Judith Sargent Murray 1751-1820
(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Constantia, The Gleaner, Honora-Martesia, and Honora) American essayist, playwright, fiction writer, and poet.
A prominent eighteenth-century American writer, Judith Sargent Murray was an early proponent of women's rights and a contributing influence on the emerging theater of the post-Revolutionary era. Long forgotten after her lifetime, Murray has been rediscovered in recent years, and new editions of her major works have appeared. An intelligent and wide-ranging thinker and a prolific writer, Murray left a body of work that offers insights into post-Revolutionary history and culture. Liberal, if not radical, in much of her thinking, Murray challenged many prevailing opinions about the roles and rights of women and the uses of the theater.
Born on May 1, 1751, Murray was the eldest of eight children born to a prominent seafaring and merchant family in Gloucester, Massachusetts. While educational opportunities for girls were rare, Murray was taught basic literacy and was provided with a fundamental knowledge of general subjects ranging from history to natural science. Her parents recognized her exceptional intellectual gifts and later granted her the same tutorial education as her younger brother who, in preparing to attend Harvard, was schooled in Latin and Greek. In 1769, at the age of eighteen, Murray married John Stevens, a prosperous sea-captain and trader. The two built an impressive mansion in Gloucester and were active participants in the social life of the town and the establishment of the Universalist Church in the United States. Stevens' financial state began to worsen, however, especially after the Revolutionary War, and in 1786 he escaped debt collectors and fled to the Caribbean, where he took ill and later died. While she was married Murray had devoted much time to writing, though avenues for publication were limited to her. She published some of her early poetry along with her essay "Desultory thoughts upon the utility of encouraging a degree of self-complacency, especially in female bosoms" (1784) in the periodical Gentleman and Lady's Town and Country Magazine under the pen name of "Constantia." Her continued involvement in the Universalist Church led to her acquaintance, friendship, and eventual marriage in 1788 to John Murray, the founder and leader of Universalism in the United States. It was at this point that Murray began writing in earnest, focusing on such issues as religion, morality, patriotism, and equality for women. In 1789 she bore a son, who died a few days later, and the poem she wrote about the experience, "Lines, occasioned by the Death of an Infant" (1790), was the first of hundreds of her pieces to appear in the new Massachusetts Magazine, which was to publish most of her work over the next five years. Among her published works were an extensive series of essays and stories written under the male persona of "The Gleaner" as well as an essay entitled "On the Equality of the Sexes" (1790). Several of her early pieces were verse prologues and epilogues for Gloucester productions of new plays, and this early interest in drama continued. When the Murrays moved to Boston in 1793, shortly after a ban on theatrical productions had been lifted there, Murray wrote two plays—The Medium; or The Happy Tea Party (1795) and The Traveller Returned (1796)—for the newly established Boston theater. The plays received mixed receptions and both closed after just one or two performances. Moreover, Murray's literary output declined, at least in part owing to the loss of the Massachusetts Magazine as a publishing venue when it folded in 1796. Her second husband had been neither financially successful nor practical regarding financial matters, so Murray, pressed for money, set about publishing the "Gleaner" materials as a book, to be sold by subscription. The resultant three-volume set, The Gleaner. A Miscellaneous Production (1798) was quite successful, selling more than eight hundred subscriptions. Subscribers included the Washingtons and the Adamses as well as other notable citizens. In subsequent years, Murray raised her daughter, born in 1791, wrote some occasional verse, and tended to her aging and ill husband. She edited his collected letters and sermons and, after his death in 1815, revised and completed his autobiography, which was published in 1816. She then left Massachusetts to join her daughter, Julia, who had married and moved to Mississippi. Murray died there four years later at the age of sixty-nine.
Murray's most important works remain the writings collected in The Gleaner and her two full-length plays. Throughout her writing, Murray addressed important social, political, and philosophical questions, and reflected intelligently about the culture of the new nation of which she was a part. Some of her most notable essays address the roles and rights of women in important and even radical ways. The novella encompassed by the "Margaretta Stories" (1792-1794) offers a portrait of a bright and adaptable female protagonist, and models the sort of education and development Murray valued for women. At the same time, it exemplifies the then current ideal of Republican Motherhood—in part, the idea that women, even from their domestic roles in the home, could exert political power by using their influence over their husbands and sons. While never explicitly critical of that ideal, many of Murray's ideas, especially those about women's independence, contain challenges to some of the limits of domestic roles for women. In such essays as "On the Equality of the Sexes," "Observations on Female Abilities" (1794), and "Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms," Murray argued for the necessity of women's education, self-esteem, opportunities for achievement, and autonomy. Her first play, The Medium, also addresses the subject of women's education, while The Traveller Returned ponders the recent Revolution and the emerging class structure of the United States. Both blend political content into what are essentially comedies. That Murray involved herself in the theater at all was also a statement—one she made explicit by arguing against the popular notion that theatrical productions were inherently deleterious or corrupting. Other political commentaries appear in essays including "Sketch of the Present Situation of America, 1794" (1794), about American responses to the French Revolution; others offer cogent analyses and insight into the political questions of the post-Revolutionary era. The last major theme in Murray's work is that of religion. She published many of her essays on religious topics as part of the "The Repository" series (1792-94) in Massachusetts Magazine. Other essays appeared as part of the "Gleaner" series, including "Necessity of Religion, Especially in Adversity" (1792), which challenges atheism and espouses the separation of church and state, and "Spirit Independent of Matter" (1794), a meditation on the nature of the soul and on the powers of the imagination over objective knowledge. Her interest in religion also shaped her editorial contributions to her second husband's collected writings and autobiography.
Murray was recognized in her day as an important thinker and writer. Despite her conventional use of pseudonyms, her identity was well known. Her plays, while not successful, did have defenders, and the extremely favorable reception of her subscription offering of The Gleaner in 1798 reveals the extent of her reputation. More than eight hundred sets were sold to subscribers throughout the new United States and its territories, as well as in England, providing her with a substantial profit. After her death, however, her reputation faded. She was rediscovered in 1931 by her biographer, Vena Bernadette Field, but no significant interest was sparked until about the 1970s, when historians of early American theater began analyzing her presence and importance for the then-emerging American theater. Likewise, scholars interested in feminism and women's history began finding her work to be of value. Some critics have viewed her as an early and important feminist—Madelon Cheek, for instance, notes that Murray has been referred to as "the most articulate advocate and spokeswoman for the improved education of women." Others, however, have suggested that while Murray's ideas were radical for her time, they remain far more conservative than most modern feminist thought. Regardless, Murray is recognized as an important influence on women's thought and social history, and her extensive and complex body of work offers a rich source of observation and analysis about the political, social, religious, and theatrical worlds of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Many of her writings have recently been re-issued, making them more widely accessible to contemporary audiences.