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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867)

[5519] A. B. Durand, Catharine M. Sedgwick (c. 1832), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-113381].

Catharine Maria Sedgwick was one of the leading figures in early-nineteenth-century American literary culture. Although she is less well known today, she set a pattern for the development of both domestic novels and historical novels in this country. Male writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and William Cullen Bryant respected Sedgwick as a peer, while female authors such as Lydia Maria Child and Harriet Beecher Stowe regarded her as a literary role model. Born into a wealthy Massachusetts Federalist family, Sedgwick was the sixth of seven children. Her father, a prominent politician who occupied the position of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives during Washington’s administration, took an interest in her education and provided her with a background in literature that would inspire her later development as a writer.

Sedgwick never married, choosing instead to devote herself to her writing and to caring for her parents and brothers. She spent time living in the homes of several of her brothers, and their unflagging support for her was a source of both private comfort and professional help and encouragement. Like many of her siblings, she renounced her parents’ strict Calvinist faith for the tolerance and religious freedoms of the Unitarian Church, which she joined in 1821. Sedgwick’s conversion was the impetus behind her first novel, A New-England Tale, which exposes the harshness of Calvinist theology. She hoped the novel would help convert readers who had not yet “escaped from the thraldom of orthodox despotism,” as she put it. While her subsequent novels were more tempered in their critiques of orthodox religion, many of these later works were infused by Unitarian values.

Sedgwick’s most celebrated novel is Hope Leslie, which takes the sixteenth-century Puritan colony in Massachusetts as its setting. Portraying Native American characters in a positive light, the novel advocates interracial friendships and recasts the Pequot War as an act of unfounded aggression against the Indians. While Hope Leslie considers the possibility of interracial marriage, it ultimately remains ambivalent about intimate relationships between Europeans and Indians. Sedgwick wrote several other novels and also produced many pieces of shorter fiction, which she published in collected editions and in magazines and literary journals.

Although she was sympathetic to causes such as abolitionism, Indian rights, and women’s rights, Sedgwick never took an active role in these movements. Unlike many other nineteenth-century women writers, she was uncomfortable with overt political activism and tended to be conservative in her political commitments. In her posthumously published autobiography, she claimed that “an excessive love of approbation” made her reluctant to challenge social conventions. Although her legacy is perhaps less radical and her works less didactically political than those of the many female authors she inspired, Sedgwick was a pioneer among women writers and an important and insightful analyst of American society.

Teaching Tips

  • In an 1824 book review, a literary critic mistakenly attributed Sedgwick’s second novel, Redwood (which she published anonymously), to James Fenimore Cooper. Sedgwick found the mistake amusing, commenting, “It is to be hoped that Mr. C’s self-complacency will not be wounded by this mortifying news.” Ask students to think about the assumptions about gender and authorship that underwrite Sedgwick’s witty comment. Why might the reviewer have made the mistake he did? What does Sedgwick’s work have in common with Cooper’s?
  • Writing twenty-five years before Hawthorne’s famous indictment of that “d–d mob of scribbling women,” Sedgwick offered a satiric portrait of the phenomenon of female authorship in her short story “Cacoethes Scribendi.” Ask students to consider the nature of Sedgwick’s critique. How does the story question the quality of nineteenth-century women’s writing? How does the title–which translates as “writer’s itch”–mock women writers’ pretensions and productivity? What was Sedgwick’s own position within the culture of women writers that she satirizes? How might she have defended her own work from the criticisms she levels at other women writers in the story?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What separates the “opposed and contending parties” Sedgwick chronicles in her story “A Reminiscence of Federalism”? How do national party politics divide the small settlement of Carrington, Vermont? What is the narrator’s attitude toward the characters’ devotion to their political parties?
  2. Comprehension: How does Sedgwick characterize the three women who compete for Everell Fletcher’s affections in Hope Leslie? How does the novel deal with his relationship with Magawisca, the Pequot woman? What is Magawisca’s fate?
  3. Context: The “secluded and quiet village of H.,” which is the setting for “Cacoethes Scribendi,” is populated almost solely by women. How does the dominance of women affect the community? What is the women’s relationship to the few men in the area? How does Sedgwick’s description of this female village compare with other writers’ accounts of western communities populated almost exclusively by men (works by Love, Clappe, or Ridge, for example)?
  4. Context: How do the Native American characters in Hope Leslie articulate their attachment to their traditional lands? How do their attitudes toward their land and their culture compare with those expressed by the Cherokee memorialists?
  5. Exploration: How does Sedgwick’s portrait of the Pequot War in Hope Leslie undermine or challenge historical accounts of that event written by Puritans? How do Nelema and Magawisca’s moving descriptions of the slaughter of the Pequots compare to John Underhill’s account of the war? Or William Bradford’s?
  6. Exploration: Sedgwick’s brother felt that his sister’s first novel, A New-England Tale, had alienated some of its readers by its “unfavorable representation of the New England character.” In response, Sedgwick determined to provide less hostile descriptions of Puritans and their descendants in her subsequent work. How does she portray the Puritan community in Hope Leslie? Which Puritans are sympathetic? How does she portray John Winthrop? How does her representation of Winthrop compare to his authorial persona in his Journal?

Selected Archive Items

[1210] John Underhill, The Figure of the Indians’ Fort or Palizado in New England and the Manner of the Destroying It By Captayne Underhill and Captayne Mason (1638),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-32055].
In 1636, English settlers engaged in a genocidal campaign to wipe out the Pequot tribe native to New England. Captain John Underhill included this sketch of the Puritans and their Narragansett allies destroying a Pequot village in his News from America (1638).

[1363] Anonymous, John Winthrop (c. 1640s),
courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
John Winthrop was the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. His somber-colored clothing marks him as a Puritan, while his ornate neck ruff indicates his wealth and social status.

[5519] A. B. Durand, Catharine M. Sedgwick (c. 1832),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-113381].
Sedgwick’s novel Hope Leslie is notable for its positive depiction of Native Americans, its presentation of the Pequot War as an act of European aggression, and its depiction of interracial marriage.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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