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Catharine Maria Sedgwick (December 28, 1789 – July 31, 1867) was an American novelist of what is sometimes referred to as "domestic fiction". She promoted Republican motherhood.

Catharine Maria Sedgwick
Catherine Sedgwick (crop).png
Born (1789-12-28)December 28, 1789
Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Died July 31, 1867(1867-07-31) (aged 77)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Period 1822 - 1857
Genre Domestic fiction


Early lifeEdit

Catharine Maria Sedgwick was born December 28, 1789 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her mother was Pamela Dwight (1752–1807) of the New England Dwight family, daughter of General Joseph Dwight (1703–1765) and granddaughter of Ephraim Williams, founder of Williams College. Her father was Theodore Sedgwick (1746–1813), a prosperous lawyer and successful politician. He was later elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives and in 1802 was appointed a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.[1]

As a child, Sedgwick was cared for by Elizabeth Freeman, a former slave whose freedom Theodore Sedgwick helped gain by arguing her case in county court in 1781. After winning her freedom Freeman declined her previous owner's job offer, and instead accepted a job working for the Sedgwick family. As a young woman, Sedgwick attended a finishing school in Boston to complete her education. One of her schoolmates, Susan Anne Ridley Sedgwick (1788–1867), would become her sister-in-law and a published author.[2]

Personal lifeEdit

Sedgwick was engaged at one point to Harmanus Bleecker, a friend of her father and law partner of her brother Theodore (1780-1839).[3][4] They did not marry, and Sedgwick turned down several other marriage proposals, instead choosing to remain single and focus on her career.[5]


As a young woman, Sedgwick took charge of a school in Lenox. She converted from Calvinism to Unitarianism, which led her to write a pamphlet denouncing religious intolerance. This further inspired her to write her first novel, A New-England Tale.

With her work much in demand, from the 1820s to the 1850s, Sedgwick made a good living writing short stories for a variety of periodicals. She died in 1867, and by the end of the 19th century, she had been relegated to near obscurity. There was a rise of male critics who deprecated women's writing as they worked to create an American literature.

Interest in Sedgwick's works and an appreciation of her contribution to American literature has been stimulated by the late 20th century's feminist movement. Beginning in the 1960s, feminist scholars began to re-evaluate women's contributions to literature and other arts, and created new frames of reference for considering their work. In addition, the advent of low-cost electronic reproductions, which became available at the end of the 20th century, made Sedgwick and other nineteenth-century authors' work more accessible for study and pleasure.

Edgar Allan Poe described Sedgwick in his "The Literati of New York City" (1846).[6]

She is about the medium height, perhaps a little below it. Her forehead is an unusually fine one nose of a slightly Roman curve; eyes dark and piercing; mouth well-formed and remarkably pleasant in its expression. The portrait in Graham's Magazine is by no means a likeness, and, although the hair is represented as curled, (Miss Sedgwick at present wears a cap—at least, most usually,) gives her the air of being much older than she is.

Sedgwick is buried in the family plot in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her family arranged to have Freeman buried in their family plot as well, and had a tombstone inscribed for her.

Critical responseEdit

Sedgwick became one of the most notable female novelists of her time. She wrote work in American settings, and combined patriotism with protests against historic Puritan oppressiveness. Her topics contributed to the creation of a national literature, enhanced by her detailed descriptions of nature. Sedgwick created spirited heroines who did not conform to the stereotypical conduct of women at the time. In her final novel, Married or Single (1857), she put forth the bold idea that women should not marry if it meant they would lose their self-respect (but she married off her heroine).[7]

Hope LeslieEdit

Sedgwick's third novel, Hope Leslie (1827), recounted a dramatic conflict among the British Empire, colonists and Native Americans. The book earned a large readership and established the author's reputation in both the United States and Great Britain.

Using the techniques of the "New Criticism" of the 1950s, Judith Fetterley (1998) provides a close reading of Hope Leslie. She notes both the areas in which the heroine Leslie (and thus the author), is ahead of her time, and the areas in which she is a product of her time. Leslie constantly challenges the role of women suggested during the colonial period. Sedgwick portrays Leslie as living in a hostile world, where as a woman, she creates a holistic public role that is not separate from the private sphere. Sedgwick regularly uses the rhetoric of "sameness" when comparing Leslie and the main male character, Everell.[8]

Her treatment of her characters is both radical and conservative. For instance, Fetterley believes that Leslie is repulsed to discover that her long-lost sister, Faith Leslie, taken captive by Indians, has "gone native", assimilated and married an Indian. Sedgwick portrays the Indian woman Magawisca sympathetically. But she viewed nonwhite women as a threat to the efforts of white women to establish themselves independently in society, and seemed to write nonwhite women out of the future by expressing the contemporary belief that American Indians were a vanishing race.[8]

