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

Susanna Wright

Susanna Wright was born in Lancashire, England, to Quaker parents who immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1714. By 1728 Wright had settled with her family at Wright’s Ferry (later Columbia) in the Susquehanna River valley, where she lived for the rest of her life. She did not marry, but she managed her father’s extended household after her mother’s death in 1722 and later cared for her brother James’s family as well. Her surviving letters to a host of well-known contemporaries reveal that she was not only well connected but also well educated and curious, having the diverse interests that mark Enlightenment minds. She lived at a crossroads between settled society and the Pennsylvania frontier, providing a stopping place for such travelers as Benjamin Franklin, physician Benjamin Rush, and historian Robert Proud. She engaged in scientific study and civic activity, raised prize-winning silkworms, explored the medicinal uses of herbs, and drafted official documents for her less literate neighbors. At least one twentieth-century historian identifies her as a contributor to Franklin’s pamphlet denouncing the massacre of the Conestoga Indians. Such efforts made her a prominent citizen. Benjamin Rush recorded in his journal the occasion of his meeting “the famous Suzey Wright a lady who has been celebrated Above half a Century for her wit—good sense & valuable improvements of mind.”

Wright was an active participant in a network of Pennsylvania poets, exchanging verse with Hannah Griffitts, Deborah Logan, and Milcah Martha Moore. More than thirty of her poems have been located, most of them in Moore’s commonplace book. Wright wrote on many subjects and in a variety of poetic genres. Conventional neoclassical meditations on time, friendship, and labor are complemented by a range of occasional verse, imitations and paraphrases of other poets and of the Bible, devotional pieces, and dialogues. Her longer extant pieces—“To Eliza Norris at Fairhill” and “Anna Boylens Letter to King Henry the 8th,” for example—reveal her considerable skill as a poet as well as her daring in moving beyond conventional materials. The verse epistle to her friend Elizabeth Norris urged women to use Enlightenment reverence for reason to undermine the male privilege protected by law:

But womankind call reason to their aid,
And question when or where that law
 was made,
That law divine (a plausible pretence)
Oft urg’d with none, & oft with little

Adding to this rational appeal for justice, Wright developed powerful emotional arguments in “Anna Boylens Letter.” She was apparently a prolific poet, and it is likely that more of her poems remain to be found. What we have at present suggests they will be worth the effort of the search.

Pattie Cowell
Colorado State University

In the Heath Anthology
Anna Boylens Letter to King Henry the 8th. (c.1750)
On the Benefit of Labour. (c.1750)
To Eliza Norrisat Fairhill (c.1750)
My Own Birthday August 4th 1761 (c.1761)

Other Works

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The Society of Early Americanists Newsletter, Vol. 11, n. 2
An article, "The Ink-Glass", about gender and English identity in Early American Literature. Susanna Wright's letter to Eliza Norris on marriage is cited as an example of proto-feminism in 1750.

Secondary Sources