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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789-1867)

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

Catharine Maria Sedgwick Activities
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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.

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