Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727)
Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola
Classroom Issues and Strategies
This journal is one of the most teachable colonial documents at the
undergraduate level. Students respond positively to Knight's humorous portrait
of herself and her surroundings. Through this document--and others--a teacher
can counterbalance the still all-too-common stereotype of Puritans as dour,
somber, unsmiling, and morbidly pious.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. Position of women--especially women writers--in late seventeenth-and
early eighteenth-century New England.
In theory, Puritans used the typological significance of Eve's creation
from Adam's rib as a way to stress women's dependence, domesticity, and
intrinsic inferiority. Ninety-nine percent of women married at least once
in Puritan New England, and a wife's major purpose was to serve God and
her husband. Sermons, for example, frequently stressed the ideal woman's
qualities of modesty, piety, humility, patience, charity, and so on. But
in practice, of course, women were often far from ideal, and in a frontier
society they sometimes had to take on men's work. Thus there is evidence
that women became printers, stationers, writers, and innkeepers, for example--usually
on the death of their father or husband. Sarah Kemble Knight is a case
in point, and students might be asked to find textual evidence of Knight's
2. Views of the frontier/wilderness at this time.
3. Sociological issues like views of blacks, Indians, and other settlers
in different colonies.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Discuss the genres of diary, journal and autobiography and also explain
how this journal fits the fictional genre of the picaresque. Compare the
popular, colloquial quality of this work with more academic works to understand
what the ordinary Puritan citizen might think/read vs. what the well-educated,
but few, members of the intelligentsia might think/read. Such a discussion
inevitably involves other colonial works in these genres and helps students
understand generic interrelationships. The diary (Sewall's
is a prime example) focuses on externals; is unrevised, immediate, and
fragmentary; may extend for many years; and usually has no audience in
mind except the writer him- or herself. A journal, however (Knight's, for
instance), focuses more on internal matters; may be slightly revised; may
be written shortly after the fact; may extend over a shorter time period,
sometimes to deal with a specific event like a courtship or a journey;
should appear relatively coherent; and is probably written with a restricted
audience in mind. The autobiography and the spiritual autobiography are
often considered the most "literary" of the genres because they
are more carefully structured and composed.
This work was not written with publication in mind, and indeed although
written during 1704-1705 was not published until 1825. Like the work of
other women writers and amateur authors, this might have been circulated
among family and friends by the author, but it did not have a wider readership
until it was actually published.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare with other women writers of the time: Anne
Bradstreet and Mary
Rowlandson, for example. Such comparisons do not reveal a direct influence
or sense of tradition among women writers; rather, each person and her
work must be considered separately. Contrast with journals of male contemporaries
(other travel journals, for example).
Questions for Reading and Discussion
1. Look at Knight as heroine/protagonist of her story/journal.
2. Look carefully at how the wilderness is presented.
3. Look at exactly what she chooses to record in this journal.
4. Notice the lack of religious themes.
5. Discuss Knight as driven by middle-class consumer values.
6. Discuss Knight's racism.
I attached a reading list to the headnote. Please see the suggested
readings there. A provocative reading of the Journal can be found
in Julia Stern, "To Relish and to Spew: Disgust and Cultural
Critique in The Journal of Madam Knight." Legacy 14