Williams, Catharine (Read) Arnold

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WILLIAMS, Catharine (Read) Arnold

Born 31 December 1787, Providence, Rhode Island; died 11 October 1872, Providence, Rhode Island

Daughter of Alfred and Amey Read Arnold; married Horatio N. Williams, 1824 (divorced); children: Amey

Catharine Arnold Williams' father was a sea captain. Because her mother died when she was a child, Williams was raised and educated by two religious aunts. She did not marry until her mid-thirties, after which she and her husband moved to western New York. Two years later, Williams returned to Providence with her infant daughter, Amey, and secured a divorce, although she continued to call herself "Mrs. Williams." Williams opened a school, but soon abandoned teaching for health reasons. It was then that she turned to writing.

Williams' first book, Original Poems on Various Subjects (1828), sold by subscription, contains some poems that had been published previously. Her next book, Religion at Home (1829), was quite successful and went through several editions. During the next two decades, Williams wrote histories, biographies, and fiction. About 1849 she moved to Brooklyn, New York, to care for an aged aunt. When her aunt died, she returned to Rhode Island, but never to writing.

In theme and choice of subject, Williams always expressed patriotic, republican sentiments. Tales, National and Revolutionary (2 vols., 1830-35) and Biography of Revolutionary Heroes (1839) reflect her belief in American democracy and her desire to encourage good citizenship. In Williams' opinion, both men and women need to know about and emulate the heroism of Americans in defense of liberty; both need to understand the political and judicial systems. She praises the virtues of patience, industry and self-control, not the display of wealth and aristocratic style, as the marks of a good citizen.

Religion is also a major theme in her works. According to Williams, dignified and sincere religious expression, not showy religious fervor, was appropriate in the new nation. In Fall River (1833), for example, Williams argues that the religious display at camp meetings and revivals threatens people's morality, health, and self-control; genuine religion, accordingly, is practiced at home and expressed in the heart. Good manners and useful accomplishments blossom from pure religious sentiment.

There are admirable characters of both sexes in Williams' works. In Religion at Home, Aristocracy; or, The Holbey Family (1832) and other works, "true women" and admirable men are intelligent, sincerely pious, and courageous; they have good natures and even tempers. The men are distinguished from the women principally by their responsibilities and occupations. Honor and admiration characterize men's relationships with their wives; therefore, husbands frequently ask for their wives' opinions on public matters. Williams is critical of aristocratic pretensions in both sexes, but evil doing is mostly a male trait. When a reader pointed out to Williams that her worst characters are male, she responded in the preface to the second volume of Tales, National and Revolutionary that she only told stories as they were told to her.

Williams insists on the truth and high moral purpose of all her works. To prove that her stories are based on fact, she inserts written "proof" into the text, alluding to her personal acquaintance with the characters, explains where her information was gathered, or gives a historical account of the events behind her story. Sometimes this documentation becomes pedantic, as in The Neutral French (1841), but the attention Williams gives to historical truth is still impressive. To emphasize the moral of a story, Williams sometimes embellishes the facts, as she admits in Tales, National and Revolutionary, but she insists she never distorts them. Through her historical fiction, Williams warns her readers against errors in personal habits and governmental practices.

Williams described her own life as quiet; she said she excluded herself from gaiety not only to have time to earn a living, but also out of a sense of propriety. Prefatory remarks in Religion at Home, Aristocracy; or, The Holbey Family and elsewhere indicate that Williams was somewhat self-conscious about being awoman writer on political, legal, and historical topics, yet she never hid the fact of her sex from her readers. In recognition of her talents in those areas, Williams was elected to several state historical societies.

For contemporary readers, it is not Williams' moralistic fiction but her histories that are most interesting. Fall River is a fascinating study of ministerial corruption, female textile workers, and legal abuses in the early republic. The Neutral French is a gold mine of carefully collected information on the Acadians. Tales, National and Revolutionary and Biography of Revolutionary Heroes contain much information about Americans in Revolutionary times. One can't help but regret that this intelligent woman stopped publishing books some 25 years before her death.

Other Works:

Annals of the Aristocracy, Being a Series of Anecdotes of Some of the Principal Families of Rhode Island (1843-1845).


Rider, S. S., Biographical Memoirs of Three Rhode Island Authors (1880).

Reference works:


Other references:

Providence Daily Journal (14 Oct. 1872).


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