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Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the Heath Anthology
Death of an Infant
The Indian's Welcome to the Pilgrim Fathers
To a Shred of Linen
Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse
Traits of the Aborigines of America
Sketch of Connecticut, Forty Years Since
Zinzendorff and Other Poems
Lucy Howard's Journal
Letters of Life
Sentimentality: Grief and Representation
There are no pedagogical assignments or approaches for this author.
Early American Fiction
Scanned portrait and links to three biographies.
George Griffin and Lydia Howard Sigourney Papers
Biography discussing both George Griffin and Sigourney.
Legacy Photo Gallery
Another scanned portrait of Sigourney.
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)