility of romance between Magawisca, an Indian, and Everell, a European, but this romance never develops. Barnett's analysis of antebellum literature uncovers the improbability of such a union: “In keeping with the aggressive and passive stereotypes of sex role [sic] which are little altered by race, Indian males—but not females—can actively pursue whites” (119).6 In fact, Magawisca herself expresses the complications of a union between European and Indian when she observes that “the Indian and the white man can no more mingle, and become one, than day and night” (330).

However, a direct reading of Magawisca's statement as articulating the novel's complicity with an unwritten rule of literature disregards how Hope Leslie maintains itself as a provocative, if conflicted, text. Indeed, even when Sedgwick's novel adheres superficially to the discursive “rules” governing the treatment of race during this period, it also manages to unsettle and call attention to those rules. Magawisca's comment concerning the impossibility of unity between the Native American and the European contains metafictional resonances, as if to direct readerly attention toward the (im)possibilities depicted in the fiction of this period, including even representations found in Sedgwick's novel. In other words, no such union could take place in fiction. As the preface to the novel powerfully suggests, Sedgwick's interest rests largely in representation itself, while implying that her own set of representations will correct the unsavory Puritan depictions of America's natives. Magawisca and Everell maintain a fictional impossibility in frontier fiction, but Sedgwick also has Magawisca articulate this sort of impossibility, placing the power of commentary and perspective in the hands of a normally marginalized character: a Native American woman.

Significantly, at least one of the novel's early commentators found Magawisca disagreeable for her allegedly non-Indian characteristics. A review originally published in the Western Review in 1827 refers to Magawisca as “the first genuine Indian angel” and goes on to say that “[t]his angel, as she stands, is a very pretty fancy; but no more like a squaw, than the croaking of a sandhill crane is like the sweet, clear and full note of the redbird.” The writer continues by defining the role of a fiction writer in matters of race: “Dealers in fiction have privileges; but they ought to have for foundations, some slight resemblance to nature” (qtd. in Foster 86). This decree for “some slight resemblance to nature” hearkens back to Foucault's statement concerning how ideology “always stands in virtual opposition to something else which is supposed to count as truth.” A survey of the frontier literature of the nineteenth century, such as Sullivan provides, suggests that a significant degree of disagreement existed over just what form this “nature” should take. Sullivan dismantles the notion that the “Indian hater fiction,” which first became popular in the 1820s, accurately reflects “a broad negative consensus of [white] views about the Indian,” but indicates instead “a wide divergence and a persistent debate” (14). As Sullivan points out, perception in the early nineteenth century shifted away from the negative portrayals predominantly found in Puritan texts and captivity narratives, to a portrayal influenced by Romanticism wherein the Native American “became less an object of fear and disgust than a source of both pity and admiration” (16).

Even Hope Leslie, a sympathetic text constructed for the “impartial observer,” finds itself negotiating with the multiplicity of attitudes which Sullivan detects. Clearly aware of “Indian hater fiction,” Sedgwick incorporates such discourse into her novel, particularly through Digby, a veteran of the Pequot war, which preceded the events of the novel. After witnessing Magawisca running through the woods, he expresses himself in language appropriate to “Indian hater fiction”: “I had rather meet a legion of French men than a company of these savages. They are a kind of beast we don't comprehend—out of range of God's creatures—neither angel, man, nor yet quite devil” (42). Richard Drinnon has pointed out that “[i]n times of trouble natives were always wild animals that had to be rooted out of their dens, swamps, jungles,” and Digby's language in the passage enforces this line of thought to some degree (53).7 However, even in expressing his distaste for Indians as a “kind of beast,” Digby runs into a problem depicted frequently in Hope Leslie, a problem rooted in the limitations of language, specifically in the lack of a name for that which disturbs him. Indeed, Digby's confusion suggests that for the European-American, the Indian exists not just “out of range of God's creatures,” but somehow “out of range” of available language.

Comparisons to other texts help illuminate the degree to which naming the Other constitutes a concern for Sedgwick in the writing of Hope Leslie. For instance, in 1703, when the French began aligning themselves with the Abenaki Indians, Solomon Stoddard wrote a letter to Massachusetts governor Joseph Dudley outlining a proposal to use dogs to hunt Indians “as they do bears” (373). “They act like wolves and are to be dealt withal as wolves,” Stoddard's letter states (374). Additionally, a canonical text, Mary Rowlandson's A True History of the Captivity and Restoration, creates an image of the Narragansett Indians as “a company of hell-hounds,” and in an image with parallels to Digby's, it includes a striking image of “the roaring, and singing, and dancing, and yelling of those black creatures in the night, which made the place a lively resemblance of hell!” (29). Both Stoddard and Rowlandson's texts help reveal Sedgwick's method of interrogating such imagery through Digby, who becomes perplexed over not just the physical reality of the Indians he fears, but the linguistic category in which to place them. In struggling to name the danger, no such “lively resemblance” makes itself apparent to him, as it seems to in the case of Rowlandson's narrator.

Not only does the novel confront preexisting semiotic challenges in representing Native American characters, but it relies upon some familiarity with the genre of the captivity romance in creating sympathy for Indians within its largely white readership. In a paper recently presented at a meeting of the Southeastern Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola observes, “In Indian captivity narratives by and about women the main metonymy is the decisive fracturing of the original family unit which, after the attack by Native Americans, rarely reconstructed itself intact” (4). This generalization helps illuminate the manner in which Sedgwick constructs a striking reversal of the captivity romance—specifically by exploring the integration of the Indian captive into the white family unit. Early on, the novel concerns itself with efforts to assimilate Magawisca and Oneco into the Fletcher household, and, in a sense, the novel becomes for this time their narrative of captivity. They do not simply become adopted by the Fletchers, as in the case of Faith and Hope, but rather Sedgwick embeds their stories with a sense of dislocation.

Enforcing this idea, Magawisca's background includes the crucial detail that she learned English through the instruction of “an English captive, who for a long time dwelt with their tribe” (21). This bit of information implies an embedded text within Hope Leslie, one borne out of the writing popularized by figures such as Rowlandson. Far beyond simply explaining Magawisca's ability to speak English, this detail implies that there exist multiple subject positions from which to view captivity and that the experience does not limit itself to the white subject. Language again plays a significant role, however, as the expression of the “captivity” story of Magawisca and Oneco becomes the property, in a sense, of Mr. Fletcher. As he tells Mrs. Fletcher their story, he includes the negative tropes of representation one finds in Puritan writing, particularly in the way he describes the manner in which their “wolfish tribe were killed, or dislodged from their dens” (21). This negative language creates friction with further sections of his narrative where he expresses regret over the fate of other captives: “Some, by a christian use of money were redeemed; and others, I blush to say it, for ‘it is God's gift that every man should enjoy the good of his own labour,’ were sent into slavery in the West Indies” (21). Even as he brings to light the tragic reality of slavery, Fletcher bases his concern for its victims upon a biblical authority, the same authority, in fact, which becomes an object of resistance in the case of Monoca, the mother of Oneco and Magawisca. Fletcher describes her resistance to conversion elsewhere in his narrative, noting that “she would not even consent that the holy word should be interpreted to her; insisting, in the pride of her soul, that all the children of the Great Spirit were equal objects of His favour; and that He had not deemed the book he had withheld, needful to them” (22).

In the above passage, the novel once again places emphasis upon translation, as Monoca refuses an interpretation of the “holy word,” highlighting a concern for language as not simply a means of bridging cultural understanding but also as a source of disruption. Contributing to this complexity, this passage also presents a conflict which resonates throughout the novel as a whole: Sedgwick would expect her readers to share some of Fletcher's religious sensibility, despite the counter-purpose of her prose which also inspires admiration for Monoca's transgressive actions. Clearly, Sedgwick includes several instances of transgression—particularly those performed by Hope herself—which have become the subject of recent commentaries of the novel's place(s) among other domestic novels and frontier romances of its period. One of the strongest such commentaries comes from Carol J. Singley, who proposes the intriguing notion that as a frontier romance, the “real romance [in the novel] … is between Hope and Magawisca” (47). Inevitably, the impartial observer which Sedgwick imagines for her text would be informed by such literary forms and would find her or his perceptions affected by them.

Understanding the novel's notion of the location of this impartiality comes in part by understanding the novel's relationship to these forms, including a preoccupation with powerful conflicts emerging where these forms intersect within the novel. In fact, the novel restructures the monolithic categories of “Indian” and “Christian” prevalent in Puritan writing into an opposition between domesticity and the wilderness. This opposition becomes evident in the case of Magawisca, who becomes an object of domestication within the Fletcher household. In a letter to her husband, Mrs. Fletcher describes Magawisca's response to this process:

I have, in vain, attempted to subdue her to the drudgery of domestic service, and make her take part with Jennet; but as hopefully might you yoke a deer with an ox. It is not that she lacks obedience to me—so far as it seems she can command her duty, she is ever complying; but it appeareth impossible to her to clip the wings of her soaring thoughts, and keep them down to household matters.

(32, emphasis added)

The complexity of this passage presents itself in light of the intersection it creates between domestic fiction, whose conventions appear in the novel, and the genre of the frontier romance, which Sedgwick helped popularize. Conflicting meanings emerge within these shifting, and not altogether harmonious, contexts. As a character in domestic fiction, Magawisca's “wings” in this passage suggest the “angel” which, for the critic in the Western Review mentioned previously, put her authenticity as an “Indian” at risk. As a frontier romance contributing to white representations of Native Americans, however, the figuration in this passage reorients itself to construct an image of Magawisca complicit with other popular images. Indeed, in this case, the “wings” associated with her thoughts suggest animal characteristics, a romantic image which nonetheless duplicates the antiprimitivist inclination to paint Indians as animal in nature.

This discourse emerges earlier in the novel—again through the voice of Mrs. Fletcher. In this case, she tells Magawisca and Oneco that they “will soon perceive that our civilized life is far easier—far better and happier than your wild wandering ways, which are indeed, as you will presently see, but little superior to those of the wolves and foxes” (24). Everell, Magawisca's champion through much of the novel, upbraids his mother for this remark, but he does so in language that appears conciliatory to the “wild animal” discourse. He says, “hunted, as the Indians are, to their own dens, I am sure, mother, they need the fierceness of the wolf, and the cunning of the fox” (24, Sedgwick's emphasis). Everell corrects his mother's racism, but he does so in a manner which maintains her language and, by applying new connotations, confirms its suitability. In this manner, Everell echoes a passage from Sedgwick's preface: “[I]t was perhaps natural that [Indians] should be represented as ‘surly dogs,’ who preferred to die rather than live, from no other motives than a stupid or malignant obstinacy” (6). These passages illustrate the novel's dissatisfaction with the existing discourse available for the representation of Native Americans, as well as the difficulty of creating a place outside of it. Negotiating with this discourse ultimately entails entering it, and inevitably, the novel reinscribes it to a degree.

Much of the novel's criticism has focused upon its more affirmative characteristics, noting the remarkable degree to which Sedgwick constructs a “sisterhood” between Magawisca and Hope that transcends conventional depictions.8 Singley identifies the “union” between Magawisca and Hope as one which counters “masculine violence” with “the need for feminine healing—a healing not between the Old World of England and the New World of America, as traditional American romances have it, but between the original culture of the Native Americans and the new intrusive society of the Puritans” (47). Even while maintaining this powerful vision, the novel preoccupies itself with the problematic nature of representing this Native American culture; furthermore, while the images this paper has focused upon might, in one sense, point out the novel's short-comings, I argue that Sedgwick, as a skilled artist and a woman in a male-dominated culture, maintained an awareness of language as a medium which distorts even as it fosters the possibility of unity and understanding. Her text, far from simply remaining subject to discursive constraints, becomes a commentary upon those constraints.

The novel's treatment of marriage becomes an important arena in which to explore these constraints, particularly as Sedgwick challenges her culture's assumptions concerning the necessity of marriage in the lives of women. As Singley points out, the novel does conform with the conventions of the period by ending with the marriage of Hope and Everell, indicating that Sedgwick “could not conceive of an ending that would both subvert and rewrite the white patriarchal plot” (49-50, Singley's emphasis). However, the novel also depicts Esther Downing, who chooses to stay single, a decision the narrator supports with a biting statement: “She illustrated [the] truth … that marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman” (350, Sedgwick's emphasis). This statement also underscores where the novel's treatments of race and gender diverge. That is, marriage between Everell and Magawisca becomes not a matter of choice, but a matter of “nature.” At one point in the novel, Everell explains to Digby his feelings for Magawisca: “I might have loved her—might have forgotten that nature had put barriers between us” (214). The surface events of the novel leave this construction of nature intact: Everell marries Hope, thus serving as the means by which the novel conforms to conventions which call for a female protagonist to marry at a novel's conclusion. Together, Everell's statement concerning “nature,” the novel's adherence to certain conventions, as well as Sedgwick's preface calling attention to “condition” as a determining factor in cultural differences, generate textual conflict; yet out of this conflict comes the novel's most provocative “statement” concerning race. Indeed, by conforming to conventions on the surface, Sedgwick actually reveals the degree to which Everell's notion of “nature” exists as a construction of language.

I want to conclude by returning to the reunion scene between Hope and Faith. Here, Hope confronts a newly constructed Faith, literally a product of a language new and unfamiliar to Hope. With Magawisca acting as translator, Hope makes significant use of the negative tropes which occur throughout the narrative: “Ask her … if she remembers the day when the wild Indians sprung upon the family at Bethel, like wolves upon a fold of lambs?” (229). Again, Indians act like “wolves.” But here, these tropes must become translated into the language of the very people denied humanity by such tropes. Magawisca's translation of Hope's question remains outside the reader's realm; we have only Magawisca's translation of Faith's confirmation that she does, in fact, remember the incident. We never know what Magawisca translates—that is, whether or not, or in what form, her translation recreates images of Indians as wild animals.

The importance of the language barrier then becomes paramount, from the moment that Faith's response to Hope's emotional entreaties—“No speak Yengees”—proves halting to the line of communication Hope would take. “Oh what shall I do! what shall I say!” Hope says in response (228). It becomes easy to imagine Hope speaking for Sedgwick's novel, which preoccupies itself with the limitations of language and asks itself similar questions. With Faith no longer sharing Hope's own language, Hope finds herself in the narrow and unknown passageway between languages, an unwritten passageway, in effect, where transformations could and likely do take place. Indeed, this scene of translation becomes the novel's center of gravity in its attempt to imagine an impartial observer, one who can negotiate between the disparate effects produced by conflicting discourses. Just as Magawisca leaves Hope and Everell with the declaration that “the Indian and the white man can no more mingle, and become one, than day and night” (330), so too does this elusive passageway between languages represent a potential mingling of day and night, a crosscultural point of connection.


  1. Sandra Zagarell's excellent reading presents a particularly clear view of the many ways in which Sedgwick's text links gender and race issues. Zagarell points out how the text succeeds in “problematizing the Puritan founders' beliefs and policies,” including “their attitudes towards white women as the domestic analogy of their view of Indians” (236). Likewise, Suzanne Gossett and Barbara Ann Bardes note that “[t]he dilemmas faced by Hope and Magawisca allow Sedgwick to question the legitimacy of a political authority which excludes certain groups in the population, in this case women and Indians” (23). Also, in her introduction to the edition of the novel published in the American Women Writers Series, Mary Kelley elaborates upon Sedgwick's textual perception of Native Americans: “[Sedgwick] dismissed the idea that Indians were inherently inferior and made them as fully human as those who clothed themselves in the mantle of civilization” (xxix).

  2. Singley derives this coin metaphor from her own reading of Zagarell's article, “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.

  3. Zagarell acknowledges that the novel “has its share of conventional formulas and stereotypes,” but her reading revolves around the notion that the novel “casts light on the collusion between the established narrative structures and racist, patriarchal definitions of the nation” (233).

  4. Gould provides the following detailed explanation: “By dislodging the traditional narrative frame for the attack on Mystic, Sedgwick effectively emancipates readerly sympathy for the Pequots consumed by the flames, and hence recovers the humanitarian pathos at the core of domestic virtue which Puritan historians—and their early national descendants—successfully repress” (646).

  5. As Sullivan points out, Roy Harvey Pearce had made this point earlier in Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind (U of California P, 1988), which in 1953 was originally titled The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization.

  6. In her survey of this trend, Barnett notes that “[a]mong major characters in the frontier romance, no Indian girl acquires a white husband” (113).

  7. In “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War,” Philip Gould gives close attention to Digby and the role he plays as a “living metaphor for a masculine historiography with which Hope Leslie now competes” (646). Gould concludes this arresting section by pointing out how Digby's epistemology “fails,” and thus, “Everell—and Sedgwick's reader—clearly need another historian” (647). For more on Sedgwick's revision of the Puritan account of the Pequot War, see Gould's essay.

  8. Zagarell points out one particularly noteworthy way in which Sedgwick undercuts such depictions. Because of Hope's dark hair, Sedgwick “revises the prevalent tendency, racist as well as gynophobic, to split women characters into the sexual and the chaste, the dark and light” (237).

Works Cited

Barnett, Louise J. The Ignoble Savage: American Literary Racism, 1790-1890. Westport: Greenwood, 1975.

Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. “Troping Captivity in Early American Women's Fiction: Rowson, Foster, and Bleecker.” Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. February 1995.

Drinnon, Richard. Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1980.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Catharine Maria Sedgwick. New York: Twayne, 1974.

Foucault, Michel. “Truth and Power.” The Foucault Reader. Ed. Paul Rabinow. New York: Pantheon, 1984. 51-75.

Gossett, Suzanne, and Barbara Ann Bardes. “Women and Political Power in the Republic: Two Early American Novels.” Legacy: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers 2.2 (1985): 13-30.

Gould, Philip. “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War.” American Literature 66 (1994): 641-62.

Kelley, Mary. Introduction. Hope Leslie. By Catharine Maria Sedgwick. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987. ix-xxxix.

Rowlandson, Mary. A True History of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Classic American Autobiographies. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Penguin, 1992. 20-69.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie. 1827. Ed. Mary Kelley. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987.

Singley, Carol J. “Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie: Radical Frontier Romance.” The (Other) American Traditions: Nineteenth-Century Women Writers. Ed. Joyce W. Warren. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1993. 39-53.

Stoddard, Solomon. “Letter to Governor Joseph Dudley.” 1703. Remarkable Providences: Readings on Early American History. Ed. John Demos. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1991. 372-74.

Sullivan, Sherry. “The Literary Debate over ‘the Indian’ in the Nineteenth-Century.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 9 (1985): 13-31.

Zagarell, Sandra A. “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (1987): 225-45.

Judith Fetterley (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10293

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 professional readings of the text have not developed proportionately.1 This lag gains further resonance if we recognize that in little over a decade Sedgwick wrote five major novels—a fictional output equaled only by Cooper. Responding, like Cooper, to the call for a distinctively American literature, she rivaled him in her own day as the writer who could answer Sydney Smith's sneering question, “[W]ho in the four quarters of the globe reads an American book?” by putting America on the literary map. Moreover, like her contemporary, Lydia Huntley Sigourney, she created a space for the woman writer to participate in creating an American literature and hence in constructing the new Republic. While Nina Baym claims that if Sigourney “had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent her,” Catharine Sedgwick could never have been made up, for she exceeds the imagination that did, in fact, as Baym goes on to point out, invent Sigourney as the “epitome of the specifically female author in her range of allowed achievements and required inadequacies.”2 In a certain sense, Catharine Sedgwick is too good to make up, and if she could not have been invented in her own day, neither has she been successfully reinvented in our own.

An essay seeking to explain this phenomenon would, I believe, work against efforts to “reinvent” Catharine Sedgwick, for it would inevitably address the conversations surrounding the construction and reconstruction of nineteenth-century American literary history more than Sedgwick's own texts. In an earlier essay on American women writers and the politics of recovery, I argued that “those of us interested in nineteenth-century American women writers may need to find ways to revitalize modes of criticism no longer fashionable because these modes may represent stages in the process of literary evaluation that we cannot do without,” and I referred specifically to the techniques of close reading associated with the New Criticism of the 1950s and 1960s.3 While those techniques were designed to establish and justify the canonization of a limited set of texts, I believe it is possible to disengage the methodology of New Criticism from its ideology and to use that methodology to serve very different political ends. Indeed, in recovering and reading women's texts from the last century, I think it is not only possible but desirable to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. For if a primary effect of New Critical methodology was to accord value to the objects of its attention—to find them worthy of intensive, sustained analysis, to assign them, in a word, the status of the analyzable—then to apply this methodology to texts that the ideology of New Criticism rejected as unworthy has a potentially radical effect. I would argue further that it is essential to undertake this activity at this moment in the construction of American literary history in order to prevent the possibility that a text such as Hope Leslie will be “re-vanished” on the grounds that there was really nothing to say about it anyway. It is in the effort to prevent such a disappearance that I offer the following unabashedly close reading.

I offer this essay as well as a way of reading texts by nineteenth-century American women that balances the polarity between the hagiography characteristic of the first phase of recovery, a hagiography directly proportional to the misogyny informing previous treatment of these writers and texts, and the critique associated with the second phase, a critique that implicates these writers and their texts in a variety of nineteenth-century racist, classist, and imperialist projects.4 Like other late-twentieth-century readers of these texts, themselves recovering from the intensity associated with the alternating phases of celebration and critique, I want to move beyond the binary opposition of these impulses by proposing that what is admirable about Hope Leslie cannot be separated from what is problematic, and that, moreover, it is this very entanglement that makes the text worth recovering in the first place. In proposing this approach, I am also writing against what has been a primary model for the work of recovery, namely, the assumption that these works can be best understood in terms of a dominant text and a subtext—a conventional surface text that covers and contains a radical subtext (or vice versa, depending on the reader's politics). While such a model may indeed be useful for reading certain works, it tends to produce a false sense of coherence and to rationalize too readily what are clearly incompatible stories. My own approach, based on rhetorical analysis and informed by Joan Scott's work on French feminists, relies more on the concept of paradox than on coherence. Given Scott's analysis of the importance of coherence to the legitimation of ideological/political systems such as the French and American republics, and given her understanding of the role played by the production of “sexual difference” in achieving such coherence in the face of women's actual exclusion from the categories of individual and citizen, we may well conclude that those texts that have “only paradoxes to offer” are the ones we should most work to recover.5


Sedgwick opens Hope Leslie in England with the words of William Fletcher the elder, who represents all that is “old”—loyalty, obedience, sovereignty, authority, law:

“Take good heed that the boy be taught unquestioning and unqualified loyalty to his sovereign—the Alpha and Omega of political duty. … One inquiry should suffice for a loyal subject. ‘What is established?’ and that being well ascertained, the line of duty is so plain, that he who runs may read. … Liberty, what is it! Daughter of disloyalty and mother of all misrule—who, from the hour that she tempted our first parents to forfeit paradise, hath ever worked mischief to our race.”6

Fletcher's admonitions construct a “pre-text” that enables Sedgwick to propose her own theory for the origins of America. In contrast to the efforts of some of her contemporaries who gendered the nation's origins in intensely masculine terms—heroic forefathers battling a howling wilderness and warring against savage enemies—and equated republican America with manliness, Sedgwick offers a different vision of the relation of gender to the new nation. A good rhetorician, Fletcher places his most powerful argument last, convinced that by gendering “Liberty” feminine he will have created a natural and hence insuperable barrier to his nephew's identification with the concept. In the context of Sedgwick's text, however, Fletcher's strategy serves to associate the gendering of America, whether as feminine or masculine, with a specific set of political interests understood as emphatically un-American. Thus, for Sedgwick, America begins with the history of men like the younger William Fletcher who refuse to accept the gendering of “liberty” and are therefore immune to the gender terrorism of being labeled “women.” Though her initial emphasis is on those men willing to pass as “women,” Sedgwick's real agenda is the construction of a rhetoric that will enable women in America to become “men.”

The pre-text of Hope Leslie provides Sedgwick with a pretext for beginning her work as well. Through the story of Alice Fletcher, forcibly prevented from joining her lover in passage to America, returned to her father's home against her will and ordered to marry a man of her father's choosing, Sedgwick represents the fate of biological women in a country where they have no chance of becoming “men.” Though William Fletcher the younger is no seducer, Alice's attempted elopment to America evokes the history of Charlotte Temple. In Hope Leslie, Sedgwick defines Charlotte Temple, one of the most popular stories in America, even in 1827, as essentially un-American, a story of the old country, for whether dragged off by a seducer or dragged home by a father, women in stories like Charlotte Temple are subject to patriarchal control. Committed to the structures of heterosexual romantic love, both Charlotte and Alice seek America for the wrong reasons. In preventing Alice from reaching America, Sedgwick in effect reverses and undoes the story of Charlotte Temple, clearing the ground for a new and different story based on a different understanding of America. Moreover, Sedgwick embeds Charlotte Temple in the text of Hope Leslie through the story of Rosa and Sir Philip, and, as Christopher Castiglia has observed, when she concludes her own novel with an explosion that blows up both seduced and seducer, we recognize her desire to annihilate romantic love with its plot of “seduced and abandoned” as a basis for the story of America.7

Romantic love stands between women and the possibility of becoming “men” in part because it reifies the separation of public and private by gender, thus supporting a model of the civic in which events in the private sphere cannot or need not have any effect on the public sphere. In challenging this model, Sedgwick not only goes beyond the postulates of Enlightenment liberal feminism that did not, for the most part, challenge the division between public and private but only argued for women's larger inclusion in the public sphere; she also rewrites her own family history. As Mary Kelley has noted in her introduction to The Power of Her Sympathy, Sedgwick's father, whom she admired, even adored, assumed that service to one's country required putting aside the claims of the domestic and the private, even when doing so led to the depression, illness, and death of his wife.8 According to Kelley, in the autobiographical memoir Sedgwick began when she was in her sixties, she articulates, however indirectly, the cost to women like her mother of her father's definition of citizenship, one that led him to serve twelve years in Congress and to be absent from home for long periods of time despite the evident distress this caused his wife. Much earlier, however, in Hope Leslie, Sedgwick had argued that there can be no meaningful understanding of public good separate from a recognition of its “private” cost, that in fact the true America cannot be built by men and women like her father and mother. Rather, the construction of America falls to the decidedly antiromantic Hope Leslie and to her “brother” Everell, whose understanding of citizenship makes no distinction between the public and private. When Everell rejects Governor Winthrop's argument for refusing to release Magawisca—namely, that “private feelings must yield to the public good”—he does so because he recognizes that in such formulations one person's private needs are in fact recast as public good (234).9


When the younger William Fletcher arrives in Boston, he almost immediately finds it necessary to move further west to achieve the condition of liberty for which he left the mother country. When the new so quickly becomes the old, when here becomes there, “America” emerges as a future possibility, perhaps an ever-receding one, but certainly one not yet realized in colonial Boston or the early republic of the United States. In this context the ahistoricity of Hope Leslie, a republican heroine two hundred years before her time who still occupies a space of future possibility in relation to “the girls of today,” becomes legible as well. And if “America” is essentially a future possibility, then fiction provides an appropriate space for its construction through an imaginative act that might move the present toward that desired future. In Women of the Republic, Linda Kerber argues persuasively that in the years between 1790 and 1820 American women “were left to invent their own political character” and that they did so primarily by devoting their political imagination and energy to the construction of Republican motherhood.10 Writing some few years after the end of the period Kerber analyzes, Sedgwick proposes in Hope Leslie a different and more radical model for the inclusion of women in the American republic, a model I call “Republican sisterhood.” While Republican motherhood brought women into the public and political sphere by focusing on a woman's role as the mother of sons and hence a producer of the nation's future citizens, Hope Leslie emphasizes the figure left out of this picture, the daughter, and holds out the hope that a daughter need not be a mother. Indeed, if Republican motherhood left the daughter out of the picture, absorbing her into the figure of the mother by conceiving of her as merely a mother in the making, Hope Leslie reverses the image, imagining the disappearance of the mother through her absorption into the daughter. Equally significant, the removal of the mother allows the son to be reconfigured as brother and substitutes the relation of brother and sister for the iconography of mother and son. In Hope Leslie, then, the daughter imagined primarily as a sister occupies the center of the picture, and because she inhabits the same subject position as her brother—in contrast to the Republican mother, whose subject position differs significantly from that of her son—she offers a different basis and hence an alternative model for women's inclusion in the American republic.

