Sarah Josepha Hale Essay - Critical Essays

Sarah Josepha Buell

Hale, Sarah Josepha


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.

Principal Works

The Genius of Oblivion and Other Original Poems (poetry) 1823

Northwood: A Tale of New England (novel) 1827; revised edition, 1852

Sketches of American Character (short stories) 1829

*Poems for Our Children (poetry) 1830

Traits of American Life (short stories) 1835

Ormond Grosvenor (drama) 1838

The Good Housekeeper; or, The Wax to Live Well and To Be Well While We Live (handbook) 1839

Alice Ray: A Romance in Rhyme (poetry) 1845

Three hours; or, The Vigil of Love and Other Poems (poetry) 1848

The Judge (drama) 1851

Liberia, or Mr. Peyton's Experiments (novel) 1853

Woman 's Record; or, Sketches of All Distinguished Women, from "The Beginning" Till A.D. 1850 (history and biographies) 1853; revised editions, 1855, 1870

Mrs. Hole's Receipts for the Million (handbook) 1857

Manners; or, Happy Homes and Good Society All the Year Round (handbook) 1868

* Includes the poem "Mary's Lamb," more commonly known as "Mary Had a Little Lamb."


Ruth E. Finley (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Chapter XVI: A Female Writer" in The Lady of Godey's: Sarah Josepha Hale, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1931, pp. 263-78.

[In the following excerpt, Finley surveys Hale's writings, discussing her style, her attitudes, and her subject matter.]

Of the many poems written by Sarah Hale only a few are remembered. These few, however, have become part and parcel of American ballad tradition, so much so that scarcely any one ever asks the name of the author. What modern stops to wonder who wrote "If Ever I See," "Our Father in Heaven," "It Snows," "Mary Had a Little Lamb"?—even though for the past few years the authorship of the last named verses has been figuring...

(The entire section is 4653 words.)

Ruth E. Finley (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: "Chapter XVII: Mary's Lamb and Mr. Ford" in The Lady of Godey 's: Sarah Josepha Hale, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1931, pp. 279-305.

[In the following excerpt, Finley discusses the controversy surrounding Hale's authorship of the poem "Mary Had a Little Lamb."]

"Mary Had a Little Lamb," the most famous children's poem in the English language, was first printed in 1830. It was signed by Sarah Hale. Now Mrs. Hale's authorship of the first half of the poem has been challenged by Mr. Henry Ford, who has given credence to an old claim first made public in the late eighteen-seventies by a Mrs. Mary Sawyer Tyler. Mrs. Tyler asserted that she was the "Mary" of the poem,...

(The entire section is 8543 words.)

William R. Taylor (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Point Counterpoint" in Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and American National Character, George Braziller, 1961, pp. 122-41.

[In the following excerpt, Taylor discusses Hale's views regarding the ideal American character and the contrast between North and South as exhibited in her short stories and her novel Northwood.]

The Yankee Ethos in Limbo

The very fact of the novel [Northwood] is a puzzle. What had made a busy and hard-pressed widow living in a small provincial town sit down in the winter of 1826 and fill page after page with the story of Sidney Romilly? Why should she have concerned herself, as she did, with the South?...

(The entire section is 7193 words.)

Nina Baym (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Onward Christian Women: Sarah J. Hale's History of the World." New England Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 2, June, 1990, pp. 249-70.

[In the following excerpt, Baym discusses Hale's views on the moral superiority of women as expressed in Woman's Record.]

We know Sarah J. Hale as the editor, for almost half a century (1837-77), of Godey's Lady's Book. In that position she exercised considerable power (or, to use a word she would have preferred, influence) over emergent middle-class culture in the United States.1 Dedicated above all to the cause of women's education, Hale approached social issues with strongly expressed convictions that authorize the...

(The entire section is 7606 words.)

Barbara Bardes and Suzanne Gossett (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Two Visions of the Republic" in Declarations of Independence: Women and Political Power in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 17-37.

[In the following excerpt, Bardes and Gossett note the importance of community and comment on the role of women in Hale's novel Northwood.]

Six years before Tocqueville makes similar observations on the status of American women, Squire Romelee, the voice of wisdom in Sarah Josepha Hale's Northwood, comments:

I presume you will not find, should you travel throughout the United States, scarcely a single female engaged in the labors of the field or any...

(The entire section is 4924 words.)

Nina Baym (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Sarah Hale, Political Writer" in Feminism and American Literary History: Essays, Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 167-75.

[In the following excerpt, Baym discusses the political nature of Hale's writings and describes a shift she sees in them from an interest in general political issues to an emphasis on women's role in society.]

