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

Sarah Kemble†Knight

Since its publication in 1825, Sarah Kemble Knight's journal, composed as an account of her roundtrip journey from Boston to New York in 1704-1705, has remained an early American literary landmark, partly because of the larger-than-life character it reveals and partly because it records an arduous journey not usually undertaken by a woman. In addition to providing a funny, often racy, account of the people and places she encounters along the way, Knight paints a vivid verbal picture of New England backwoods settlements and of middle-class social aspirations. Typical of the picaro, she views the wilderness as romantic and literary, colonized and domesticated, dangerous yet comic and amoral. Unlike many other latter-day Puritans who considered the frontier dangerous, Knight considered it challenging.

The first daughter of Thomas Kemble and Elizabeth Trerice Kemble, Sarah was born in Boston. Sometime between 1688 and 1689, she married Richard Knight, who was apparently much older than she. Tradition holds that Richard Knight was a shipmaster and agent in London for an American company and that Sarah Kemble was his second wife, but neither claim can be confirmed. Their one child, Elizabeth, was born in Boston on May 8, 1689. Even before Richard Knight died (probably in 1706), his wife seems to have taken over many of his business responsibilities. She evidently attained some degree of business and legal acumen, skills she used in settling estates. In fact, she made the trip her journal documents to settle the estate of her cousin Caleb Trowbridge, who left a young widow. Sarah Kemble Knight kept a shop and house on Moon Street in Boston. That she also ran a writing school attended by Benjamin Franklin is more likely rumor than fact. When her daughter married John Livingston of New London, Connecticut, Knight, now widowed, moved to be near her. Knight seems to have continued some business activities in Connecticut; when she died, her estate was valued at £1800.

Knight's work might be expected to fall into the tradition of Puritan journal-keeping, yet its content, style, and tone seem un-Puritan indeed. First, Knight's journal is primarily a series of stories, not a history, whose heroine is more like Chaucer's Wife of Bath (who is also a social climber) than the self-effacing stereotype of Puritan womanhood. Second, Knight's style is worldly and literary. And third, her tone encompasses several different types of humor. As Julia Stern so astutely points out, the journal's focus on things oraleating and speakinconstitutes its main narrative thrust.

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola
University of Arkansas at Little Rock

In the Heath Anthology
The Journal of Madam Knight (1825)

Other Works

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Motion: A Travel Journal
††A brief biography of Kemble, including a scanned portrait.

Perspectives in American Literature
††Selected bibliography and comments on The Journal."

Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727)
††A concise site offering information about her life, literary contribution, and connections with other writers of her time.

Secondary Sources

M.M. Balkun, "Sarah Kemble Knight and the Construction of the American Self," Women's Studies 28 (1998): 7-27

Sargent Bush, Introduction, The Journal of Madam Knight, Journeys in New Worlds, Early American Women's Narratives, ed. William L. Andrews, 1990: 69-83

Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola, "The New England Frontier and the Picaresque in Sarah Kemble Knight's Journal," Early American Literature and Culture: Essays Honoring Harrison T. Meserole, 1992: 122-131

Alan Margolies, "The Editing and Publication of 'The Journal of Madam Knight'," Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 58, 1964: 25-32

Scott Michaelson, "Narrative and Class in a Culture of Consumption: The Significance of Stories in Sarah Kemble Knight's Journal," College Literature, 21 (1994): 33-46

Julia Stern, "To Relish and to Spew Disgust as Cultural Critique in The Journal of Madam Knight," Legacy: A Journey of American Women Writers, 14, 1997: 1-12

Peter Thorpe, "Sarah Kemble Knight and the Picaresque Tradition," College Language Association Journal, 10, 1966: 114-121

Faye Vowell, "A Commentary on The Journal of Sarah Kemble Knight," The Emporia State Research Studies, 24, 1976: 44-52