Sedgwick begins the text proper of her novel with Hope Leslie writing a very long letter to her absent “brother,” Everell Fletcher. Since letters in Hope Leslie figure as the site where one's “true” identity is revealed (for example, when we read Sir Philip's letters we discover who he “really” is), introducing Hope Leslie through letters authenticates her character, giving the reader grounds for believing that she really is what she appears to be. Moreover, if letters provide evidence of one's “true” identity, they by necessity provide evidence of identity itself. By writing, Hope reveals not only who she really is but that she really is; she establishes her ability to construct a coherent and functioning “I” and hence her possession of the kind of literacy that matters for citizenship—the literacy of subjectivity that makes her capable of writing her own version of “history.” Further, with this epistolary opening the narrative voice is displaced by a character's voice, signaling from the outset the degree to which character voice and narrative voice are one and the same. In this text, then, whose pre-text includes not only the removal of Hope's biological mother but also of her potential surrogate mother, Mrs. Fletcher, the attack on Republican motherhood implicit in the violence of Mrs. Fletcher's removal extends even to narrative strategy, for in Hope Leslie there will be no “mother” voice to cover and contain the daughter.

Though the logic of Republican sisterhood requires the prior existence of the brother as ground for the claims of the sister, Sedgwick's narrative imaginatively inverts this priority to create a subliminal argument more radical still than the one she makes explicitly. This opening scene presents Everell as removed: Hope writes to him on the anniversary of his “recovery” from his first removal because he is once again removed, this time to England. Thus Sedgwick positions Hope as the original American, Eve preceding Adam in the garden.11 Though this American Eve clearly needs her Adam/Everell, this need is not the need of romantic love, of opposites attracting and completing each other; rather, it is the need to discover someone just like her, someone who will identify with and be identical to her, who will mirror and support her. Though Hope possesses the literacy of subjectivity without Everell, her ability to construct him as identical to her plays a considerable part in her ability to construct herself through writing. Reporting her testimony to the magistrates on the question of Nelema's escape, Hope writes, “What I would fain call courage, Mr. Pynchon thought necessary to rebuke as presumption:—‘Thou art somewhat forward, maiden,’ he said, ‘in giving thy opinion; but thou must know, that we regard it but as the whistle of a bird; withdraw, and leave judgment to thy elders’” (109). Clearly speech can be equivalent to silence, depending on who listens; and just as clearly Hope's literacy—her ability to write her own history, in which defending Nelema is understood as courage, not presumption—depends upon Everell's sympathetic ear.

Sedgwick's argument for the inclusion of women as equal partners in the American republic, whether now or in the future, depends upon the rhetoric of identity between brother and sister, a key component of Enlightenment liberal feminism. Thus Sedgwick carefully positions Everell as Hope's brother—his father should have been hers, her mother should have been his, they are raised together, and Hope signs her letter “sister,” addressing him as “brother.” Moreover, Sedgwick's initial description of Everell could easily describe Hope as well: “His smooth brow and bright curling hair, bore the stamp of the morning of life; hope and confidence and gladness beamed in the falcon glance of his keen blue eye; and love and frolic played about his lips. … [H]is quick elastic step truly expressed the untamed spirit of childhood” (22). We hardly need the word “hope” here to recognize the identity of this boy to the girl who bounds from the litter carrying her to Bethel and dashes forward to be reunited with her sister.

When, in the second half of the text, Sedgwick reintroduces her characters to each other upon Everell's return from England, she is even more careful to employ the rhetoric of sameness. She describes Hope as “open, fearless, and gay,” with a face that reflects her “sportive, joyous, and kindly” feelings. Physically, Hope has the “elastic step and ductile grace which belongs to all agile animals”; intellectually, she has “permitted her mind to expand beyond the contracted boundaries of sectarian faith” (122, 123). In Everell, we find “a youth in manhood's earliest prime, with a frank, intelligent, and benevolent countenance over which … joy and anxiety flitted with rapid vicissitude” (124). Later we hear of his “unsubdued gaiety,” his “unconstrained freedom,” and the charm of his “ease, simplicity, and frankness” (136). Thus Hope is open and Everell frank; Everell is intelligent and Hope has an expanded mind; Hope is filled with kindly feelings and Everell is benevolent—the list could be expanded but the point is clear.

Though Sedgwick creates an escape hatch that will allow her to conform at the eleventh hour to the conventions of the novel and specifically of the historical romance, the relationship between Hope and Everell is decidedly antiromantic. Moreover, Everell's “universal” desirability—all the girls adore him—leads one to suspect that he functions less as an object of love than as the sign of a desired state of being, a desired subjectivity. He is what girls want to be more than to have, the brother as mirror and ground for what the American sister can also become, the point of comparison that enables women in America to imagine themselves as “men.”


Writing to Everell, Hope describes how she managed, despite the initial resistance of her “father” and aunt, to become one of a party of men venturing to climb a nearby mountain: “I urged, that our new country develops faculties that young ladies, in England, were unconscious of possessing” (98). In this carefully crafted comment, Sedgwick indicates the difference America makes: young women in England possess the same faculties as young women in America, but England keeps women unconscious and therefore undeveloped. America allows a woman like Hope Leslie to recognize in herself the same faculties developed and promoted in her “brother”—namely, those quintessential American virtues of independence, self-reliance, and self-determination. America develops in women the ability to think critically and hence to challenge established authority. Hope insists not only on the physical freedom to climb mountains and visit graveyards alone at night; she insists on intellectual freedom as well, having learned from the arguments of those around her to doubt all dogma and to let her mind expand “like the bird that spreads his wings and soars above the limits” (123). Perhaps most crucially, America develops in women that “reverence of self” that Judith Sargent Murray claimed was essential for the success of the new Republic in her essay of 1784, “Desultory Thoughts upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms.” Proposing that she “would early impress under proper regulations, a reverence of self …, that dignity, which is ever attendant upon self-approbation, arising from the genuine source of innate rectitude,” Murray further suggests that such reverence for self would cure the “depression of soul” that she, like Mary Wollstonecraft, saw as afflicting many women “all their life long.”12

Though Sedgwick gives Murray's concept a far more radical cast, Hope Leslie is clearly characterized by a “reverence of self … arising from the genuine source of innate rectitude.” As Aunt Grafton puts it, “It's what everybody knows, who knows Hope, that she never did a wrong thing” (177)—and her hopefulness can be directly linked to her self-approbation. Moreover, Hope's reverence for self leads her to a decided lack of reverence for established authority, simply because it is established. Though rebuked for her “levity” and irreverence in suggesting to Mr. Holioke that they name the mountain they have just climbed after him, she observes that “the good man has never since spoken of his name-sake, without calling it ‘Mount Holioke,’” an observation designed to indicate to Everell that she has taken the measure of such men (101).

Hope's lack of reverence for authority manifests itself more seriously, however, in her willingness to challenge decisions on matters pertaining to the state and the “public good.” Despite the disapproval of authority, Hope speaks out in defense of Nelema and when she fails to be heard takes matters into her own hands, releasing the prisoner and effecting her escape. Similarly, Hope agrees to participate in Everell's plan to free Magawisca, thereby risking her freedom and even her life by putting herself in the way of Sir Philip Gardiner and his plot. Indeed, Hope's courage in choosing to challenge the authority of the state becomes more pronounced when we recognize the degree to which the state perceives itself to be in danger and is willing to mobilize against such danger, whether real or apparent. References to treason and sedition, to plots against the state, appear with considerable frequency in Hope Leslie, a story that takes place against the background of the English Civil War with its monitory icon of a beheaded king. Within the text we have the multiply treacherous Sir Philip, the imprisoned Thomas Morton, instances of treachery within and among Indian tribes and between Indians and whites, and the threat of a possible conspiracy among the Indians to annihilate the English settlers. Though Sedgwick minimizes the reality of the last threat by portraying the Indian tribes as weak, dispirited, and internally divided, Hope's decision to free Magawisca suggests that she is indeed willing to take treason as her text in order to realize the possibility of America.13 Thus the model of citizenship Sedgwick proposes as necessary to actualize the rhetorical premise of the equality of brother and sister requires acts of civil disobedience that may be labeled treason. Founded in the original treason of defying gender terrorism, the true and gender-neutral America may require continued acts of treason for its ultimate realization.

Sedgwick refrains, however, from making this claim an overt part of her text, for Magawisca's release in fact provokes no reprisal. Though Governor Winthrop does occasional duty as a patriarchal heavy, “impatient to put jesses on this wild bird of yours, while she is on our perch” by marrying her to William Hubbard, future author of the infamous portrayal of the slaughter of the Pequods whom Sedgwick quotes in her text, he also figures as the reconstructed father, reborn during the passage to America because he is willing to embrace the identity of “mother” and “daughter” in the pursuit of America (155). Thus we are led to believe that Winthrop too secretly desires Magawisca's release and approves of, even identifies with, Hope's act. In Hope Leslie, then, Sedgwick accomplishes nothing less than the deployment of biological woman as the representative American. Witty, smart, compassionate, gutsy, Hope Leslie is a lover of self and a challenger of arbitrary authority who, while insisting on her physical and intellectual freedom, is willing to take extreme risks for what she believes. She is a remarkably “American” figure, yet one whom we will not see again in American fiction for a long time. And despite the treasonous implications of her text, Sedgwick manages to keep Hope out of jail, both literally and figuratively. Yet we might well be justified in asking at what cost Sedgwick has produced this amazingly hopeful story. I turn now to a complex answer to this question, one that will, not surprisingly, present a far more complicated and less hopeful story.


Hope Leslie is clearly meant to be hopeful, yet whether by design or slip its title acknowledges the existence of a different tonality and a text that might as accurately be named Hope-lessly. As Dana Nelson observes in her own analysis, “tension and ambivalence mark the [text],” and “Hope Leslie is finally equivocal.”14 While Nelson locates this ambivalence partly in Sedgwick's investment in “Anglo-America's historical inheritance” and partly in the uneven developments of critique (“cultural hegemony is pervasive, and enlightenment not always foolproof”),15 reading Sedgwick as both radical and conservative, I wish to argue that contradictions are an inevitable element of Sedgwick's project and that one cannot separate Hope Leslie from Hope-lessly. Slippages occur in the hope-ful text that operate as a kind of modulation, enabling us to move from one tonal register to another and to recognize that they are both part of the same composition. Writing to Everell, Hope remarks, “As you already know, Everell, therefore it is no confession, I love to have my own way” (114). While this phrase can seem a gender-neutral assertion of independence, a version of that “universal” American quality celebrated, for example, in Thoreau's “different drummer,” in this context it has overtones of the willful, the self-indulgent, and the personal that can make it seem gender-specific, not indeed the locution of a “brother.” Later, when Hope insists on remaining alone overnight on the island where Digby, the former family servant now himself modulated into the independent supervisor of the Governor's garden, resides, he situates her desire to have her own way in the context of America: “Why this having our own way, is what every body likes; it's the privilege we came to this wilderness world for” (225). Yet he also subtly undercuts the legitimacy of Hope's insistence by suggesting the potential irresponsibility of her willfulness: “I always said, Miss Hope, it was a pure mercy you chose the right way, for you always had yours” (225). Moreover, as events unfold, it becomes clear that Hope does not always choose the right way and that her insistence on having her own way places others as well as herself in danger. “Having my own way” becomes similarly gendered still later when Hope has recourse to methods of manipulation that can easily be labeled “feminine.” In order to persuade Barnaby to let her visit Magawisca even though she does not have the authorizing pass, she bursts into tears, knowing that Barnaby will be unable to refuse “this little kindness” to “one who had been an angel of mercy to his habitation” (308).

Sedgwick similarly problematizes Hope's “reverence of self.” In one of the novel's strangest scenes, she acknowledges certain anxieties on the subject of Hope's self-love, anxieties perhaps aggravated by her refusal to create a narrative voice that would itself put “jesses” on her character through narrative distance. Hope escapes being raped by the drunken sailors she encounters on her flight from Oneco by impersonating a Catholic saint; and while she justifies her act by claiming that the woman who became a saint “might not have been a great deal better than myself” (271), the excessiveness of her claim reminds readers that, where women are concerned, it may be hard to distinguish between an appropriate reverence for self and an inappropriate willingness to let the self be reverenced, for in a historical context in which self-love is specifically proscribed for women and in which women are socially constructed as selfless, self-love may seem, and even be, narcissistic. Thus while Sedgwick does present the rhetoric of “sister equals brother” as fixed and absolute, providing the theoretical ground for a gender-neutral America, she also, like Scott's French feminists who argue both “for the identity of all individuals and the difference of women,”16 allows gender to function as a powerful field of force, destablizing the rhetoric of equality and suggesting significant distinctions between sisters and brothers. If we return to the scene in question for a moment, we can move still closer to an understanding of the rhetorical complexity of Hope Leslie, for the very mechanism Sedgwick uses to restabilize her rhetoric of equality points to and opens up the central rhetorical fissure of the text.

When Esther rebukes Hope for taking her rescue out of the hands of providence and into her own, and for supporting superstition even to save her own life, Everell turns “disappointed away,” recognizing only the difference between Esther and Hope (272). Implicitly asserting his identification with Hope, his response returns her reverence of self to the gender-neutral context of American self-reliance. In this scene, however, Esther becomes the scapegoat, attracting all the negative energy that might otherwise be directed at Hope. Indeed, throughout the text Hope is compared explicitly and implicitly to various “sisters” and, with the exception of Magawisca, always to her advantage. Primary among these sisters are, of course, the “English” twins, Rosa and Esther. Both are women who accept male authority and see their own position as subordinate, who regard romance and religion as the main concerns of women, and who accept the separation of public and private, which entails their own confinement to the latter. Though superficially Rosa appears the opposite of the severe, chaste, and religious Esther, their equal susceptibility to romantic love, with its attendant addiction to masculine authority and consequent lack of self-reverence, links them and distinguishes them from Hope.

