Sedgwick, Catharine Maria

views updated

SEDGWICK, Catharine Maria

Born 28 December 1789, Stockbridge, Massachusetts; died 31 July 1867, West Roxbury, Massachusetts

Wrote under: Miss Sedgwick

Daughter of Theodore and Pamela Dwight Sedgwick

Catharine Maria Sedgwick's father was from a family of New England farmers and tavern keepers. He served in both houses of Congress and as Massachusetts Supreme Court chief justice. Her mother belonged to one of the wealthiest colonial families. Because she was sickly, her seven surviving children were raised by a black servant, Elizabeth Freeman, whom they called "Mumbet."

Education was an important part of the Sedgwicks' daily life. All the children were required to read Hume, Butler, Shakespeare, and Cervantes. Sedgwick attended the local grammar school at Stockbridge and was sent to Mrs. Bell's School in Albany and Payne's Finishing School in Boston. She later commented that the greatest influence on our characters is our childhood home.

Shortly before her father's death in 1813 he unexpectedly confided his liberal religious beliefs to a close friend, the Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing. At this time, Sedgwick began to express in her journals and letters her own disapproval of Calvinism, the predominant religion of her Berkshire community. Several years later she joined the Unitarian church in New York. Her brothers Theodore and Henry, both noted lawyers and advocates of social reform, also joined the Unitarian church, but other of her relatives objected to Sedgwick's conversion. An aunt told her, "Come and see me as often as you can, dear, for you know, after this world, we shall never meet again."

In 1822 Sedgwick began to write a small pamphlet protesting religious intolerance. This work evolved into a full-length novel entitled A New England Tale, which was published anonymously that year. The book is set in the New England countryside, and includes characters who speak in the local dialects. It is the story of a virtuous orphan girl, Jane Elton, who is reduced to extreme poverty. The heroine is mistreated by ostensibly pious relatives until she marries a Quaker gentleman and lives happily ever after. The book exposes the hypocrisy of certain church officials, and includes subplots concerning corrupt lawyers, dueling, and gambling. It was an immediate success. At that time, most books read in the U.S. were British imports or American imitations of British works. A New England Tale was recognized as one of the first novels to include authentic American settings, situations, and characters and was soon a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.

With the publication of her second novel, Redwood (1824), Sedgwick became as popular as her contemporaries Cooper and Irving. Redwood was translated into German, Swedish, Italian, and French. The novel is about the marriage of a Southern gentleman to the daughter of a Vermont farmer. It also has a subplot involving the Shaker sect and a character study of a strong, outspoken New England spinster.

After her third novel, Hope Leslie (1827) was published, Sedgwick became the most famous American woman writer of her day. Sedgwick's own mother had nearly been a victim in a Native American raid, and one of the family ancestors had married a Native American. The book contains lengthy discussions of Mohawk customs and colonial history. It is the story of three American women: Faith Leslie, who is captured by Native Americans, marries into the tribe, and adopts its way of life; her sister Hope, who is pursued by a villainous English admiral until his ship sinks in Boston harbor; and Madawisca, a Native American woman who saves Hope's fiancé when Mohawks attack him, and loses her arm in the process. Hope Leslie was hailed by critics as an American masterpiece.

Sedgwick's next novel, Clarence (1830), discusses fashionable New York society. The Linwoods (1835) is a historical romance set during the Revolutionary War. Sedgwick's last novel, Married or Single? (1857) was designed, in her words, "to lessen the stigma placed on the term 'old maid."'

Sedgwick, who never married, divided her time among the Sedgwick family homes in Stockbridge, Lenox, and New York City. She also toured Europe. Her tea parties were attended by Cooper, Hawthorne, Bryant, Emerson, and Melville. Sedgwick kept a journal for most of her life; it describes her spiritual quest, her travels, and her daily activities. She was an active social reformer: she founded the Society for the Aid and Relief of Poor Women and organized the first free school in New York, primarily for Irish immigrant children.

During the second half of her career, Sedgwick became famous as the author of didactic stories intended for children and working class people. She hoped to convince her readers of the importance of education, democracy, and a close-knit family life. She believed that in America social mobility was largely determined by manners. Her most famous didactic novels were the trilogy consisting of Home (1835), The Poor Rich Man and the Rich Poor Man (1836), and Live and Let Live (1837). These books went through 15, 16, and 12 editions respectively.

Sedgwick lived to the age of seventy-eight and was buried next to her nurse Mumbet in Stockbridge. Her contemporary Hawthorne called Sedgwick "our most truthful novelist." Her finely crafted writing is more direct than the embellished style of most novels of her time. She was one of the creators of the American literary tradition, and one of the first American novelists to achieve international popularity.

Other Works:

Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841). The Boy of Mount Rhigi (1848). Memoir of Joseph Curtis (1858).


Buell, L., New England Literary Culture: From Revolutionary Through Renaissance (1986). Dewey, M., ed., The Life and Letters of Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1871). Foster, E. H., Catharine Maria Sedwick (1971). Kelley, M., Private Women, Public Stage (1984). Kolodny, A., The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860 (1984).

Reference works:

NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women Writing in the United States (1995).