Sedgwick, Catharine (1789–1867)

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Sedgwick, Catharine (1789–1867)

American writer of popular works in the early 19th century. Born Catharine Maria Sedgwick in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on December 28, 1789; died near Roxbury, Massachusetts, on July 31, 1867; daughter of Theodore Sedgwick (a U.S. senator, speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives, and judge on the Supreme Court of Massachusetts) and Pamela (Dwight) Sedgwick; attended the district school in Stockbridge, and adventure schools in New York City, Boston, and Albany; never married; no children.

Shortly before A New England Tale appeared in print, Catharine Sedgwick's brother Harry wrote to a relative that his sister had drafted a story that she had been persuaded "with great difficulty" to have published. "What I have now told you is of course a profound secret—We all concur in thinking that a lady should be veiled in her first appearance before the public." The tale had begun, in fact, as a religious tract. Its author, by then in her early 30s, was reluctantly induced by the enthusiasm of her four brothers to expand it into a novel, which was published anonymously in 1822. Though Harry was to become his sister's literary agent, she remained diffident. "She began a literary career as if she were biding her time while waiting for the legitimate domestic career she was never to have," wrote Mary Kelley in Private Woman, Public Stage, "and to an extent she regarded her literary endeavors as a pale substitute for what she believed should be the calling of a true woman."

"Reared in an atmosphere of high intelligence," Catharine Maria Sedgwick was born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on December 28, 1789. By her own admission, she received a "fragmentary" education: "there was much chance seed dropped in the fresh furrow and some of it was good seed—and some of it I may say fell on good ground." Her father was a politician and diplomat, at various times a judge on the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, speaker in the U.S. House of Representatives, and U.S. senator. At home, he spent evenings reading to his children, sometimes from Shakespeare, sometimes from Cervantes.

The success of Sedgwick's first book emboldened her brothers to encourage her in her writing, which she continued, albeit grudgingly. It had been her hope that her name would never be printed "except on my tomb." In 1827, she published Redwood, a two-volume novel, which was followed by Hope Leslie (1827), Clarence, a Tale of our Own Times (1830), Le Bossu (1832), The Linwoods, or Sixty Years Since in America (1835), The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man (1836), and Live and Let Live (1838).

There were also two volumes of juvenile tales, A Love Token for Children and Stories for Young Persons. Means and Ends, or Self-Training contained advice to young women on education and character formation, while shorter tales that had appeared in various magazines were brought out as a collection in 1835. In 1840, Sedgwick published Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home; the two volumes contained a pleasant but sketchy account of people and places she had encountered during a recent tour of Europe.

The strongest trait of Sedgwick's writings "is the amiable domesticity which runs through them," wrote one early critic. But eight years after the publication of her first book, after earning significant income from her writings, Sedgwick was still unable to consider writing a proper occupation for a woman and felt "inferior" when she had to "confess" to a bank that she had no occupation.

Sedgwick never married and lived with one or another of her brothers and their families in

Stockbridge, considered one of the most beautiful villages of the Berkshires. Encouraged to continue with the work she refused to give herself credit for, she wrote often about the town, which gained a widespread and celebrated reputation because of the qualities described in her works.


Kelley, Mary. Private Woman, Public Stage. NY: Oxford University Press, 1984.