Lydia (Howard Huntley) Sigourney Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Lydia (Howard Huntley) Sigourney 1791-1865

American poet, sketch writer, essayist, novelist, and travel writer. For additional information on Sigourney's life and works, see NCLC, Volume 21.

Known as “the sweet singer of Hartford,” Sigourney was one of America's most popular poets during the first half of the nineteenth century. Her celebration of religious and patriotic values, talent for writing commemorative poetry, and reputation for moral integrity strongly appealed to her contemporary public. A prolific author, Sigourney contributed widely to magazines and published numerous volumes of her work, becoming one of the first women in the United States to establish a successful and remunerative career as a writer.

Biographical Information

Sigourney was born in Norwich, Connecticut, the only daughter of Sophia Wentworth Huntley and Ezekiel Huntley, a gardener in the employ of a wealthy matron, Mrs. Daniel Lathrop. Encouraged by both her mother and Mrs. Lathrop to read and write at an early age, Sigourney received her primary education from local schools. She later paid tribute to the influential guidance of her father's employer in her fictional Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since (1824) and in her autobiography, Letters of Life (1866). Determined to become a teacher and aid her parents financially, Sigourney went on to supplement her early education by studying at a Hartford school. Subsequently, she opened schools for young ladies in Norwich and Hartford; after the failure of the school in Norwich, Sigourney established the Hartford school, in which, instead of teaching such traditionally “feminine” subjects as art and needlework, she instructed young women in reading, arithmetic, rhetoric, natural and moral philosophy, and history.

In 1815, she published her first book, Moral Pieces, in Prose and Verse, to critical acclaim. Encouraged by this positive reception, Sigourney continued to write. However, when in 1819 she married Charles Sigourney, a Hartford hardware merchant who disapproved of her writing career, she modified her literary aspirations by publishing anonymously and under pseudonyms. During the early years of their marriage, she not only published books but also contributed poems and prose pieces to over twenty periodicals, using the proceeds to aid her parents and support such charities as war relief, temperance movements, and missionary work. In 1833, Sigourney published Letters to Young Ladies, one of her most popular works. Prompted by its success and an increasing need for money, Sigourney allowed her name to be placed on later editions of the book, despite her husband's objections. The popularity of this volume created new demand for her work, and, by 1839, she was able to support her household by writings published under her own name.

As her reputation grew, Sigourney was able to sustain the family with her writing and editorial work. She edited the annual Religious Souvenir in 1838 and 1839, and from 1839 to 1842 she is listed as an editor of Godey's Lady's Book, primarily for the prestige her name conferred on the journal. A prolific contributor to periodicals as well as to annuals and gift books, Sigourney became familiar to a broad range of the reading public, reissuing much of her magazine verse in numerous collections and editions. By the early 1840s, her popularity was so great that magazine editors vied for her contributions. In 1841, Edgar Allan Poe, then editor of Graham's Magazine, requested material for the journal, and the editor of the competing Godey's Lady's Book paid her—purportedly five hundred dollars a year—for exclusive use of her name on the title page. Her prestige as a writer was established, and on a tour of England she visited such figures as William Wordsworth, Joanna Baillie, Samuel Rogers, Thomas Carlyle, and Maria Edgeworth; Sigourney would later recount these travels in Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands (1842). Sigourney reached the height of her popularity in the late 1840s with the publication of Illustrated Poems (1849), a lavish edition issued in a series that included the works of William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A national figure, she was often courted by dignitaries and literary celebrities, and her works were anthologized in many collections of American prose and poetry. During the last years of her life, Sigourney composed few new writings, choosing instead to reissue retitled versions of earlier volumes. She died at her Hartford home in 1865, after having prepared her autobiography, which was published the following year.

Major Works

A prolific author, Sigourney produced more than sixty-five books and several thousand articles that appeared in such periodicals as the North American Review, Graham's Magazine, and the Southern Literary Messenger. Although Sigourney also produced a number of prose works, including writings on history, biography, a novel, sketches, essays, and an autobiography, she was primarily recognized for her poetry, most of which was first introduced to the public in periodicals, then collected in her books. Her first published volume, Moral Pieces, in Prose and Verse, was drawn from the poems and prose that she composed for her students and was, by and large, received enthusiastically by her contemporaries. The book is filled with the sentimental verse, moralistic tone, and fondness for the so-called graveyard school of poetry that characterize most of her writings; many critics contend that the subjects of her verse—death, religion, and history—never changed. In this and later works such as Poems (1827), Pocahontas, and Other Poems (1841), and Poetry for Seamen (1845), her best-loved poems commemorated the deaths of both famous and unknown persons, especially young children; indeed, the three-hundred-page Zinzendorff, and Other Poems (1835) consists almost entirely of funereal verse. Such eulogistic poems as “'Twas but a Babe” and “The Faithful Editor” were admired for their sentimentality and elaborate, euphemistic language, but also their honesty in coming to terms with personal tragedy.

Critical Reception

Despite Sigourney's widespread popularity, critical reception of her works has often been unfavorable. During her lifetime, reviewers acknowledged her skill with blank verse and language, but found little original thought in her writing. For example, in a review of her Zinzendorff, and Other Poems, Poe labeled her work imitative of the work of Felicia Hemans; he did concede that “many passages are very noble and breathe the truest spirit of the Muse,” however, and, bending to the force of her popularity, Poe would later retract the charge and solicit work from her for Graham's Magazine. At the height of her popularity in June, 1850, the Western Literary Messenger declared: “[Her poems are] laid on a million of memory's shelves. Children in our infant schools lisp her mellow canzonets; older youths recite her poems for riper minds in our grammar schools and academies; mothers pore over her pages of prose for counsel, and the aged of either sex draw consolation from the inspirations of her sanctified muse in their declining years.” And, while many critics accused Sigourney of publishing too much unpolished material, contemporary criticism was never completely derogatory, since few magazine editors competing for her poetry and prose wished to offend her.

After Sigourney's death the popularity of her writings waned as the heyday of sentimental writing passed. In The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945, Emily Stipes Watts describes Sigourney's mature work as “padded, pedantic, and prudish,” and the characteristics of her works that captured nineteenth-century audiences—sentimentality and didacticism—seem to have rendered Sigourney little more than a historical curiosity through much of the twentieth century. Recently, however, there has been a renewed interest in Sigourney, particularly among feminist literary scholars. Critics such as Annie Finch, Nina Baym, and Dorothy Z. Baker have studied Sigourney's successful attempt to establish herself as a distinctly American and distinctly female poet. Critics are divided, however, on whether Sigourney's writing represents a feminist empowerment or, as Ann Douglas Wood claims, “a means for a kind of militant sublimation.” In contrast to both the popular adulation of her contemporaries and the indifference of early twentieth-century critics, modern literary scholars have come to recognize the importance of studying Sigourney's position in American letters, both for her limitations and her transgression of limits.