But what are we to make of a text in which the logic of the sister-sister relationship is so different from the logic of the sister-brother relationship? What are we to make of a text that seeks to establish equality between brother and sister while insisting on distinctions among sisters, thus presumably arguing that only some sisters get to be equal to brothers, only some women get to be sisters? What are we to make of a text that is so hard on “sisters,” in which Rosa commits suicide, Jennet is blown up, and Esther is exiled? This question becomes particularly acute and particularly painful when we turn our attention to the real sisters in the text. But it is only when we turn our attention to these figures that we can begin to grasp the complexity of Hope Leslie and to comprehend the extent of Sedgwick's “hopelessness.”


Perhaps no scene in Hope Leslie is so troubling as the one in which Hope is temporarily reunited with her long-lost sister, Mary/Faith/White Bird. (This sister, we might note, has another name, the Indian words translated as White Bird, that even Sedgwick recognizes cannot be uttered within her text.) This scene becomes less strange, however, if we read it as the moment when “Hope Leslie” encounters “Hope-lessly,” when Sedgwick confronts the contradictory impulses of her text and her own rhetorical dilemma. In this scene, we see a different Hope, one who is revolted by rather than respectful of difference, one who cannot imagine that her sister has made choices or even that she has any life at all. Hope seems desperate to recover her sister, yet her efforts place that sister in actual danger; she is obsessed with keeping her sister, yet she loses her by resorting to cheap tricks. While we may understand why Hope views her sister as lost, we are less able to see why she should care so much, since she has been separated from this sister for years and has lived quite hopefully without her. Nor can we readily understand why she finds her sister's Indianness sickening and disgusting, since up to this point Hope's interactions with Indians have fallen within the liberal humanist and unitarian position of respect, recognition of essential sameness, and, in the case of Nelema, one might argue, even covert identification. Here, as elsewhere, Sedgwick's narrative voice doubles Hope's perspective, for Hope too constructs Mary as simply not there, without language or memory: her face “pale and spiritless was only redeemed from absolute vacancy by an expression of gentleness and modesty” (229). Though one might expect Sedgwick to recognize the implications of the word “vacant,” echoing as it does the phrase vacuum domicilium used by the English to justify their appropriation of Native American lands (126), like Hope she seems suddenly to be confronted with a difference so profound that she can only represent the fact that she can not represent it.17 But the difference of this scene, its strangeness and excessiveness, as well as its obvious contradictions—Hope wants to keep her sister but goes about it in a way guaranteed to lose her—forces us to confront extraordinary embedded questions: Why does Hope wish to recover her sister, why is she unsuccessful, and why is the experience of loss and failure so traumatic, placing her in both literal and spiritual danger? Answers to these questions become clearer if we raise another query: Who is the sister whom Hope has really lost and seeks to recover?

When Hope first encounters Magawisca, disguised as a stranger selling moccasins who shows her a “necklace of hair and gold entwined together,” she exclaims, “‘My sister! my sister!’” (183). As Sandra Zagarell has observed, Sedgwick carefully constructs the relation of Hope and Magawisca as that of “metaphoric sisters. Their first meeting takes place in the Boston cemetery in which their mothers are buried. … In Winthrop, Magawisca and Hope share a symbolic Puritan father, … and they are literal sisters-in-law.”18 Moreover, when Hope finally meets Magawisca she is in effect recovering her “brother's” lost “sister.” In this context we might be justified in reading Mary's “vacantness” as a sign that she represents a space actually occupied by someone else; she is not there because she is in fact not the “true” sister. If we imagine this sister to be Magawisca, then indeed we can begin to understand Hope's hopelessness.

In her preface, Sedgwick identifies Magawisca as the figure who represents her own creativity; in imagining Magawisca she allowed herself to move from the “actual” to the “possible.” Given that in this text America itself is conceived as the possible, we might reasonably assume that for Sedgwick the fate of America is inextricably linked to the fate of Magawisca. Rhetorically speaking, Magawisca's function in the text is clear; she makes the argument, articulated by Sedgwick in her preface, “that the elements of virtue and intellect are not withheld from any branch of the human family” and “that the difference of character among the various races of the earth, arises mainly from difference of condition” (6). In other words, she makes the argument that “red equals white,” just as Hope makes the argument that “sister equals brother.” Moreover, Magawisca realizes the more radical implications of Sedgwick's rhetoric, for having “obtained an ascendancy over her father's mind by her extraordinary gifts and superior knowledge,” she has acquired substantial political power in the world of the fathers, effectively displacing her brother in her father's affection and, more significantly, in his council (326). In a word, she is the daughter understood as son.

Presumably, when Magawisca returns to Boston, Hope has the opportunity to recover this sister as well as her birth sister, but ultimately Magawisca is as lost to her as Mary. We must then ask the final and most painful question: Why can't Hope keep this sister; why, like Rachel seeking her lost children, must she continue to lament, “‘Oh, my sister! my sister!’” (188)?


At the end of Hope Leslie both Hope and Everell beg Magawisca to remain in Boston and become “American,” and to the degree that Sedgwick's rhetorical model has constructed her as same and equal this plea seems eminently reasonable. During Magawisca's trial, Sir Philip has been noticeably unsuccessful in his effort to render her as “other,” since she so clearly possesses those virtues understood as “universal” and particularly those understood as universal to women (note, for example, the reference to “the modesty of her sex” [282]). Yet from the outset Sedgwick has also constructed Magawisca under the mark of difference. Though introduced as one “beautiful even to an European eye,” in contrast to Everell, who “bore the stamp of the morning of life; hope and confidence and gladness,” Magawisca's expression is one of “thoughtfulness, and deep dejection …, the legible record of her birth and wrongs” (23, 22, 23). Indeed, it is Magawisca's difference as much as her sameness that makes her attractive to Everell. In describing the interaction of Everell and Magawisca to her absent husband, Mrs. Fletcher describes a relationship that we might now identify as ideally multicultural:

“The boy doth greatly affect the company of the Pequod girl, Magawisca. If, in his studies, he meets with any trait of heroism, (and with such, truly, her mind doth seem naturally to assimilate) he straightway calleth for her and rendereth it into English, in which she hath made such marvellous progress, that I am sometimes startled with the beautiful forms in which she clothes her simple thoughts. She, in her turn, doth take much delight in describing to him the customs of her people, and relating their traditionary tales, which are like pictures, captivating to a youthful imagination.”


Similar enough to inhabit the same world, Magawisca and Everell are yet different enough to provide opportunities for each other's growth. Indeed, one could argue that Everell's and Hope's “expanded” minds depend upon Magawisca's difference, for they could not present themselves as open, tolerant, and unprejudiced if there were no differences to overcome. Yet Sedgwick's rhetorical model has no way of recognizing difference as an argument for equality. If Magawisca were to agree at the end to remain in “America,” she would not in fact be able to retain those differences of race, religion, and culture that actually constitute her value. For if one argues for citizenship by invoking the rhetoric of equality, how can one at the same time promote a respect for difference? In thus confronting the limitations of her rhetorical model, Sedgwick indicates that political situations are actually far more complex than the rhetorical models designed to address them. We might recognize the persistence of this problem today in the language of affirmative action, for the phrase “women and minorities,” by making women white and minorities male, excludes minority women. Since in the rhetoric of liberalism white men are understood as grounding all claims for equality, those who cannot be equated with them by either race or gender have no basis for their claims. One could make the affirmative action phrase inclusive by specifying “white women and minorities” or “women and minority males,” but only at the cost of rhetorical power and the risk of being meaningless.

In this context we might acknowledge Sedgwick's courage in seeking to accomplish the rhetorically difficult and culturally unimaginable move of equating the racialized woman with the white man. Though her primary energy is clearly devoted to the equation of white women with white men, the relationship of Magawisca and Everell actually precedes that of Hope and Everell and constitutes an unprecedented and unduplicated moment in American literary history. That such an extraordinary equation should ultimately prove unstable and the strategy for accomplishing it unworkable is hardly surprising. Indeed, I have already indicated the inherent incompatibility of the value of difference with the rhetoric of equality. If we consider as well the issue of rhetorical power, we will find a further source of difficulty, for the rhetorical power of the equation of sister and brother finds its ground in the nonnegotiable privilege of the brother. To argue for the equation of sister with brother so as to make gender the sole and hence potentially insignificant variable requires from the outset a certain occlusion of race and class privilege. In making this argument, Sedgwick inevitably commits herself to a construction of the sister and brother as equally privileged except in the area of gender. Like Everell, Hope is rich, white, literate, and the beloved child of a member of the ruling elite. If we return for a moment to our first encounter with her, we may discover that her understanding of the privilege attendant upon difference is as powerful as her recognition of the privilege to be gained from similarity.

We first see Hope exercising her American sense of independence, which is also her feminine insistence on having her own way, when, over the protests of the Indian men who are carrying her, she leaps from the litter, giving each a tap on his ear “for,” as she puts it, “your sulkiness” (70). That Hope's motive for exercising the privilege of race is her overwhelming desire to be reunited with her sister who has in fact just then “gone native” only underscores the extraordinary complexity of this text. Placing the problematic of the sister-sister relationship at the heart of a text designed to propose optimistically and even breezily the nonproblematic equation of brother and sister requires Sedgwick to critique the very rhetoric that structures her text. For a rhetoric designed to bring privileged white women into citizenship may not do much for their differently raced (or classed) sisters. To put it slightly differently, as long as the rhetoric of equality begins from the ground of the “brother,” there will be no place in America for “my sister! my sister!”


We might, however, be advisedly suspicious of an argument that explains Hope's loss solely in terms of the limitations of a rhetorical model, for hopelessness seems an excessive response to rhetorical frustration. To understand the text of Hope-lessly, we must look more closely at the relationship of Magawisca and Everell and at the reasons for the instability of this particular equation. In so doing we may discover not only an additional rhetorical complexity; we may also uncover the more profound emotional and political causes of this complexity and instability, for such an investigation leads inevitably to a recognition of the difference between the sister-sister relationship and the brother-sister equation.

Though Sedgwick clearly constructs Hope Leslie as an alternate history of relations between whites and Native Americans with Magawisca as an alternative to the image of both the savage savage (she is noble) and the noble savage (she is “white”), nothing in her text suggests that Sedgwick can imagine a future for Magawisca within America. Indeed, as we have noted, while Everell is introduced in terms of future possibility (“the morning of life”), Magawisca is consistently described by images that suggest the “evening” of life—something fading, disappearing. In her final exchange with Everell and Hope, Magawisca herself points to the impossibility, and perhaps even the speciousness of their hopes: “It cannot be—it cannot be. … [T]he Indian and the white man can no more mingle, and become one, than day and night” (330). While we surely would not fault Sedgwick for failing to imagine what no one of her time seemed capable of imagining—that is, how there could be a nation within a nation, persons who could be at once Indians and Americans—we might well fault her for participating in the “cult of the Vanishing American,” that “elegiac mode” so common to the literature of the period that by asserting the inevitability of Indian removal naturalizes as it deplores it. Sedgwick's text could be said to accomplish what Lora Romero has called “the historical sleight-of-hand crucial to the topos of the doomed aboriginal: it represents the disappearance of the native as not just natural but as having already happened.”19 Though Sedgwick acknowledges at various points within Hope Leslie the actual motive behind the removal of native Americans (the desire for their land), and though she herself may well have protested the Indian Removal Act of 1830, she does not choose to use her text as an opportunity to challenge American complacency and complicity in removal or to propose that the failure to solve the conundrum of difference lies more in a lack of commitment than in the limitations of rhetorical models or a failure of imagination. Given the extent of Sedgwick's investment in Magawisca, we might well ask why she is willing to let her go. Or, to put it somewhat differently, we might ask whether or not Magawisca's removal serves interests still more powerful than those that would be served by her inclusion.

In the scene that begins a sequence of events that by their strangeness, their difference bring all the problems of the text to the surface, Digby makes an observation that seems to come out of nowhere: “Time was,” says Digby, speaking to Everell, “when I viewed you as good as mated with Magawisca”; and Everell himself acknowledges, “I might have loved her” (214). Digby continues, however, by observing that it was just as well that Magawisca had “disappeared” before Hope's arrival at Bethel, “for I believe it would have broken [her] heart, to have been put in that kind of eclipse by Miss Leslie's coming between you and her,” and he concludes by saying, “Now all is as it should be” (214). Digby's sense of resolution is, of course, premature, as it precipitates Hope's announcement of Everell and Esther's “engagement.” In her haste to give Everell away to someone else, we might read an acknowledgment of Hope's discomfort with Digby's model of “natural” succession; indeed, we might read her response as evidence of her sense of the “unnaturalness” of her displacement of Magawisca and of the violence required to bring about the “should be” of her possession of Everell. While, as I have argued, the text of Hope Leslie is decidedly antiromantic, it may be more than just the conventions of the novel that brings about the intrusion of romance at this point in the text. Indeed, it may be that romance here serves to identify the heart of the problem in the relationship of sister to sister. For if Hope and Magawisca are constructed as rivals for the possession of Everell, then the relationship of sister to sister becomes antagonistic to that of sister to brother. And if this is so, we might expect to see as much effort directed to disrupting as to constructing the equation between sister and sister. In this context, we can better understand the relentless construction of difference between Hope and her sisters—Rosa, Esther, and Jennet—for this cumulative construction of difference supports the key distinction between Magawisca and Hope, which is muddled by the presentation of Magawisca as the red who equals white yet is clearly essential to removing Magawisca from competition with Hope.