Sarah Josepha Hale, author of poems, stories, sketches, a play, novels, and several home reference books, is remembered chiefly for her lengthy tenure (1837-77) as editor of Godey's Lady's Book, the most widely read women's magazine of its day. Using her position year after year to advance the doctrine of separate spheres...

(The entire section is 5098 words.)

Patricia Okker (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Sarah Josepha Hale, Lydia Sigourney, and the Poetic Tradition in Two Nineteenth-Century Women's Magazines," American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography, Vol. 3, 1993, pp. 32-42.

[In the following excerpt, Okker examines Hale's views on women's poetry as reflected in her editing of Godey's Lady's Book and Ladies' Magazine.]

No doubt in part because of her authorship of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," Sarah Josepha Hale—editor first of the Ladies' Magazine and then for forty-one years of Godey's Lady's Book—is often described in the context of … [what Allison Bulsterbaum has called] "mawkish, moralistic poetry"...

(The entire section is 2102 words.)

Susan M. Ryan (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Errand into Africa: Colonization and Nation Building in Sarah J. Hale's Liberia," New England Quarterly, Vol. LXVIII, No. 4, December, 1995, pp. 558-83.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan discusses Hale's position, expressed in her novel Liberia, that the only way to solve the slavery problem was for the slaves to return to Africa.]

To many white Americans before the Civil War, the idea of "returning" free blacks and manumitted slaves to Africa sounded like the perfect solution to the United States' increasingly rancorous and violent racial problems. Generally thought a moderate position in its day—compared to radical abolitionist and pro-slavery...

(The entire section is 8127 words.)

Barbara A. Bardes and Suzanne Gossett (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "Sarah J. Hale, Selective Promoter of Her Sex" in A Living of Words: American Women in Print Culture, edited by Susan Albertine, University of Tennessee Press, 1995, pp. 18-34.

[In the following excerpt, Bardes and Gossett explore Hale's views on women's roles, especially as reflected in her Woman's Record.]

Interpretations of Hale's life and career have varied widely, depending largely upon the period and upon the interpreter's attitude toward powerful women. Yet as we survey Hale's works, the most consistent element, the invariable factor whether one considers Hale radical or conventional in her activities, is her dedication to the promotion of her own sex....

(The entire section is 7180 words.)

Patricia Okker (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "From Intellectual Equality to Moral Difference: Hale's Conversion to Separate Spheres" in Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors, University of Georgia Press, 1995, pp. 38-58.

[In the following excerpt, Okker discusses what she sees as a shift in Hale's writings from a belief in the Enlightenment notion of equality between the sexes to the Victorian notion of separate spheres of endeavor for men and women.]

Hale's writings during these early years [of her career] show little sign that she would eventually promote absolute notions of sexual difference and the idea of gendered separate spheres. Hale's...

(The entire section is 5914 words.)

Patricia Okker (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: "The Professionalization of Authorship" in Our Sister Editors: Sarah J. Hale and the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century American Women Editors, University of Georgia Press, 1995, pp. 84-109.

[In the following excerpt, Okker examines Hale's views on writing, especially writing by women.]

Although Hale did contribute to the successful careers of writers like [Edgar Allan] Poe, [Lydia] Sigourney, and [Harriet Beecher] Stowe, she did not encourage all writers. In fact, she often used her editorial pages to discuss the difficulties associated with professional literary careers. While clearly discouraging to some would-be writers, Hale's editorials about authorship may...

(The entire section is 4398 words.)

Susan M. Griffin (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: "'The Dark Stranger': Sensationalism and Anti-Catholicism in Sarah Josepha Hale's Traits of American Life," Legacy, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1997, pp. 13-24.

[In the following excerpt. Griffin focuses on the Protestant-Catholic conflict in Hale's story "The Catholic Convert."]

In "The Romance of Travelling," one of the sketches collected in Sarah Josepha Hale's 1835 Traits of American Life, Hale focuses on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, as a typical American landscape, which "gives to the heart a sensation like that of suddenly meeting the smiling face of a friend" (195). Hale follows the landscape tradition of focussing on the reflective and imaginative qualities...

(The entire section is 6713 words.)

Further Reading


Blanck, Jacob. "Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, 1788-1879." In Bibliography of American Literature, Vol. 3, 319-40. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.

Contains a detailed list of Hale's writings.


Hoffman, Nicole Tonkovich. "Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1874 [sic])." Legacy 7, No. 2 (1990): 47-55.

Brief survey of Hale's life and works. Includes bibliography.

Martin, Lawrence. "The Genesis of Godey's Lady's Book." New England Quarterly 1 (1928): 41-70.


(The entire section is 217 words.)