Apopular 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. Sedgwick's contemporaries praised her use of distinctly 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 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 Massachusetts (1827), a historical novel that treats Puritan attitudes towards religion, women's role in the new American republic, and the relationship between whites and Native Americans. Feminist scholars have analyzed Sedgwick's subversion of the traditional frontier romance genre in Hope Leslie to expose the political and ideological contradictions of the early nineteenth century and address the opression of women and Native Americans.
Sedgwick was born December 28, 1789 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 their 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. She attended a local grammar school, which offered a limited 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 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 for most of the rest 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. Sedgwick avoided taking controversial stances. For example, she opposed slavery, but considered the abolitionists too extreme in their views; she remained unmarried, but idealized matrimony; and she supported a woman's right to own property, but not a woman's right to vote. Sedgwick continued to champion social reform until late into her seventies when she became ill and moved to Boston. There, a niece cared for her until her death at the age of seventy-eight.
Sedgwick wrote both fiction and nonfiction, and there is a didactic tone in 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 novel concerns 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, A New-England Tale received special critical attention for its American setting and characters. 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 novel Redwood (1824), featuring a highly principled protagonist, Debbie Lenox, and again focusing on religious concerns, has often been praised for the creation of one of the most realistically drawn woman 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 set in New England, Sedgwick describes the customs of the Native American Pequot tribe, delineates relations between whites and Native Americans, and introduces the theme of miscegenation into American literature. The novel tells 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, Sedgwick confronts authorized versions of history, offering 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.
Sedgwick's works were considered innovative during her own time, as she was among the first American writers to use local scenery, customs, and characters. While many of her 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?, when other authors began writing novels about American locales, customs, and characters. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that Sedgwick's work once again received critical attention, beginning with the release of a new edition of Hope Leslie in the late 1980s. This novel has garnered the most attention from modern critics, who admire Sedgwick's innovative writing style and subjects. Critics have examined the work in the context of other contemporary historical accounts of the Pequot War and praised Sedgwick's revisionist interpretation of Puritan historiography through the eyes of those traditionally marginalized or oppressed by it—women and Native Americans. Other commentators have maintained that the novel explores the possibilities of a more inclusive definition of American identity and culture and refashions the frontier romance tradition to offer an alternative, feminist, and racially diverse vision of American women and American culture. Feminist critics have praised the way in which Sedgwick's fiction subverts racial and gender stereotypes and offers characters that have non-traditional views of society and nature. Several scholars have also examined Sedgwick's short story "Cacoethes Scribendi" (1835) to illuminate the author's impression of the relationship between culture, writing, and women. 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.