To return, then, to the question of why Hope is unsuccessful in recovering her sister, we might say that the answer lies in the fact that as much as she wishes to recover her she equally wishes to remove her. And if we reconsider what Hope sees when she looks at her sister, we may understand more fully why she might desire her removal. In Mary's “vacantness” Hope confronts the terror of nonidentity—that absence of and from self she hopes to escape through identification with her brother—to which her identification with her sister inevitably leads. And in Mary's “degradation” Hope confronts the reality of her position as a woman, whether white or red, in the American republic of then and now. In this context, Sedgwick's assumption of the insignificance of gender, so essential to the hopeful part of Hope Leslie, turns into a fantasy designed to obscure the actual fact of women's radical inequality. References to the degraded condition of women break through the text in figures like Mrs. Fletcher, Madam Winthrop, Rosa, Esther, and even Magawisca, for in this context Magawisca's “redness” can be read less as a sign of race and more as a sign of gender. The rhetoric of sibling equality, then, works differently for sister and sister than for brother and sister; indeed, the one destabilizes the other as it threatens to reinforce the actual inequality of sister and brother by underscoring the significance of gender. For sisterhood, however powerful it may become, begins with the recognition of mutual misery, perhaps the reason that Hope flees the weeping Rosa. If equation with the brother represents for the sister a securing of identity and an accession to power, and if equation with the sister represents a potential threat to these possibilities, then we can appreciate the value of the construction of difference between sisters, for such difference provides the sole protection against the disintegration of identity embodied in sister Mary, “gone native.”

Yet we must finally return to the implications of Sedgwick's decision to racialize the figure I have been calling the “real” sister. If we assume that her primary goal was to equate Hope and Everell and secondarily to equate Magawisca and Everell, and that these two equations would result in a third, that of Hope and Magawisca, we must ask what went wrong. The answer to this question lies not simply in the limitations of a rhetorical model that cannot at once argue for equality through sameness and promote a recognition of the value of cultural difference as an alternative basis for equality. Nor does it lie simply in the fact that the claim for the insignificance of gender is compromised by the equation of sister with sister. Rather, it also lies in the fact that Sedgwick had ultimately to confront her fear that her case for the equality of white women would be undermined if she made the same case for racially other women, that her argument for gender would be hopelessly compromised by the issue of race. Unable to imagine how she could both be and have her brother if she must also serve as the ground for her sister's equation with the brother, indeed if she must share him with her sister, Hope chooses to lose her sister.20 In Hope Leslie, then, racial passing comes to seem as impossible and incomprehensible as gender passing seems obvious and simple, and the opportunity to become “men” is reserved for white women. And since the text imaginatively presents racial passing as more possible than gender passing—sister Mary becomes Indian, Magawisca could be white, but Rosa is unconvincingly male—we might argue that the construction of racial difference implicit in Hope's losing her sister is in fact essential to the argument for gender equality. If such be the case, then the rhetoric of Hope Leslie is hopelessly at odds with itself.21


Hope Leslie provides powerful evidence of the anxiety that accompanies an argument for the equality of white middle-class “American” women. When Sir Philip Gardiner visits Magawisca in jail and is accidentally locked up in a cell with Thomas Morton, he experiences a terror out of proportion to either his situation or his character. We might therefore be justified in reading this terror symptomatically—somebody is afraid of being caught, imprisoned, and driven mad as the consequence of challenging the state. In Declarations of Independence, Bardes and Gossett acknowledge “the repeated concern with prisons and imprisonment found in Sedgwick's novels,” and suggest that this pattern derives from Sedgwick's recognition that those who challenge authority, particularly women, may well end up in prison.22 Indeed, within the text of Hope Leslie we find a representation of the woman whose claim to equality met with banishment and death, not indulgence and acceptance. This figure serves to remind us of the radical nature of Hope Leslie's rhetoric of gender equality and of the potential danger in making such a claim. I refer, of course, to the figure of Anne Hutchinson, who makes her appearance almost immediately in the America of Hope Leslie. When Mr. Fletcher haltingly tries to tell his wife that the two children of his beloved Alice have arrived in Boston, she is “perplexed by his embarrassment,” and immediately inquires, “[H]as poor deluded Mrs. Hutchinson again presumed to disturb the peace of God's people?” (19). That Hope Leslie's arrival in America should be marked by a reference to Anne Hutchinson seems hardly accidental. Although, according to Amy Lang, the view of Anne Hutchinson as “prompted to dissent by her resentment of the lowly status assigned women in New England” is “doubtful on a number of counts,” what is clear, as Lang further observes, is that she came to be seen as the embodiment of the radical possibilities for women of the American experiment, the transformation attendant upon that North Atlantic passage.23 In this light, her fate came to be understood as representing the danger attendant upon the argument for gender equality because it exposed the lengths to which male authority would go to protect its own interest.

This reading of Anne Hutchinson was, of course, particularly true for the early nineteenth century, and to find Hutchinson so immediately on the threshold of our text suggests that she provides a powerful interpretive frame for what follows, just as she does later for Hawthorne. Her significance is further underscored by the prominence in Hope Leslie of Governor Winthrop, historically the architect of her persecution, and by the fact that the trial of Magawisca corresponds with the date of Anne Hutchinson's death. Since the supporters of Hutchinson refused to take part in the expedition against the Pequods, we might be justified in reading the trial of Magawisca as a coded representation of the trial of Anne Hutchinson. But what, then, would we make of this “fact”?

For one thing, as previously suggested, the presence of Anne Hutchinson signals the radical nature of Sedgwick's argument for gender equality and identifies the dangers of taking up such an argument. For another, the displacement of the figure of Anne Hutchinson from Hope Leslie to Magawisca suggests that Sedgwick determined to handle this danger by removal, creating a text that potentially argues for the equality of race but ultimately abandons that potential to participate in the ideology of removal, the “inevitable” and “natural” disappearance of the Indian. That such a move serves the purpose of making the argument for gender equality look less radical by comparison seems clear. However, that the price Sedgwick pays for this strategy may be so extreme as to call into question the value of her entire rhetorical enterprise seems equally clear, for the identities of Catharine Sedgwick, Hope Leslie, Magawisca, and Anne Hutchinson are hopelessly entangled in this text, and to exclude Magawisca from the rhetoric of equality leaves a text as disfigured and disarmed as Magawisca herself. Yet the power of Hope Leslie lies in this very entanglement, and Sedgwick's most radical act may be to propose that a text so disfigured and disarmed is the only meaningful, whole text possible for an author willing to risk engagement with the actual mess of America in the effort to realize its potential. Textually speaking, Sedgwick refuses a model of separation and removal, insisting instead on a single text whose contradictions, compromises, and complicities she thrusts upon us, exposed and raw.


  1. Paperback sales for Hope Leslie from the date of publication by Rutgers Univ. Press (June 1987) to December 1997 are listed at 17,182. In the same series, comparable texts and figures include Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall (June 1986) at 17,775; Maria Cummins's The Lamplighter (October 1988) at 2,906; and Caroline Kirkland's A New Home, Who'll Follow? (April 1990) at 3,547.

  2. Nina Baym, “Reinventing Lydia Sigourney,” American Literature 62 (September 1990): 385.

  3. Judith Fetterley, “Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers and the Politics of Recovery,” American Literary History 6 (Fall 1994): 605.

  4. For an analysis of these two phases of recovery, see June Howard, “Unraveling Regions, Unsettling Periods: Sarah Orne Jewett and American Literary History,” American Literature 68 (June 1996): 365-84. For examples of what I am calling the hagiographic phase as applied to Hope Leslie, see Christopher Castiglia, “In Praise of Extra-vagant Women: Hope Leslie and the Captivity Romance,” Legacy 6 (Fall 1989): 3-16; and Sandra Zagarell, “Expanding ‘America’: Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (Fall 1987): 225-45. For readings of nineteenth-century American women and their texts as “complicit,” see Richard Brodhead, Cultures of Letters (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1993); Lori Merish, “‘The Hand of Refined Taste’ in the Frontier Landscape: Caroline Kirkland's A New Home, Who'll Follow? and the Feminization of American Consumerism,” American Quarterly 45 (December 1993): 485-523; and more recently, Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Benevolent Maternalism and Physically Disabled Figures: Dilemmas of Female Embodiment in Stowe, Davis, and Phelps,” American Literature 68 (September 1996): 555-86.

  5. See Joan Wallach Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1996), 1-18.

  6. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts (1827; reprint, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1987), 7-8. All future references are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  7. Castiglia, “Extra-vagant Women,” 9-10.

  8. The Power of Her Sympathy: The Autobiography and Journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, ed. Mary Kelley (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Association, 1993), 12-15.

  9. Sedgwick identifies the public nature of “private” space at various points within her text. For example, the Indian guests of Governor Winthrop refuse their placement at a side table during a family dinner, aware that this apparently private act has major implications for public policy.

  10. Linda K. Kerber, Women of the Republic (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1980), 269. See especially Kerber's introduction, 7-12.

  11. In arguing for the existence in the 1820s of “an admittedly short-lived female alternative” to the male construction of the genre of frontier fiction, Leland Person proposes as one of its components “an alternative, female, frontier fantasy—a pact between Indians and women, an Eden from which Adam rather than Eve has been excluded” (“The American Eve: Miscegenation and A Feminist Frontier Fiction,” American Quarterly 37 [Winter 1985]: 670). While I share Person's recognition of Sedgwick's manipulation of the Edenic myth, I do not see her as seeking to exclude Adam/Everell since he is so essential to the larger rhetorical strategy of her text. Indeed, it is his necessary inclusion that finally disrupts “the pact between Indians and women.”

  12. Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray, ed. Sharon M. Harris (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995), 48.

  13. The phrase “treason as her text” is intended to evoke the title and content of Lillian Robinson's “Treason Our Text: Feminist Challenges to the Literary Canon,” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 2 (Spring 1983): 83-98.

  14. Dana D. Nelson, “Sympathy as Strategy in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,” in The Culture of Sentiment, ed. Shirley Samuels (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992), 200, 202.

  15. Ibid., 202, 199.

  16. Scott, “Only Paradoxes,” 11.

  17. While one might argue, as would Nina Baym, that Hope's reaction stems from her belief that Christianity is the only true faith and that she cannot bear to think of her sister as other than Christian, in the graveyard scene in which Hope and Magawisca meet to arrange for Hope to see her sister, Sedgwick actually distances herself from Hope's position. While Hope is relieved to discover that her sister is at least a Catholic, “for,” as the narrator observes, “she thought that any Christian faith was better than none,” Sedgwick does not indicate that this is her position and indeed she gives Magawisca the last word in the exchange (189). See Nina Baym, American Women Writers and the Work of History, 1790-1860 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1995), 156-62, and chap. 2.

  18. Zagarell, “Expanding ‘America,’” 237-38.

  19. Lora Romero, “Vanishing Americans: Gender, Empire, and New Historicism,” American Literature 63 (September 1991): 385.

  20. Though I am focusing here on the rhetorical interests at stake, one might argue that Sedgwick's text is haunted by the economic interests at stake as well. In a footnote to the text of Sedgwick's Autobiography, Mary Kelley points out that the socioeconomic standing of Sedgwick's maternal grandparents was achieved by the profit they made from their management of the Stockbridge Indian School. If this is the case, then Sedgwick's own socioeconomic standing, essential to her career as author, indirectly derived from the act of Indian removal. See Kelley, Autobiography, 46.

  21. In “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War” (American Literature 66 [December 1994]: 641-62), Philip Gould arrives at a similar analysis of Sedgwick's rhetorical dilemma, though from a rather different if not necessarily oppositional understanding of her purpose. Arguing that Sedgwick's primary agenda in Hope Leslie is to redefine Republican manhood as savagery and to replace this definition of virtue with one that reflected feminine values, he suggests that this gender agenda is subverted by her equal desire to humanize and defend the Pequots through an appeal to the very rhetoric of manhood she is seeking to displace. Therefore she presents them as people who “admirably chose to live free or die” and valorizes them “within the culturally sanctioned terms of masculine republican heroism.” Thus he concludes that Sedgwick's text “demonstrates the difficulty of carrying on simultaneous revisions of gender and race.” For Gould's discussion of this issue, see 651-52.

  22. Barbara Bardes and Suzanne Gossett, Declarations of Independence (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1990), 35.

  23. Amy Schrager Lang, Prophetic Woman: Anne Hutchinson and the Problem of Dissent in the Literature of New England (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1987), 41, 42.

Gustavus Stadler (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8983

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, ideological, and largely designed to enforce a social hierarchy between the genders. It has even been persuasively argued that the repeated critique of this binarism by feminist and other critics has unintentionally helped to maintain its authority.1 But before doing away with this dualism as a frame of analysis, we might be wise to attend to our writers' and critics' continuing preoccupation with it (and with its deconstruction), one which I believe dates back to the earliest decades of the nation. By “preoccupation” I mean to emphasize the service these categories have provided for a rhetoric of fantasy, of imaginations of the self and its ability (or lack of ability) to act and to speak as a citizen, as an American self, in an American nation and culture. A particular branch of this genealogy of fantasy, usually found in work by liberal Euro-American writers, constructs people of color as mediating, critical figures in the always already problematic scheme of public and private life.2 For a liberal, white writer, such a figure is embedded with deconstructive force, because he or she appears to wear the social on his or her skin—his or her very body is infused with a degree of cultural conflict which threatens the distinction between politics and the personal before s/he has uttered a word. Within this tradition, these characters of color, by means of the sensations and particularities that make up their selfhood, become the means of the author's general critique of the national configuration of public and private.

This usually means, more nearly, framing an issue as confined to the private sphere of individual deliberation—a sphere which masks the fact that certain individuals' deliberations are taken more seriously than others—and demanding the interposition of a public debate, a public conscience. Thus, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the horrific spectacle of whipped black bodies, especially Uncle Tom's, is meant to dramatize the inappropriateness of leaving the slavery question up to individuals, individual families, or individual regions of the nation. Catherine Sedgwick's 1827 novel Hope Leslie is a still earlier instance of a slightly different take on the private/public dualism. By investing remarkable narrative authority in an Indian woman, Magawisca, this historical novel of early New England dramatizes public issues, primarily the colony's relations with native people, as foundational for the actualization of a model of private subjectivity suited to the proto-United States. The novel tells a revisionary history of the nation to its antebellum readership, one in which the privacy of Americans was secured through fascination with, and attacks on, the bodies of Indians. It thus attempts to ensure a place for corporeality, for embodied struggle, in the history of the nation.

