Judith Sargent Murray Essay - Critical Essays

Murray, Judith Sargent


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

Desultory Thoughts Upon the Utility of Encouraging a Degree of Self-Complacency, Especially in Female Bosoms" (essay) 1784; published in journal Gentleman and Lady's Town and Country Magazine

"Epilogue to Variety; a Comedy" (verse) 1790; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"Lines, occasioned by the Death of an Infant" (poem) 1790; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"New Epilogue to The Recruiting Officer" (verse) 1790; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"On the Domestic Education of Children" (essay) 1790; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"On the Equality of the Sexes" (essay) 1790; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"Prologue to Variety" (verse) 1791; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine "Prologue to The West Indian" (verse) 1791; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

*"Necessity of Religion, Especially in Adversity" (essay) 1792; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"The Gleaner" (essays, stories, and plays) 1792-94; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

†"The Margaretta Stories" (novella) 1792-94; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"The Repository" (essays) 1792-94; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

*"Observations on Female Abilities" (essay) 1794; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

"Occasional Epilogue to The Contrast" (verse) 1794; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

*"Sketch of the Present Situation of America, 1794" (essay) 1794; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

*"Spirit Independent of Matter" (essay) 1794; published in journal Massachusetts Magazine

*‡The Medium; or The Happy Tea Party (play) 1795

The Traveller Returned (play) 1796

The Gleaner, A Miscellaneous Production. 3 vols (essays, stories, and plays) 1798

"Lines Occasioned by the Departure of a Friend" (poem) 1802; published in journal Boston Weekly Magazine

"Blending Spirit with Matter" (poem) 1803; published in journal Boston Weekly Magazine

Letters and Sketches of Sermons. 3 vols. [editor] (letters and sermons; by John Murray) 1812-13

Records of the Life of the Reverend John Murray, Written by Himself, with a Continuation by Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray [editor] (autobiography) 1816

*These pieces are collected in the three-volume edition of The Gleaner.

†This work was published serially as part of the Gleaner series. The main narrative appears as chapters 2, 7-13, 20-21, and 28-29 in volume 1; chapters 37-38 and 40-53 in volume 2; and a conclusion in chapter 98, volume 3 of the 1798 edition.

‡This work is also known as Virtue Triumphant.


Vena Bernadette Field (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "The 'Gleaner' Essays," in Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray, 1751-1820, University Press, 1931, pp. 53-71.

[In the following excerpt, from her full-length biography of Murray, Field provides a summary and overview of the stories, dramas, and essays contained in The Gleaner (1798).]

The Gleaner essays represent Judith Sargent Murray's principal effort in the literary field. Consisting in a long series of papers and letters on religion, politics, manners and customs of the day, they embrace a wide range of subjects and serve as a medium for the expression of their author's opinion. The imaginary writer of the essays...

(The entire section is 6880 words.)

Mary Summer Benson (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "The Close of the Century," in Women in Eighteenth-Century America: A Study of Opinion and Social Usage, Columbia University Press, 1935, pp. 175-7.

[In the following excerpt from a study of women in eighteenth-century America, Benson discusses Murray's interest in women's rights.]

. . .Mrs. Judith Sargent Murray under the name "Constantia" produced a number of essays which appeared in the Massachusetts Magazine and other periodicals. The articles in the Massachusetts Magazine were later reprinted in three volumes under the title, The Gleaner, a book dedicated to John Adams.5 The collection, which included two plays and a...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Walter J. Meserve (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Meeting the Demands of a Growing Theatre, 1783-1800," in An Emerging Entertainment: The Drama of the American People to 1828, Indiana University Press, 1977, pp. 126-55.

[In this excerpt from a study of early American drama, Meserve outlines Murray's contributions to the development of eighteenth-century theater.]

It is relatively easy to pluck out of any given period of history the names of people who have made outstanding contributions to the drama. Winners become a part of the record books. But just as there are those innumerable details of everyday life which contribute to the creation of greater events, there are those lesser playwrights who help make a...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)

Madelon Cheek (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "'An Inestimable Prize,' Educating Women in the New Republic: The Writings of Judith Sargent Murray," in Journal of Thought, Vol. XX, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 250-62.

[In the following essay, Cheek analyzes Murray's ideas about the education of women, and argues that Murray's call for expanded roles for women was influential for later feminist thinkers and educational theorists. ]

The revolution in women's education caught fire in America during the formative years of the republic. This movement, which began in England and America prior to 1776, presented a challenge and a hope to a new nation confronted with increased responsibilities. One of its primary...

(The entire section is 5443 words.)

Mary Anne Schofield (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'Quitting the Loom and Distaff: Eighteenth Century American Women Dramatists," in Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820, edited by Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski, Ohio University Press, 1991, pp. 260-73.

[In this excerpt, Schofield analyzes Murray's contributions to eighteenth-century drama, as a playwright, critic, and feminist.]

I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poets [sic] pen all scorn I should thus wrong;
For such despite they cast on female wits,
If what I do prove well, it won't advance—

(The entire section is 3641 words.)

Nina Baym (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: An Introduction to The Gleaner, by Judith Sargent Murray, Union College Press, 1992, pp. iii-xx.

[In the following essay, Baym provides an overview of Murray's life and an analysis of the writings collected in The Gleaner.]

During the first decade after George Washington's election in 1788, scattered groups of Americans began to think about creating a literature that would demonstrate the new nation's cultural vitality to its own citizens and to Europe. A considerable amount of their writing had been published by 1798, but it had appeared mostly in magazines with short life spans and minuscule budgets. There were, as yet, very few original American books. For...

(The entire section is 7005 words.)

Sharon M. Harris (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: An Introduction to the Selected Writings of Judith Sargent Murray, edited by Sharon M. Harris, Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. xv-xliii.

[In the following essay, Harris provides an overview and analysis of Murray's life, works, and contributions to literary and cultural history.]

"I feel the pride of womanhood all up in arms," Judith Sargent Murray declared in a 1777 letter to a female cousin (letter 54).1 Responding to what she termed the "abominable" and "intolerable" arguments against women's education by the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, she asserted, "For those sentiments, so humiliating to our sex, avowed by Rousseau, I will...

(The entire section is 11050 words.)

Further Reading


Harris, Sharon M. "Legacy Profile: Judith Sargent Murray." Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 11, No. 2 (1994): 152-58.

Biographical profile, focusing on Murray's contributions as an early feminist writer.


Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Review of Constantia: A Study of the Life and Works of Judith Sargent Murray by Vena Bernadette Field. New England Quarterly V, No. 3 (July 1932): 619-21.

Review of the only full-length biography of Murray, with a brief discussion of her importance in the development of American theater....

(The entire section is 186 words.)