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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney
(1791-1865)


When Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolutionary War, visited the United States in the 1820s, a procession of schoolchildren with wreaths proclaiming “NOUS AIMONS LA FAYETTE” greeted him in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. The phrase was the refrain of a poem in his honor by Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney. This event characterizes Sigourney’s position as a writer. Her poetry, like her prose, was about public subjects—history, slavery, missionary work, as well as current events—or treated personal matters, especially loss and death, as experiences common to all. In contrast to a Dickinson or an Emerson, she wrote for popular consumption, her work expressed a communal ethic based on compassionate Christianity and on conservative republicanism.

Sigourney was enormously popular. In 1848 the respected publishers Cary and Hart issued her selected poems in their series of works by American poets, the preceding volumes having been devoted to three highly regarded male writers, Bryant, Longfellow, and N. P. Willis. She was also enormously productive: at her death in 1865 she had published over fifty books. Their range attests to the variety of forms in which antebellum writers could undertake to guide the public. She wrote communitarian narratives, educational volumes, advice manuals, travel literature, temperance pieces, meditative prose, and exemplary memoirs as well as a vast and varied quantity of poetry.

Sigourney’s personal history was testimony to women’s possibilities for self-betterment in America. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1791, she was the only child of a gardener-handyman and his wife. As a child she was the protégé of her father’s employer, Mrs. Lathrop, and when Mrs. Lathrop died, her aristocratic family in Hartford assumed the position of patron to the talented girl. Lydia’s commitments to education, writing, and charity were formed early. As a child she wrote poetry and essays and kept a journal. When her formal schooling ended, she was tutored in Latin and Hebrew and conducted classes for impoverished children, among them African Americans (usually deprived of formal education at that time). In 1811 she and a friend established a girl’s school in Hartford. In 1814 a wealthy relation of Mrs. Lathrop established a school for her whose pupils he gathered from among members of his circle in Hartford. Here she pursued a progressive educational policy, dispensing with the ornamental aspects of girls’ education like needlework and concentrating on comprehension and moral development. In 1815 pedagogical materials that Sigourney had written were published as Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse.

Despite her success, she gave up teaching upon her engagement to Charles Sigourney, a prominent Hartford widower whom she married in 1819 (only two of their five children lived to adulthood). She continued to write, but her stern, conservative husband objected to public authorship, and the matter was long a source of conflict in their marriage. Her wish to publish prevailed, though she usually did so anonymously until her authorship of an advice book became publicly known in 1833. After that, she published under her name, her output soaring: in her first two years of acknowledged authorship she produced nine volumes as well as many ephemeral pieces for newspapers and magazines. Charles Sigourney’s deteriorating economic circumstances probably contributed to this rate and may have sharpened her entrepreneurial skills. She was adroit at negotiating contracts and obtaining remunerative terms for her work, taking advantage of the substantial royalties she received for The Girl’s Reading Book (1838) and The Boy’s Reading Book (1839), for instance, by arranging for their adoption in numerous schools.

However assertive Sigourney was, her activities always remained within the boundaries of feminine propriety of her era. Her work was not solely for personal gain. She supported her parents and family and devoted at least ten percent of her annual income to charity. Her writing itself conformed to the idea of ladyhood to which she had paid homage in her portrait of Mrs. Lathrop in Sketch of Connecticut (1824): that of a conservative benevolence dedicated to the public good. Written with great skill, it was accessible to the broad readership it sought to influence. Unlike Romantic poetry, her poems are not about the subjective ego of poetic persona, nor do they appeal to readers’ subjective states. They use familiar language, often language associated with hymns and the Bible, to present events like the death of an infant or spouse as painful instances of humanity’s common fate. They also encourage readers’ compassion for others and urge them to draw religious conclusions from the contemplation of natural processes and historical events.

Her work also asserts a notion of the American polity that embraces class hierarchy but stresses cross-class obligations and represents Americans as a diverse people. In Sketch of Connecticut she grants voices to members of different groups in the community of Norwich—African Americans, Native Americans, the poor, members of various religions, as well as a “Yankee” farmer. In Lucy Howard’s Journal (1858) she advances a vision of the American West as an interdependent, though stratified, community. Sigourney’s beliefs also fueled her concern—quite unusual in her day—about white treatment of Native Americans. In her many works on Native Americans’ history and circumstances she treats whites’ conduct as a violation of Christian principles. As Nina Baym has noted, she did not condemn settlers’ appropriation of land, but she felt they failed in Christian and republican virtues by not Christianizing Native Americans and granting them citizenship, and she tried to represent Native American perspectives.

Sigourney’s professional conduct was sometimes questionable. She presented literary notables as friends when they were mere acquaintances; and she published papers intended to remain private, including, after his death, her son’s personal journals. Nevertheless, she was always true to her sense of writing as public service. She distributed many copies of her books gratis and published at least one at her own expense so that she could give copies away. In her memoir, Letters of Life, she estimates responding to two thousand letters annually and lists some of the curious requests she received from complete strangers, including one for an ode to a dead canary. Numerous letters from readers attest to the consolation and sustenance her work provided her contemporaries. The low esteem in which public literature—and most women writers—have long been held has allowed twentieth-century commentators to repeat with contempt her antebellum sobriquet “the Sweet Singer of Hartford.” Yet her great success and the seriousness with which she pursued her vocation make it worth our while to explore both the nature of her appeal and the potential, as well as the limits, of popular antebellum writing.
Sandra A. Zagarell
Oberlin College


Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Death of an Infant (1827)
The Suttee (1827)
The Father (1833)
The Indian's Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers (1835)
Indian Names (1838)
Niagara (1849)
To a Shred of Linen (1849)

Other Works
Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse (1815)
Traits of the Aborigines of America (1822)
Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since (1824)
Poems (1827)
Zinzendorff and Other Poems (1835)
Illustrated Poems (1848)
Past Meridian (1854)
Lucy Howard's Journal (1858)
Letters of Life (1866)



Cultural Objects
Image fileSentimentality: Grief and Representation

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Links

Early American Fiction
(http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/eaf/authors/lhhs.html)
Scanned portrait and links to three biographies.

George Griffin and Lydia Howard Sigourney Papers
(http://www.clements.umich.edu/Webguides/S/Sigourney.html)
Biography discussing both George Griffin and Sigourney.

Legacy Photo Gallery
(http://www.unl.edu/legacy/photogal/sigourny.htm)
Another scanned portrait of Sigourney.


Secondary Sources

Nina Baym, "Reinventing Lydia Sigourney," American Literature 62 (1990)

May G. DeJong, "Profile: Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney," Legacy 5 (1988)

Annie Finch, "The Sentimental Poetess in the World: Metaphor and Subjectivity in Lydia Sigourney's Nature Poetry," Legacy 5 (1988)

Gordon Haight, The Sweet Singer of Hartford, 1931

Sharon Harris, ed., Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901, 1995

Sandra A. Zagarell, "Expanding 'America': Lydia Sigourney's Sketch of Connecticut, Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (1987)




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