Sedgwick, the daughter of one-time Speaker of the House of Representatives Theodore Sedgwick, was intimate with the public life of the young nation, and grew up in a house which offered her many more opportunities for cultural growth than most families and schools of the time.3 Influenced like many of her contemporaries by the writings of Maria Edgeworth, her first two novels followed the parameters of “literary domesticity,” a phrase coined by Mary Kelley to describe the interest of many antebellum female writers in fiction set in the home, often telling the story of a young girl's rise into virtuous womanhood.4 In 1826, perhaps buoyed by readings of Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824) and the early volumes of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales, Sedgwick set out to write a novel of early America turning on the presence of native characters. While the novel is set in the colonial era that many writers of the antebellum era found so appealing, it also alludes implicitly to the debates taking place in her time over forced Indian removal, especially of the Cherokees. As Lucy Maddox has argued, these debates were not simply a forum in which the ethics of removal were discussed, but “a wide-spread public reexamination of the terms in which the nation wished to define itself.”5 Thus Hope Leslie, which would make Sedgwick the most eminent American woman writer until Stowe's publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, was situated within current public debates over the shape of the nation, of where it began and ended, of who belonged and who didn't.6

Hope Leslie takes place in a transparently fantastic seventeenth-century Massachusetts during a period of particularly violent clashes with the native Pequot people. It narrates the story of the Fletcher family, whose son, Everell, befriends a Pequot girl, Magawisca, and essentially adopts her as a surrogate sister. Magawisca's liminal position, we will see, between inclusion in the Fletcher family and exclusion from the entire English community, makes her into an important marker of the limits of the new white nation. When Hope Leslie, daughter of the woman Mr. Fletcher had once loved in England, arrives from overseas, she becomes almost instantly taken with Magawisca, and her attempt to defend Magawisca from accusations that she is conspiring against the colony is one cornerstone of the novel's plot.

Throughout the novel, the two girls are identified with one another. Each mourns a lost mother. Each is an adopted member of the Fletcher family—Mr. Fletcher brings the young Hope and her sister over from England upon the death of their mother, his one true love, whom he had been forbidden to marry. Both Hope and Magawisca are involved in passionate relationships with their fathers. Each openly desires Everell. In comparison to Magawisca, however, Hope is nervous, excitable and often agitated. Under the burden of holding a secret, she struggles to contain her information in a manner the text implicitly juxtaposes with Magawisca's composed body of knowledge. Having arranged, through the Pequot girl, a secret visit with her sister, kidnapped during the initial Pequot raid, Hope finds herself caught between her “duties” to the white community and the “obligation of her promise to Magawisca”:

She would waver and resolve to disclose her secret appointment; but the form of Magawisca would rise to her recollection with its expression of truth and sweetness and confidence, as if to check her treacherous purpose.7

Magawisca's “form” becomes a node of identification for Hope, by which she can mimic the Indian girl's own capacity to resist disclosure. Magawisca's iconicity—not her self but her “form,” not truth but its “expression”—releases Hope from a crisis of interior conflict. Throughout the novel, Magawisca's “form” helps the English characters—especially female characters—to regulate their psychological states. And while Magawisca exits the novel before its end, her work apparently done, Sedgwick ultimately attempts to embed some of her power in the body of Hope's friend Esther Downing, a young English woman who comes to resist the demands of the marriage plot which increasingly encroaches on the narrative.

The novel positions Magawisca, and her particular control of colonial New England's ability to “read” its fate, at the center of the making of the American nation. The surface of her body continually comes under scrutiny as the settlers attempt to decipher the relationship of her inner, private self—which knows whether her people, led by her father, plan to attack the settlement, but which also feels a sizable degree of emotional attachment to the Fletchers—to her outward, public appearance and what it can tell them about the safety and status of their proto-national community. With its dialectical relationship between Magawisca's public spectacularity and the interior absorption of the individual members of the Massachussetts colony, Hope Leslie delineates the constant mediations of the public in the private. It simultaneously presses this process into one that serves the formation of the American nation.

Hope Leslie, the character, is a heroine to the proto-nation to the extent that she acts to allow Magawisca to remain to some degree unreadable to the settlers; toward the end of the novel, she engineers the Indian woman's escape from prison, thereby ending the colony's effort to force her to signify her people's intentions. On the one hand, the novel is thus a remarkable instance of a radical skepticism toward humanism, of the philosophical and aesthetic doctrines of moral sympathy which so underwrote novels at this period in their history.8 Magawisca, Hope affirms, has a right to secrecy, a right to privacy, a right to difference. On the other hand, Sedgwick does something which we would today call appropriation; she makes Magawisca a figure modeled very much on her own interests as a white, bourgeois woman. This is not to say, exactly, that she “whitens” Magawisca, or projects traits and behaviors esteemed by her own culture onto the figure of the Pequot girl. She specifically uses Magawisca not so much to represent positive, definitive qualities with which she would like herself to be associated, but rather to make certain that through Magawisca the text registers a protest against the body politics of early republican citizenship—politics which Michael Warner has shown to extend a privileged disembodiment to white, male property owners, and to consign “others” to the ghetto of the “particular.”9 The principle of abstraction on which documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights are written contains an invisible but powerful subtext excluding those with certain bodily traits—certain genitals, certain skin colors. Sedgwick, the daughter of one of the early republic's most powerful national politicians, finds it useful to go back more than a century before the writing of these documents and locate a different national origin, one in which bodily presence and pain help cement the state. More than to act as an ideal or heroine per se, the character Magawisca is largely present to provide the corpo-reality in this revisionary process of nation-building.

Sedgwick's apparent interest in native people—however fantastic it rendered itself in Hope Leslie—has led a number of critics to remark upon her difference from the bulk of the American women writers we have come to associate, perhaps too hastily, with “literary domesticity.”10 Much of the last two or so decades' effort to “reclaim” this fiction, the bestselling literature of its time, has focused on the novels' construction in the home of a kind of alternative world outside the vicissitudes of capitalism and public politics per se. What I find especially remarkable about Hope Leslie is the extent to which, when viewed as addressing antebellum gender politics, it takes a very different tack.11 Rather than trying to politicize privacy by sanctifying it, Sedgwick's novel attempts to undermine the status of privacy by revealing, in what will prove an ambivalent political gesture, its construction on the grounds of history and the forced removal of native peoples. The novel thus levels a critique against the contemporary antebellum gendered politics of citizenship and against the increasingly privately defined domain of women. It certainly achieves the latter by showing female characters like Magawisca and Hope as active, spirited agents in an important foundational period for the American nation. But it also uses their relationship to posit the public force of fantasy, of identification, and, I would argue, of novel-reading.

Foreshadowing late-twentieth-century readings of the novel, a number of contemporary reviews of Hope Leslie, positive and negative, criticized Sedgwick's Magawisca as an implausible portrayal of a Native American woman. The Western Monthly Review objected that “we should have looked in any place for such a character, rather than in an Indian wigwam.”12 The New-England Magazine urged its readers to remember that although Sedgwick's historical novel placed her in the first class of American writers, its portrayal of Indians meant it could be regarded at best as a “beautiful fiction.”13 Many reviewers of the time had also condemned James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans, published a year before Hope Leslie, for its romanticization of Indian character. Both Sedgwick and Cooper had, to varying degrees, placed their Indian characters in authoritative roles in their novels. For Cooper, Chingachgook and Uncas were fading figures of innocent, benevolent patriarchy in a landscape blighted by European greed. For Sedgwick, Magawisca provided many of the same qualities: morality, honor, martyrdom. Moreover, she offered an unfamiliar historical narrative of Indian victimization to compete with the versions of seventeenth-century history proffered by the Puritan fathers themselves.14

Cooper responded to this criticism by explicitly referring to his subsequent works as “romances” and announcing in the preface to The Deerslayer that: “It is the privilege of all writers of fiction, more particularly when their works aspire to the elevation of romances, to present the beau-ideal of their characters to the reader.”15 Sedgwick, however, had responded to these charges in advance. In her preface to Hope Leslie, she issued what to some may have seemed an irresponsible disclaimer:

The writer is aware that it may be thought that the character of Magawisca has no prototype among the aborigines of this country. Without citing Pocohontas [sic], or any other individual, as authority, it may be sufficient to remark, that in such delineations, we are not confined to the actual, but the possible.


This seems to me, more than a disclaimer, a reclamation of the “possible,” of the fantasy work of the novel. Unlike Cooper, Sedgwick frames her fictional liberty-taking as a representational strategy from the beginning. Moreover, she explicitly posits the potential problem as one not of literary genre, but of authority.16 From the onset, Sedgwick's writing arises out of the question, who is going to authorize the discourse at hand? Pocahontas? The Puritan histories?17 Writing as a woman, Sedgwick's own authority comes under scrutiny from which Cooper and other male heirs of Walter Scott are protected. Her consciousness of the way the particularity of her gender could or could not make certain discourse make sense in certain spheres permeates Hope Leslie. A white woman writing a historical novel with a noble, honorable, erotically attractive, powerful Indian female character did not quite make sense to the bourgeois public sphere of 1827. Sedgwick is eminently conscious that to speak publicly she needs to cite authority; however, this consciousness, which she makes evident in this foreword-like paragraph, will grant her the liberty to create Magawisca, and it will form the basis of her portrayal of Magawisca.

Sedgwick immediately identifies this portrayal with the tenets of what we have come to call cultural relativism. She identifies her writing specifically with “liberal philanthrop[y],” and elegantly outlines her credo that the world's outer appearance makes it clear to the discerning eye that difference, as we say today, is relative:

The liberal philanthropist will not be offended by a representation which supposes that the elements of virtue and intellect are not withheld from any branch of the human family; and the enlightened and accurate observer of human nature, will admit that the difference of character among the various races of the earth, arises mainly from difference of condition.


Interestingly, this eloquent paean to Enlightenment moral and political philosophy, writing which underwrote many of the documents of the American Revolution, is itself underwritten by an emphasis on appearance, and on the necessity that the “liberal” subject have a discerning eye. Sedgwick embeds this eye in Hope Leslie, placing it at various points in the foreheads of various members of the Puritan community, and directing it largely toward Magawisca's body, which forms (rather than on which will be written) a series of questions about knowledge, disclosure, and the power of secrecy. The text pays an indulgent amount of attention to her body, continually mapping its specificities and dramatizing the efforts of the English settlers to read her corporeality as a series of signs. In fact, it is Magawisca's body which comes to serve as the dominant authority shaping the novel's events.

At first, the expressive power of Magawisca's body seems largely to reflect a willfulness and personal integrity Sedgwick is attributing to the character's own “self.” The radicalness of her public utterances is at times remarkable, as when, on trial for fomenting Indian hostilities against English communities, she announces, “I deny your right to judge me. My people have never passed under your yoke—not one of my race has ever acknowledged your authority” (286). But Magawisca's force of enunciation is consistently mirrored in the force of her physicality. The most dramatic and, for the novel, most resonant example of this is the force of a violently physical absence—the arm she loses defending Everell Fletcher from the vengeance of her father's blade. After a skirmish near the Fletcher household, Everell is kidnapped by Chief Mononotto, Magawisca's father, for purposes of execution, a deadly exchange for the killing of Magawisca's brother in a previous battle. Magawisca begs her father for mercy toward Everell, whom she has in effect already exchanged for her biological brother. Mononotto refuses his daughter's pleas, leading her to “interpose[] her arm.” The result is a gruesome corporeal spectacle:

It was too late. The blow was levelled—force and direction given—the stroke aimed at Everell's neck, severed his defender's arm, and left him unharmed. The lopped quivering member dropped over the precipice. Mononotto staggered and fell senseless, and all the savages, uttering horrible yells, rushed toward the fatal spot.


Brought about by the assumption that it is better her arm than Everell's head, Magawisca's paternally administered amputation becomes the mark of her loyalty to the sympathetic bonds offered in the proto-antebellum-domestic-space of the Fletcher household. The dynamic associated with Magawisca throughout the novel is most succinctly portrayed here; her body protects the colonial mind. Consequently, mirroring the larger historical force of Indian removal, accelerating during the time of Sedgwick's writing, a violently inflicted Indian absence becomes the marker of the native role in American nation-building.18

The amputation returns with Magawisca later in the novel as a publicly effective force which will augment the force of her body to cement the colony's proto-national bonds. Yet Magawisca's physical authority shapes the novel virtually from its beginning. Recently captured in a battle between white settlers and the Pequot tribe led by her father, Magawisca makes her first appearance in Hope Leslie when she arrives to take up a position as a servant in the Fletcher household. As she emerges into the clearing around the house, which lies removed from the town (called Bethel, on the border of the colony), William Fletcher immediately makes note of her appearance to his wife:

“Here comes the girl, Magawisca, clothed in her Indian garb, which the governor has permitted her to retain, not caring, as he wisely says, to interfere with their innocent peculiarities; and she, in particular, having shown a loathing of English dress.”


Immediately, the novel grants Magawisca control over her self-representation. She has successfully fought to keep her physical appearance in the manner she desires. And while the narrator here establishes a likely ahistorical ethic of liberal tolerance that will permeate the novel (the hegemonic acceptance of “innocent peculiarities”), the text has also established a continuum between the “look” of the native characters and that of the white characters.19 The appearance of Magawisca conjures a description of her white male compatriot/pseudo-sibling Everell Fletcher's body and physical presence, which in turn flows into a delineation of Magawisca's corporeality, all in the space of two packed paragraphs. It is as if Magawisca and her will to maintain her “peculiarities” construct a lens through which the peculiarities, or at least particularities, of the young white male Everell come into view. Everell, “a fair ruddy boy of fourteen,” is noted for his frame, which lends him the “muscle of manhood,” his “quick elastic step,” which lends him the “spirit of childhood,” and finally for his dress, whose details include an “awkward space” of bareness around the forearms (22-23). Our picture of Everell emphasizes his brimming energy and adolescent esprit—a description not distant from the idyllic adolescent portrayals of Natty Bumppo in Cooper's later volumes of the Leatherstocking Tales. But it also places him within the discourse of bodily willfulness instigated by Magawisca's appearance.

