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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Utopian Promise Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727)

[7057] Annie Fisher, Fisher’s Tavern in Dedham, courtesy of the Dedham Historical Society, Dedham, Massachusetts.

Sarah Kemble was born in Boston in 1666, the daughter of Thomas Kemble, a successful merchant, and Elizabeth Trerice, who descended from an old and established Massachusetts family. In 1689, she married Richard Knight, a sea captain considerably older than herself. Even before her husband’s death, Sarah Kemble Knight assumed many of the family’s business responsibilities, running a shop in Boston, taking in lodgers, and working as a court scrivener copying legal documents. Her familiarity with legal issues, as well as her habitual independence, probably underwrote her decision in 1704 to journey to New Haven, Connecticut, to help settle the estate of her cousin Caleb Trowbridge on behalf of his widow. The overland trip from Boston to New Haven was long and difficult in the early eighteenth century; although the route was an established one used by postal riders, the road was rough and travelers found it necessary to hire local guides to conduct them from one town or rural inn to another. At the time, it was unusual for a woman to embark on such a journey alone.

Knight was a careful diarist, resolving to “enter my mind in my Journal” at the end of each day of travel. The resulting record is a unique and entertaining document, both because Knight’s experience was so atypical and because her lively, often humorous narrative voice marks a break with the more somber tradition of Puritan journals and narratives. The Private Journal is in fact very secular in its content, tone, and style, containing little moral didacticism and almost no spiritual self-examination. Instead, Knight is witty, worldly, and sharply keyed in to the social distinctions and class hierarchies that structured colonial New England. All of Knight’s experiences are filtered through her sense of her own middling social and economic position. She is ruthlessly sarcastic about the ignorance and poor taste displayed by the rustic “bumpkins” she encounters in the country, and extremely proud of “the wonderful civility” shown to her in the city by members of ranks of society higher than her own. She condones slavery and is appalled that some farmers allow their slaves to “sit at table and eat with them.” Throughout the Journal, she refers to Native Americans in dehumanizing terms, comparing them to animals. Despite her off-putting prejudices, however, Knight manages to paint a vivid and engaging picture of a broad cross-section of early American society, describing both backwoods and urban life with humor and an ear for colloquial language.

Knight ended her journey in March 1705, returning safely to her home in Boston. In 1714 her daughter married John Livingston of New London, and Knight moved with them to Connecticut, where she continued her business and land dealings. When she died in 1727, she left her daughter a very large estate, attesting to her shrewdness and skill as a businessperson.

Teaching Tips

  • Early in her Journal Knight narrates a moment of fear and uncertainty brought on by feeling alone in the woods, acknowledging that she experienced some spiritual concern about her “call” to make such a journey:

    Now returned my distressed apprehensions of the place where I was: the dolesome woods, my company next to none, going I knew not whither, and encompassed with terrifying darkness; the least of which was enough to startle a more masculine courage. Added to which the reflections, as in the afternoon of the day that my call was very questionable, which, till then I had not so prudently as I ought considered.

    While this passage sounds akin to the kind of spiritual examination common in traditional Puritan autobiographical writings, Knight quickly undercuts its religious tone. Rather than recount an assurance of grace or gratitude for God’s mercy, she instead reports her relief at catching a glimpse of the moon, which she proceeds to describe in neoclassical heroic couplets. You might ask students to focus on this passage in order to highlight the difference between the secularism of Knight’s Journal and the profound religiosity of most of the other texts included in this unit. Ask them to consider the significance of Knight’s homage to “Cynthia,” the pagan goddess of the moon, in a moment of uncertainty and distress.

  • While Knight does not seem to have written her Journal for publication, she probably did circulate it in manuscript form for the amusement of her friends and relatives. Ask students to look for clues that might indicate the kind of audience Knight imagined reading her book. You might point out her lack of introspection, her sarcastic comments about social inferiors, and her inclusion of poetry and allusions to European literary texts. What kind of image was Knight trying to create for herself?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of prejudices color Knight’s descriptions of the people she meets on her journey? What do her responses to people of different economic status and race reveal about the social hierarchy that structured colonial America?
  2. Context: What role, if any, does spirituality play in Knight’s worldview and her understanding of her journey? When does she bring up religion? How does her Journal compare to other journals and autobiographical narratives included in this unit (for example, those of Bradford, Rowlandson, and Woolman)?
  3. Exploration: Literary critics disagree on the generic categorization of Knight’s Journal. It has been read as participating in the traditions of the picaresque, mock-epic, and the captivity narrative, while it has also been cited as a foundational text in the development of American travel writing and the American comic tradition. How would you categorize the Journal? What kind of influence do you think it may have had on later American writing?

Selected Archive Items

[6750] George F. Wright, Gurdon Saltonsall (c. 1710),
courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.
This portrait depicts the Reverend Gurdon Saltonstall (1666-1724) of Connecticut, Knight’s host in New London. Born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, Saltonstall became governor of Connecticut in 1708.

[7057] Annie Fisher, Fisher’s Tavern in Dedham,
courtesy of the Dedham Historical Society, Dedham, Massachusetts.
Like most eighteenth-century travelers, Knight rented rooms in public inns and taverns. In her journal, Knight recalls going to Fisher’s Tavern to find a guide to take her to Billings’s Tavern her first night on the road. Drinking was a popular Puritan activity, and taverns played an important role in the social and political lives of towns.

[7060] Anonymous, The Reverend James Pierpont (1711),
courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.
In his will Pierpont gave eight acres of land upon which the first meeting house was built. Pierpont appears in Knight’s Private Journal when he mediates on behalf of Knight. His dress in the portrait reflects a persistence of “plain style” into the eighteenth century, at least among the orthodox Calvinist ministers.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

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

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