Introduction

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sarah Josepha Hale 1788–1879

(Born Sarah Josepha Buell) American journalist, biographer, novelist, short story writer, and poet.

Author of one of the most famous children's poems ever written ("Mary Had a Little Lamb"), Hale fell into obscurity after her death and for most of the twentieth century. Her authorship of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" was both challenged and forgotten, and her other work was mostly ignored until feminist scholars rediscovered her in the 1990s. Recent critics have viewed Hale as a writer and editor who had a great deal of influence in the nineteenth century, and her opinions on the role of women, the slavery question, and morality have undergone serious study.

Biographical Information

Hale was born on a farm in Newport, New Hampshire, the daughter of Gordon and Martha Buell. She was educated at home, at first by her mother and later by her brother Horatio, who tutored her in the courses he was studying at Dartmouth College. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four she taught school in Newport, giving up that profession when she married David Hale, a lawyer, in 1813. Her husband continued her education, studying history, French, and botany with her, and also encouraging her to write. She published a few poems and stories during this time but only turned to writing seriously after her husband died suddenly in 1822, leaving her with five children to support. In the next year, she published poems and stories in a variety of magazines and also completed her first book, The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems (1823). After the publication of her novel Northwood (1827), she was offered the editorship of the new Ladies' Magazine, beginning a fifty-year career as an editor. In 1837 the Ladies' Magazine merged with Louis Godey's Lady's Book, and Hale became editor of the new publication, a post she held until 1877. In her role as editor, Hale contributed editorials, columns, and book reviews to the two publications. She also continued to write fiction and poetry, and published cookbooks, etiquette manuals, and her monumental Woman's Record (1853), a collection of biographies of notable women from the time of Eve until the mid-nineteenth century. Her most popular work was "Mary Had a Little Lamb," originally called "Mary's Lamb" (1830); it was frequently reprinted during her lifetime, though

often without crediting her as the author. Two years before her death, her authorship of the poem was questioned by Mary Sawyer Tyler, who claimed to be the original Mary and who said a classmate of hers had written the verses. In the 1920s, Tyler's claim won the support of Henry Ford, the automobile manufacturer, but there has never been any evidence for it, and modern scholars agree that the poem was indeed written by Hale.

Major Works

Hale wrote a large number of works in a wide variety of genres, including novels, short stories, poems, plays, biographies, cookbooks, etiquette manuals, and journalistic contributions to the two magazines that she edited. Despite exploring these different genres, Hale's basic aim remained the same throughout her writings: to give advice and moral guidance. Even "Mary Had a Little Lamb" ends with a moral about being loving and kind to animals, and her novels and short stories tend to be didactic vehicles for her views on social issues and life in general. For instance, her novel Northwood promotes the New England virtues of hard work and domesticity as opposed to the supposed idleness and undisciplined leisure of the American South. Her novel Liberia (1853) advocates the emigration of slaves to Africa as a solution to the slavery problem. Her short story "The Catholic Convert," originally published as "The Unknown" (1830) asserts the shortcomings of celibacy and convent life, as opposed to marriage. In providing this sort of advice, Hale was acting in accordance with her philosophy as presented in Woman's Record: that it is the role of women to provide moral and spiritual leadership. Hale believed that although men were superior to women physically, women were superior morally, and it was women's duty to provide guidance to men and to refine men's "brute" natures. She maintained that it was also specifically women's duty to Christianize the world, for she saw Christ and the Christian virtues of meekness, mercy, purity, and charity as being essentially feminine. Hale was a believer in the doctrine of separate spheres for men and women; men were to engage in industry, business, and politics, while women were to be teachers, writers, and mothers.

Critical Reception

In her own day, Hale was known primarily as an editor who campaigned for women's rights—especially a woman's right to be educated—and for other causes, such as the institution of a national Thanksgiving Day holiday. After her death, she fell into obscurity, but in recent years has been the subject of several studies, mostly by feminists seeking to establish her relation to feminism. Even in her own day, though, this relationship was seen as complicated; Hale campaigned for certain women's rights but opposed the vote for women and the notion that women should seek to do "men's work." As a result, a women's rights society stated after her death that Hale "mingled … the spirit of progress with true conservatism." Some later critics have portrayed Hale as militantly feminist and antislavery, while others have seen her as anti-feminist and sympathetic to slavery (because she preferred emigration to abolition as a solution to slavery). Although one modern commentator has described her as a liberal in conservative clothing, it is clear that Hale does not easily fit into conventional categories.