The parallel between Magawisca and Everell is most evident when the text tells us, as she enters the Fletcher parlor behind him, that “she and her conductor were no unfit representatives of the people from whom they sprung [my emphasis].” In both characters, in other words, the wealth of psychic will and physical energy is meant to be identified with a wealth of signification—a degree of significance which makes them not simply instances of two “people[s],” but representative of them.20 Sedgwick is here citing another antebellum inheritance of Puritanism, what Sacvan Bercovitch has identified as the notion of the errand, through which “to assert oneself in the right way, here in the American wilderness, was to embody the goals of New England” and later America.21 Sedgwick's text corporealizes this model, lingering over its “representative” characters' bodies as it prepares to use them as signs of a national symbolic.

In its initial description of Magawisca's physical presence, the text goes to great lengths to emphasize how much the girl is there to be read, and to keep being read. Whereas Everell was overflowing with erratic motion and energy, his Indian female counterpart is all harmony, stillness and solidity. Her arms are described as a “model for sculpture,” and the text makes further, repeated references to her as statuesque, placing her within the neoclassicist approach to representing Indians at this time in both visual and literary arts.22 More importantly, the passage shows just what is involved in rendering her “peculiarities” “innocent” to the white reader:

Her form … expressed a consciousness of high birth. Her face, although marked by the peculiarities of her race, was beautiful even to an European eye … there must be something beyond symmetry of feature to fix the attention, and it was an expression of dignity, thoughtfulness, and deep dejection that made the eye linger on Magawisca's face, as if it were perusing there the legible record of her birth and wrongs.


Despite the difference embedded in her racial “peculiarities,” and beyond the mere fact of their “symmetry,” Magawisca as a whole coheres as a representation of qualities like “nobility,” “thoughtfulness,” and “dejection” which are “legible” to a “European eye.” Her bodily surface, engraven with her past—“the legible record of her birth and wrongs”—is brought into being as an accessible text to be read, “perused,” by a Western gaze.

Magawisca is thus something of a known quantity in the cultural symbology of early-nineteenth-century America, what Robert Tilton has called the “Romantic Indian.”23 She is aligned with a host of traits which on the one hand idealize her and on the other make her an aestheticized outlet for liberal guilt over the Indian removals taking place as Sedgwick was writing. What I want to press here, however, is the text's insistence on Magawisca's utility for figurative purposes, her capacity for making meaning by becoming a physical object of interpretation. She is not only the repository of a host of cultural stereotypes like those outlined by Tilton, Joy Kasson, Brian Dippie, and others. She is also an indicator of what becomes useful and compelling knowledge to the “European eye.” Indeed, the phrase “model for sculpture” fashions the girl not as sculpture itself, but as the medium through which the shaping of some object or symbol might take place.

Hope Leslie shows the attention Magawisca's physical appearance inspires in the “European eye” not merely as exoticism but as a determining factor in the formation of the modern American nation. The novel does this, mainly, in two ways: by positioning Magawisca, almost literally, as the national border dividing and marking the difference between the colonists' and the Pequots' communities; and by inducing a model of subjectivity, a mode of individual mediation between public event and private interiority, which fits the requirements of the modern Western nation. Because Magawisca's position in the text is so ambiguous—she is, as we have seen, a virtual sibling to Everell, a state reinforced when Hope, upon encountering Magawisca for the first time, utters the words “My sister!” (183)—she becomes an important locus of interpretation for determining what constitutes sameness and difference.24 The early chapters of the novel most directly thematize this function, as the Fletchers, in their house on the edge of the settlement, await the possible appearance of Mononotto and his troops, bent (importantly, as we will see) on avenging the death of his son at the hands of the settler community. Magawisca spends much of this time moving in and out of the woods which extend from the frontier, where the Fletchers' domesticity is situated, into the “unknown.” Everell and the loyal white servant Digby ambivalently eye the girl's “abstractness of manner and … the efforts she made to maintain a calm demeanor” (40). Simultaneously, they debate the possibility that Magawisca's motives may be less than loyal to her adoptive family. Magawisca has taken a voluntary vow of silence with regard to her father, his plans, and his whereabouts. Everell and Digby can only attempt to determine, by surveying her countenance and general appearance, whether she is in fact a spy for her biological father. As if needing to physically locate the national border, Everell and Digby move to the very edge of the Fletcher house's grounds to watch for a Pequot attack, and begin to watch Magawisca's movements for any clue she may give as to the imminence of an attack. Digby's narration conveys her power as spectacle: “See how she looks all around her … Stand close, observe her, see …” (42).

Here and throughout the novel, Magawisca's relation to the Puritan power structure hinges on the question, “What does she know?” The actions and motivations of the white colonists continually turn on the question of what Magawisca knows about her father's plans to avenge himself on them. Throughout the book, she refuses to divulge this information, to empty her interiority into the waiting ears of white subjects (except, to some extent, Hope Leslie). Moreover, she refuses to allow her knowledge to betray itself on the surface of her body. Instead she skulks silently about the house like a more generally symbolic “bird of ill-omen.” Despite her love for the Fletchers and her very apparent fear for their safety, which bring renewed attention to her body, she refuses to become anything other than the ambiguous reading surface which defines the border of white knowledge.

Magawisca's resistance to the appeals made to her for knowledge, often by the members of her pseudo-family, permits the novel to use her as a critique of early-nineteenth-century ideals of domesticity, privacy, and intimacy. When Mrs. Fletcher presses Magawisca for information on a rattlesnake skin and rattle mysteriously left in the house, the girl stays mute after merely identifying the tokens as symbols of approaching danger and death. “Why, Magawisca, are these fearful tokens given to me? Dost thou know, girl, aught of a threatening enemy—of an ambushed foe?” asks Mrs. Fletcher. The girl responds, “I have said all that I may say” (39). Although she has ostensibly become a member of the Fletcher family, she refuses to submit to the imperatives around privacy and publicity in the white bourgeois sphere. She will not address the symbols as they obtain individually to either Mrs. Fletcher or herself. She does briefly experience some inner turmoil, “but after a short struggle with conflicting feelings,” she proclaims: “That which I may speak without bringing down on me the curse of my father's race, I will speak” (39). The illocutionary force of this utterance constitutes her as outside the white domestic economy of intimacy and privacy. She makes clear that the enunciative conditions of her own relation to the public and the private are different from those of the settler community; there is no safety for her in the Fletchers' benevolent hearth. Magawisca's knowledge and the drama around her potential disclosure thematize for Sedgwick a manner in which privacy can become strategic. Individuality, interiority, and confession are not social imperatives. They are performative enunciations to be deployed, in the service of collective interests. Magawisca's liminal relationship to the Fletcher family thus allows her to become a fantasy of national, public efficacy constituted within the space and discourse of domesticity.

Magawisca is figured from the outset as the border of the white nation. She delineates its physical boundaries and frays the edges of its assumptions regarding the rights of domestic intimacy. A gap of seven years, during which Magawisca, Hope, and Everell become young adults, intervenes before the next series of events in the novel's narrative. This transformation mobilizes a number of energies in the plot. The adolescent spirit that characterized each character must now be made to make sense through the terms that dictate adult private life. Put directly, the issue of who is to marry whom must be resolved. This is, of course, not a question for Magawisca; although there was a subcategory of antebellum literature in which mixed marriages took place, Sedgwick's heroine was doubly marked—not only by her racial particularity, but by her amputation.25 Magawisca spends much of the latter half of the novel inside a prison cell, arrested on the basis of suspicions concerning her role in another spate of Indian attacks on colonial settlements. But this confinement only works to bring Magawisca further into the center of the English community; it places her in a privileged space from which to continue to mediate the building of the young proto-nation. Granted access to one man's sexual secrets, she serves to channel the sexual energies of the white characters, energies which were largely dissolute in the first half, left to churn in an ambiguous mix of pseudo-sibling relationships. She helps bring Hope and Everell together, to make them marriageable.26

The centerpiece of the latter half of the book is Magawisca's trial on suspicion of conspiring against the colony. However, what is supposed to be a disciplinary procedure addressing the political threat Magawisca has supposedly posed to the colonists quickly becomes focused on the privilege to hold sexual secrets. The seven-year gap allows the introduction of a new character, Sir Philip Gardiner, who has fled England to escape from a shady “series of ill-luck” and infiltrated the Puritan community, disguised as a devout, upstanding follower, with his former mistress Rosa in tow. The forlorn Rosa, whom Sir Philip has seduced and attempted to abandon, has insisted on making the transatlantic trip with him in disguise as his servant boy. Sir Philip, meanwhile, has transferred his affections—and marital hopes—to Hope Leslie, whose “generous rashness” arouses his interest. Judith Fetterley has usefully described this subplot as the novel's explicit effort to exile from its domain the dominant plot of the eighteenth-century novel—the seduction story.27 But the novel also employs this subplot to scrutinize the privileges of privacy which make it possible for an individual male to act as seducer—privileges based on the entitlement to abstraction from one's physical, sexual behavior.

Convinced that her race and her precarious state will make her vulnerable to manipulation, Sir Philip visits Magawisca in prison with a deal to offer: he will give her a file to use on the cell bars if she will subsequently take his ex-mistress off to the Indian wilds. Of course, Magawisca refuses, on grounds of principle; significantly, though, the incident fortifies her with a piece of private knowledge to be strategically deployed, a privileged bit of information which has come her way specifically because of her bodily specificity. When Magawisca's trial for her role in the Pequot nation's attacks on the colony commences, the public spectacle around Indian national secrets allows, for Sedgwick, the figuring of a spectacle around the (supposedly private) sexual secret.28 Shifting the grounds of what can constitute public discourse, or what can and cannot be discussed in public spaces, Magawisca inspires an inner crisis in Sir Philip, as he notices the reverence in which the trial audience seems to hold her. In a sense, she forces on him an unwanted degree of interiority, a process of deliberation over his personal situation, a type of mental processing which it has previously only been the burden of female characters to assume. He begins to worry that she might actually be taken at her word should she reveal the content of their prison interview, and plans an offense-as-defense strategy eerily reminiscent of that articulated in present-day legal cases of sexual harassment and rape:

He had no time to deliberate on the most prudent course to be pursued. The most obvious was to inflame the prejudices of Magawisca's judges, and by anticipation discredit her testimony; and quick of invention, and unembarrassed by the instincts of humanity, he proceeded … to detail the following gratuitous particulars.


The “particulars” the narrator refers to here are from a false tale told by one of the Fletcher servants of having seen Magawisca “kneeling on the bare wet earth, making those monstrous and violent contortions, which all who heard them, well knew characterized the devil-worship of powwows” (285-86). Philip's strategy is to re-embody and re-racialize Magawisca, to bring a set of corporeally excessive “particulars,” a term reminiscent of the “peculiarities” cited earlier in the novel, into a sphere in which utter disembodiment—the equal value of each individual's testimony itself—is the projected ideal. He attempts to discredit Magawisca on the basis of what has been serving her so powerfully in the novel, the power of her body as a spectacle.

Magawisca responds to Philip's attempt to scandalously embody her by requiring that he take an oath before his testimony, an act not typically mandatory for a “member of the congregation.” Although she has previously denied the jurisdiction of the court, and although the narrative itself credits the native “principle of retaliation” as responsible for this demand, it is important to note a specific message sent by the call for an oath: under oath, it is clear that the speaking subject is citing authority when s/he speaks. Sir Philip, the novel tells us, “was far enough from having one of those religious consciences that regard truth as so sacred that no ceremonies can add to its authority” (288). He requires the extra boost of authority to be persuasive. And Magawisca dramatically complicates this issue by producing a crucifix Philip dropped during his visit to her prison cell. The court is therefore thrown into a crisis as to which authority should be cited—secular or religious, court or church. The novel dramatizes a conflict of two types of traditional, male-dominated structures of authority. By this logic, the novel's confinement of its female characters within patriarchal structures becomes not so much retrograde, as some critics argue, as much as it is a mapping of the crises that ensue from the needs of all utterances to be authorized.29 The trial scene thus becomes a crucial enactment of the drama of authority staged by Sedgwick, the author, at the beginning of the novel, as she sought to justify what some would surely take as a fantastic portrayal of an Indian woman.

But the authority most in play is that of the public—the spectators in the courtroom—whose “every eye was turned toward Magawisca, in the hope that she might make an explanation.” For the moment, the judges are aligned with this authority: “[the audience's] motions of curiosity coinciding with the dictates of justice, in the bosoms of the sage judges themselves, were very likely to counteract the favour any of them might have felt for Sir Philip” (289). Magawisca is able to turn the attention Philip has brought to her body back against itself, into a generative, submissive “curiosity.” She increases the authority of publicity when she dramatically unveils her amputation and paraphrases Patrick Henry: “I demand of thee death or liberty!” Through the process of unveiling, she once again stages a drama of embodiment. She juxtaposes nationalist discourse with the most peculiar “peculiarity” of her body. The eminently manipulable public responds with cries of “Liberty!” When Magawisca anachronistically alludes to Patrick Henry, whom Jay Fliegelman has identified as the most important early national icon of political oratory, she becomes not simply heroic, but more specifically an embodied voice in the young United States' discourse of nation-founding.30

Her dramatic courtroom appearance in a sense instigates the system of privacy, of individuality that these fictional colonists will need in order to become a modern American nation. Having stuck a dagger in the once abstracted privacy of a respected Puritan male, Magawisca exits the courtroom “leaving in the breasts of a great majority of the audience, a strange contrariety of feelings and opinions.” It is as if the threat to Philip's privacy mobilizes interiority within the members of the public at large, the public which has begun to turn its judgment in Magawisca's favor. The following chapter further thematizes the degree to which Magawisca's performance in the public space of the courtroom has made it possible for the settlers to become individual, private selves:

The day of Magawisca's trial was eventful, and long remembered in the annals of the Fletcher family. Indeed, every one in any way associated with them, seems to have participated in the influences of their ruling star. Each member of Governor Winthrop's household appeared to be moving in a world of his own, and to be utterly absorbed in his own projects and hopes.