Barbara Bardes and Suzanne Gossett differ in opinions about the meaning of Hope Leslie. They see the figure of Magawisca as a double for Hope Leslie, and note that the author did research on Mohawk customs and presents their religion sympathetically. Because Sedgwick portrays Faith Leslie's marriage to an Indian and refusal to rejoin the Puritan community, they see her as more open to American-Native American relations than was James Fenimore Cooper, for instance, whose novel Last of the Mohicans (1826) was published the year before.[7]


Clarence; or, A Tale of Our Own Times (1830) is a novel of manners set in New York City. Portions of the novel also take place in England, Jamaica, and Trenton Falls, a popular tourist destination in New York state. The story follows Gertrude Clarence, a young heiress on the New York City marriage market. An author's revised edition of the novel was released in 1849. Critical reception of the novel in America was mostly positive. A review in the New York Evening Post (14 June 1830) praises the presentations of American domestic life as being "managed with great liveliness and ingenuity, and constitute one of the most attractive parts of the book".[9] Reviews of the novel in England are mixed. The Ladies Museum (1 September 1830) criticizes the novel for being outmoded, complaining that the novel was written "in a style that was considered good fifty years ago".[10]

The LinwoodsEdit

The Linwoods; or Sixty Years Since in America (1835) is an historical romance set during the American Revolution. Sedgwick uses a cosmopolitan framework to shed light on American character and national identity in the early republic by exploring America's relationship with Britain and France. The balance between American nationalism and cosmopolitanism is idealized in the novel through the character of the Marquis de Lafayette, as is the struggle between Old World notions of class and the reality of American democracy.[11]

Live and Let LiveEdit

Live and Let Live; or, Domestic Service Illustrated (1837) depicts the ideal workplaces for working-class women to develop domestic skills. Sedgwick's expression of relations between mistress-employer and housekeepers reflects a return to aristocratic class relations, but one that includes employer respect for the employee's humanity and political rights. Domestic economist Catharine Beecher's subsequent publications, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) and The American Woman's Home (1869), similarly promoted the importance of the "labor contract" in these relationships.[12]



(See Richard Bushman, Refinement in America, 1992, pp. 276–79 for a discussion of the above three novels)

Other Writings:


  1. ^ Benjamin Woodbridge Dwight (1874). The history of the descendants of John Dwight, of Dedham, Mass. 2. J. F. Trow & son, printers and bookbinders. 
  2. ^ Lucinda L. Damon-Bach; Victoria Clements (2003). Catharine Maria Sedgwick: critical perspectives. Northeastern University Press. p. xxvi. ISBN 1-55553-548-8. 
  3. ^ Bryant, William Cullen (November 28, 1840). "The Biographical Annual: Theodore Sedgwick". The New-Yorker. X (11). New York, NY. p. 161. 
  4. ^ Damon-Bach, Lucinda L.; Clements, Victoria (2003). Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press. p. xxxiv. ISBN 978-1-55553-548-3. 
  5. ^ Sedgwick, Catharine Maria, author; Kelley, Mary, editor (2003). Hope Leslie: Or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. xviii. ISBN 978-0-8135-1221-1. 
  6. ^ "Catharine Sedgwick", Portraits of American Women Writers, The Library Company of Philadelphia. 2005; citing: in 1846 “The Literati of New York City. No. V,” in Godey’s Lady’s Book, v. 33, pp. 131-132:
  7. ^ a b Barbara A. Bardes and Suzanne Gossett, "Catharine Maria Sedgwick", The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition, Philip Lauter, General Editor, Cengage Learning, 1989; revised 2010, accessed 18 January 2011
  8. ^ a b Judith Fetterley, "'My Sister! My Sister!' The Rhetoric Of Catharine Sedgwick's 'Hope Leslie'," American Literature 1998 70(3): 491-516
  9. ^ Segdwick, Catharine (2012). Melissa J. Homestead and Ellen A. Foster, ed. Clarence. Peterborough: Broadview Press. p. 454. ISBN 978-1-55111-861-1. 
  10. ^ Segdwick, Catharine (2012). Melissa J. Homestead and Ellen A. Foster, ed. Clarence. Peterborough: Broadview Press. p. 461. ISBN 978-1-55111-861-1. 
  11. ^ Philip Gould, "Catharine Sedgwick's Cosmopolitan Nation", New England Quarterly 2005 78(2): 232-258
  12. ^ Laurie Ousley, "The Business of Housekeeping: The Mistress, the Domestic Worker, and the Construction of Class," Legacy 2006 23(2): 132-147
  13. ^ Sedgwick, Catharine Maria (1853), Catharine Maria Sedgwick Papers, "Mumbett" (manuscript draft), Boston, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Historical Society, retrieved July 7, 2010 

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit