Brewster, Martha Wadsworth
BREWSTER, Martha Wadsworth
Born circa 1730s; died date unknown
Married Oliver Brewster; children: Ruby, Wadsworth
Martha Wadsworth Brewster is one of only four colonial women who published volumes of their verse before the Revolution. Materials for reconstructing the life of Brewster are meager: we know only what is included in the Poems on Divers Subjects (1757). Her acrostic verses name her family, husband Oliver, and children Ruby and Wadsworth, but they tell little more about them than Brewster's concern for their spiritual development and good conduct. Brewster probably lived for most of her life in Lebanon, Connecticut.
Beyond these sketchy details of family connection, Brewster's life remains an enigma. Her 21 poems vary widely in theme and form: the more than 1100 lines include letters, farewells to friends who are moving, epithalamiums, eulogies, scriptural paraphrases, a love poem, a quaternion, a dream (in prose), and meditations. Conventional religious and family themes predominate, but other materials—the violence of military encounter, the schisms of the Great Awakening, the muted stirring of personal ambition—are treated as well.
The untitled verse preface to Brewster's Poems detailed the risks a literary woman undertook in colonial society: "Pardon her bold Attempt who has reveal'd /Her thoughts to View, more fit to be Conceal'd /Since thus to do was urged Vehemently, /Yet most no doubt will call it Vanity… ." The possibility of incurring blame for stepping outside customary women's roles was clearly in Brewster's thoughts. She opened her preface humbly, even defensively, protesting that her "Muse had but a single Aim, /My self and nearest Friends to Entertain… ." Recognizing the unusual nature of her ambition, Brewster asked only the opportunity to develop her literary skills.
No recorded response to Brewster's Poems documents the volume's reception, but it appeared in two editions, one in New London, Connecticut (1757), and another in Boston (1758). Such reprinting suggests an audience beyond Brewster's immediate circle of family and friends. Before the poems were published, however, they apparently attracted less favorable notice. Some of Brewster's readers were sufficiently impressed by her work to doubt its authenticity. The headnote to her verse paraphrase of II Chronicles 6:16-18 notes that "It being falsly Reported that the Author borrowed her Poetry from Watts and others; the following Scripture was presented to her, to Translate into Verse, in a few Minutes Extempore, as a vindication from that Aspersion; which was accordingly Performed…."
Women poets in colonial America must have been considered rare indeed to excite such skepticism. But whatever the response from Brewster's contemporaries, her Poems on Divers Subjects will interest readers today as a representative voice from the early history of American poetry.
Cowell, P., Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1650-1775 (1981). Silverman, K., Colonial American Poetry (1968). Watts, E. S., The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945 (1977).