What I wish to emphasize here is the degree to which the novel employs the spectacle of Magawisca to bring into being the private life of its white subjects. She seems to be making the American nation possible, forcing the Puritan community to become a conglomeration of individuals who may very well each have their own opinions and, importantly, emotions about Magawisca's trial. As the novel moves at a rapid clip, from here on, to make marriage between Hope and Everell possible, and to seamlessly remove Magawisca from the fabric of the white community, it would seem that the novel's nation-making work essentially concludes with the trial scene. Indeed, the fate of Magawisca the character is that of her “real” referents—exile to the West, conveniently represented here as self-imposed. The single countering force to the novel's conservatism here, its need to expunge the emptied signifier of Magawisca's body, is the supplemental plot it produces, surprisingly, via the presence of Esther Downing, who is exiled from the heterosexual contract when brother and sister become man and wife.31 The unmarried Sedgwick seems to have found, in the recuperation of this unmarried character, a vehicle for making Magawisca's embodied performativity continue to work, this time in a form more fully available to white, female readers for identification.

Rejecting Everell's claim that “the present difference of the English with the Indians, is but a vapour that has, even now, nearly passed away,” Magawisca relinquishes her role as border guard and departs for an unnamed place. By leaving the place anonymous, the novel makes it clear that she is not exiled to some other national space existing in simultaneity with the colony; effectively, the colony has triumphed and already become America, a country which subsumes a continent, which leaves no space adjacent to it.32 Effectively, Magawisca dies. Her last performative act is to bless the marriage of Hope and Everell, turning over her authority to their bourgeois sexual contract:

“Oh! yes, Magawisca,” urged Everell, “come back to us and teach us to be happy, as you are, without human help or agency.”

“Ah!” she replied, with a faint smile, “ye need not the lesson, ye will each be to the other a full stream of happiness. May it be fed from the fountain of love, and grow broader and deeper through all the passage of life.”


When Magawisca leaves, her effects seem to have been memorialized through the double signs of the (hetero)sexual contract and the American nation. But the work the novel does toward this apparent culmination leaves a significant bit of residue at its very core. This is Esther Downing, who receives the lion's share of attention as the novel closes and comes to serve as heir to Magawisca, registering as she does the border of the marriage bond. Once a relatively minor character defined almost exclusively by her nervous, doomed passion for Everell, this young woman becomes the novel's most unlikely heroine. She gently berates Hope and Everell for their inattention to her feelings, and quietly leaves the town, only to return a few years later to reestablish bonds with her former companions, “without any other emotions, on either side, than those which belong to warm and tender friendship” (349). Given Esther's newly refined, attractive character, “[h]er hand was often and eagerly sought,” the narrator coyly informs us in the novel's final paragraph (which I quote in full):

but she appears never to have felt a second engrossing attachment. The current of her purposes and affections had set another way. She illustrated a truth, which, if more generally received by her sex, might save a vast deal of misery: that marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman. Indeed, those who saw on how wide a sphere her kindness shone, how many were made better or happier by her disinterested devotion, might have rejoiced that she did not “Give to a party what was meant for mankind.”


Staunchly refusing the demands of the bourgeois sexual contract, in the end, it is Esther who becomes most like Magawisca. She is the final embodiment of Magawisca's iconic ability to endure the demands of physical “peculiarity”; here, such “peculiarity” is associated with the desire to take on a permanent heterosexual mate. Esther illustrates the ultimate fantasy of the antebellum white woman, forced to have undergone a “vast deal of misery” in her sexual role, become safe, yet authoritative in a wide “sphere,” once her place in the community is mediated not by a husband or potential husband, but by a woman of color. And while that woman of color has also mediated and brought into being the traditional novel-ending-in-marriage, it is this Esther, this unrecuperated fantasy with which the novel leaves us.

The way most of us have read the nineteenth-century domestic novel, of which Sedgwick, in the U.S., was a founding figure, has been to imagine its characters as idealized representations of “real” selves, available for readerly identification. In his book The Letters of the Republic, Michael Warner opposes the dominant literary assumptions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America, finding in the former a focal, constitutive concern for the national public good, and in the latter a focus on individual, private experiences of fantasy and identification. In the early nineteenth century, he writes, it became possible to “be a member of a nation, attributing its agency to yourself in imaginary identification, without … exercising any agency in the public sphere.”33 In other words, one was a citizen just in the personal, interiorized act of reading, the basis of what Benedict Anderson has famously called an “imagined community.” Warner's argument suggests a shift in the technology of literary narrative toward private readerly identification, essentially toward realism, toward inviting readers to locate samenesses between their selves and those portrayed in the fiction at hand.34

The legacy of Hope Leslie's Magawisca should be to question the degree to which such identifications took place neatly and uncritically. Certainly, Hope, Esther, and Magawisca are all characters with whom readers, especially young, white, female readers, are asked to identify themselves. Yet Sedgwick's novel also maps the process by which Hope, and most surprisingly, Esther, come into being through Magawisca's presence as figures for identification. A liminal force, largely constituted through public histories and public events, and embodied in this Pequot woman, makes private identification possible for the white, female citizens of the antebellum republic. Although Magawisca certainly embodies idealized qualities with which most readers would like to identify themselves—emotional strength, physical stamina, adherence to principle, etc.—what the novel seeks to emphasize throughout is the preoccupation the “European eye” has with her. She is always signifying, even if what she signifies doesn't always make sense to the English characters. Thus she is not simply an icon of a woman who speaks and acts powerfully. She is a marker of Euro-American preoccupation with embodying national fantasy, and Sedgwick's novel uses her as such to retell the story of the nation. This would suggest that women's novels of the antebellum period ought to be evaluated as much for the ways they depict and critique the dynamics of fantasy, of “imaginary identification,” as for the ways they enact them.


  1. See Lora Romero, Home Fronts: Antebellum Domesticity and Its Critics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997), chapter one, and Cathy Davidson, “Preface: No More Separate Spheres!,” American Literature 70 (Sept. 1998): 443-63.

  2. Here is a very preliminary working list of such characters/figures, beyond the one discussed in this essay: Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok, who sacrifices his marriage to a Puritan woman and the son they share, when her white husband, presumed dead, returns; Stowe's Uncle Tom, who, as a number of critics have shown, is essentially an emotionally overwrought domestic heroine writ large over the nation-defining issues of slavery and abolition; the famous tearful Indian of the 1970s anti-littering campaign, whose sentiment served to stand in for the loss of a supposedly once-pure national landscape; Latrell Sprewell, the once ostracized NBA player whose recent ad campaign spectacularizes his corn-rowed hair in the service of the slogan, “I'm the American dream.” Within recent work in cultural studies, Lauren Berlant's notion of the “diva citizen” can be seen both to expostulate on and embody something akin to what I am describing. See the chapter “Notes on Diva Citizenship” in The Queen of America Goes to Washington City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997).

  3. The best biographical work on Sedgwick to date is Mary Kelley, “Introduction” to Catharine Maria Sedgwick, The Power of Her Sympathy: The Autobiography and Journal of Catharine Maria Sedgwick, ed. Kelley (Boston: Massachussetts Historical Society, 1993).

  4. See Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

  5. Lucy Maddox, Removals: Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Politics of Indian Affairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 17.

  6. It is important to note the degree to which Hope Leslie is still shaped by literary and political discourses of domesticity; I do not wish to argue that it is exceptional, or exceptionally politically engaged, by virtue of its historical and race plots.

  7. Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Hope Leslie (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 207. Hereafter, page numbers of citations are from this edition and will appear parenthetically in the body of the text.

  8. For the early history of this literary and intellectual legacy in America, see Julia A. Stern, The Plight of Feeling: Sympathy and Dissent in the Early American Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

  9. Michael Warner, “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 377-401.

  10. The canon of critical work on middle-class female writers of the antebellum period has expanded dramatically in the past few years. The foundational works in this canon are generally taken to be Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977); Nina Baym, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels By and About Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978); and Jane Tompkins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985). The most compelling critique of the shape this criticism has taken, and of the debates that have developed within it, appears in Romero, Home Fronts.

  11. Also see Nina Baym, American Women Writers and the Work of History 1790-1860 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

  12. Western Monthly Review I (1828): 289. Quoted in Mary Kelley's introduction to Sedgwick, Hope Leslie, x.

  13. New-England Magazine 8 (1835): 489-90. Quoted in Maddox, Removals, 45.

  14. The racist disavowal of Sedgwick's portrayal of Magawisca has been echoed as recently as the 1970s, when Edward Halsey Foster wrote that “Miss Sedgwick's ‘noble savages’ … are very much the creation of her own imagination; for there are few surviving records of the Puritan epoch which suggest that the savages were fully as noble as they appear to be in the novel.” See Foster, Catharine Maria Sedgwick (New York: Twayne, 1974), 77. Foster's comment is also remarkable in its resistance to recognizing the degree to which the novel throws into question the authority of the “few surviving records of the Puritan epoch.”

  15. Quoted in Maddox, Removals, 45.

  16. Philip Gould argues that this constitutes the book's criticism of the narrativization of history: “Sedgwick enacts exactly that which she calls Magawisca's narrative: a ‘recital’—a performance—of history … the text itself dramatizes the inevitability of historical relativism [Gould's emphasis].” See Gould, “Catharine Sedgwick's ‘Recital’ of the Pequot War,” American Literature 66:4 (Dec. 1994): 653.

  17. For the most concise account of Sedgwick's researches in Puritan history, see Foster, Catharine Maria Sedgwick. For a reading of the relationship between Hope Leslie and the story of Pocahantas, see Robert Tilton, Pocahantas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 77-81.

  18. That the absence is here inflicted by another Indian, Magawisca's own father, contributes to the degree to which the portrayal of Magawisca is at least partially informed by the myth of the “vanishing American,” the Indian who is always already dying and/or leaving, even before contact with white settlers. See Brian Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982).

  19. The nineteenth century is everywhere embedded in the novel, from the benevolent intimacy of the Fletchers' domestic hearth, to the smooth-around-the-edges liberality attributed to strict Puritan patriarchs like Governor Winthrop and the minister John Eliot, to forthright reminders from Sedgwick like: “We forget that the noble pilgrims lived and endured for us.” Maddox specifically upbraids Sedgwick for her “beatification” of Eliot, whose writings belie a fairly faithful upholding of Puritan orthodoxy in the matter of race relations. See Maddox, Removals, 109. The novel creates an imagined historical community by extending a narrative bridge from Puritan culture to that of her present-day, nineteenth-century bourgeois readership. This national present is explicitly built on the graves of those who died fighting in the Pequot wars.

  20. The word “people” renders the referent of Magawisca's representativity ambiguous; it blurs the distinctions between categories such as family, nation, and race; it works toward the dehistoricization and decontextualization of her status as representative. It makes her available as representative of a host of qualities and ideals, and of a type of collectivity (this ambiguous notion of “people”) which she can share with Everell Fletcher.

  21. See Bercovitch, The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America (New York: Routledge, 1993), 33.

  22. This mode of description is another strategy Hope Leslie shares with the Leatherstocking Tales.

  23. See also Joy Kasson, Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American Sculpture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

  24. For an excellent reading of the novel as an imagination of “republican sisterhood,” see Judith Feterley's recent article, “‘My Sister! My Sister!’: The Rhetoric of Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,American Literature 70 (Sept. 1998): 491-516.

  25. For a summary of such novels see Eric Sundquist, “The Literature of Expansion and Race,” in The Cambridge History of American Literature, vol. 2, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 223-25.

  26. The novel's plot here reverses the racial logic of the genre of the captivity narrative. For an insightful reading of Hope Leslie as caught up in, and critiquing, this genre, see Christopher Castiglia, Bound And Determined: Captivity, Culture-Crossing, And White Womanhood From Mary Rowlandson To Patty Hearst (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

  27. Fetterley, “‘My Sister!,’” 495.

  28. Berlant's essay “Notes on Diva Citizenship” describes “women who have sought … to transform the horizons and the terms of authority that mark both personal and national life in America by speaking about sexuality as the fundamental and fundamentally repressed horizon of national identity, legitimacy, and affective experience” (458). Although in a full study many differences would need to be attended to, I see Magawisca working within this tradition, which Berlant associates with Harriet Jacobs, Frances Harper's Iola Leroy, and Anita Hill.

  29. Important readings of the novel's configurations of patriarchy appear in Maddox, Removals, and Dana Nelson, “Sympathy as Strategy in Sedgwick's Hope Leslie,” in The Culture of Sentiment, ed. Shirley Samuels (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

  30. See Fliegelman, Declaring Independence: Jefferson, Natural Language, and the Culture of Performance (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993).

  31. One might seek to establish a connection between this move and Sedgwick's own lifelong unmarried status. Such a possibility is worth musing upon, but I am hesitant to reinforce what I consider to be the burdensome autobiographical, experiential assumptions often placed upon women's writing of this era. For more on this see Judith Fetterley, “Commentary: Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers and the Politics of Recovery,” American Literary History 6 (Fall 1994): 600-611, and my dissertation, “Obscene Sentiments: Reading, Effects, and Sentimental Form in Fanny Fern, Louisa May Alcott, and Henry James” (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1997).

  32. This firmly places Magawisca within what has been called the “cult of the Vanishing American” recurrent in antebellum literature representing native peoples. See Dippie, The Vanishing American.

  33. Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 173. It could well be argued that Warner takes a counterposition to this overly simplified version of literary history in his “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” in which he argues for the centrality of the mass public witness specifically to citizens who bear “embodied particularities.”

  34. For different critiques of Warner see Fliegelman, Declaring Independence and Davidson, “Preface.”

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Sedgwick, Catharine Maria (Feminism in Literature)