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

Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Catharine Maria Sedgwick came from an important Federalist family in western Massachusetts. While Catharine always spoke with love and respect of her mother, Pamela Dwight Sedgwick suffered repeated periods of mental illness and does not seem to have been close to her daughter. Instead, Catharine admired her father, though he was often away for his political career, which culminated in his becoming Speaker of the House. In his absence Catharine was surrounded by her many siblings. She was particularly attached to her four brothers. Even when they had all married and become lawyers like their father, they remained the central figures in her emotional life. Single herself, she passed part of every year in the family of one or the other of her brothers, and was a favorite aunt to many children. It was her brothers who encouraged her to write. Together they worked to sustain her often failing self-confidence, and assisted her practically with contracts and reviews.

Sedgwick, who left the Calvinist church of her childhood to become a Unitarian, showed a consistent tolerance for members of minority groups. The hero of her first work, A New-England Tale, was a Quaker. A long section of Redwood concerns a Shaker community, and although Sedgwick analyzes the psychological pressures keeping members within the group, the religion is never condemned. Similarly, Hope Leslie shows a sympathetic understanding of Indians and Indian religious beliefs, based partly on her research into Mohawk customs. Unlike Cooper, whose Last of the Mohicans appeared the year before Hope Leslie, Sedgwick countenances marriage between an Indian man and a white woman: the heroine’s sister, Faith Leslie, is carried into captivity as a child, marries an Indian, and refuses the opportunity to rejoin the Puritan community. Sedgwick may have been influenced here by the similar legend of Eunice Williams, a remote ancestor of hers.

Sedgwick was immediately recognized as one of the writers creating an indigenous American literature. A New-England Tale was subtitled “Sketches of New-England Character and Manners,” and two of her later novels, Hope Leslie, set among the Puritans, and The Linwoods, Or “Sixty Years Since in America,” set during the Revolution, mingled historical event with romantic invention. Praised as a woman writer, she was nevertheless associated equally with Bryant, Irving, and Cooper. On his European tour Cooper found he was assumed to be the author of Redwood.

Throughout her life Sedgwick was ambivalent about her position as a single woman. She told a favorite niece that “so many I have loved have made shipwreck of happiness in marriage or have found it a dreary joyless condition.” Nevertheless, her fiction always depicts marriage as a young girl’s goal and reward. Even in her final novel, Married or Single?, which she wrote to assuage depression after the death of her last remaining brother, she reveals her conflict. Though she wrote the novel to “drive away the smile . . . at the name of ‘old maid’,” she concluded the book by marrying off the heroine.

The central figures in Sedgwick’s novels are women, often noted for their independence. In Redwood Aunt Debby, “a natural protector of the weak and oppressed,” rescues a young girl held among the Shakers. Aunt Debby had decided to remain single after the Revolutionary War because she was “so imbued with the independent spirit of the times, that she would not then consent to the surrender of any of her rights.” On two occasions Hope Leslie follows her own conscience and frees Indian women from unjust imprisonment. Both Hope and her Indian double Magawisca question political authority which does not include them: Hope, unable as a woman to work through the political system, defies it, and Magawisca denies a Puritan jury’s jurisdiction over her people.

Though sympathetic to women’s rights and abolition, Sedgwick never took an active part in those reforms. Toward the end of her life, however, she became the first director of the Women’s Prison Association. Her novels show a horror of prisons and a hatred of slavery. In The Linwoods the heroine assists in releasing her brother from jail. She is aided by a free black family servant who tells the jailer she ties up, “remember, that you were strung up there by a ‘d—n nigger’—a nigger woman!” In Married or Single? one heroine undertakes to free her brother from the New York Tombs, and another assists a runaway slave. Sedgwick’s fiction repeatedly emphasized the political and personal need for liberty and independence.

Barbara A. Bardes
Suzanne Gossett
Loyola University Chicago

In the Heath Anthology
from Hope Leslie (1827)

Other Works
A New-England Tale (1822)
Redwood (1824)
Clarence (1830)
The Linwoods (1835)
Married or Single? (1857)

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Paw Prints
Brief biography, links, and "anecdotes" about Sedgwick.

The Catharine Maria Sedgwick Page
A biographical sketch, plot summaries of Sedgwick's major works, links, and more.

The Catharine Maria Sedgwick Society
Information about the Society's activities, a bibliography, a biography, and reviews.

Secondary Sources

Barbara Bardes and Suzanne Gossett, Declarations of Independence: Women and Political Power in Nineteenth-Century America, 1990

Michael Bell, "History and Romance Convention in Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie," American Quarterly 22, 1970

Philip Gould, Covenant and Republic: Historical Romance and the Politics of Puritanism, 1996

Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America, 1984

Redefining the Political Novel, ed. Sharon Harris, 1995

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