The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Catherine M. Sedgwick
Engraved in London from a drawing by W. Croome
CATHERINE M. SEDGWICK
Miss Sedgwick holds about the same position among our female prose writers that Cooper holds among American novelists. She was the first of her class whose writings became generally known, and the eminence universally conceded to her on account of priority, has been almost as generally granted on other grounds. Amid the throng of new competitors for public favour, who have entered the arena within the last few years, there is not one, probably, whose admirers would care to disturb the well-earned laurels of the author of “Redwood” and “Hope Leslie.”
Miss Sedgwick is a native, and has been much of her life, a resident of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Her father was the Hon. Theodore Sedgwick, of Stockbridge, who served his country with distinguished reputation in various stations, and particularly in the Congress of the United States, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, and afterwards as Senator, and who, at the time of his death, was one of the Judges of the Supreme Court of his own State. Her brothers, Henry and Theodore, have both been distinguished as lawyers and as political writers. On the mother’s side, she is connected with the Dwight family, of whom her grandfather, Joseph Dwight, was a Brigadier-General in the Massachusetts Provincial forces, and actively engaged in the old French war of 1756.
Judge Sedgwick died in 1813, before his daughter had given any demonstration of her abilities as a writer. Her talents seem to have been from the first justly appreciated by her brothers, whose judicious encouragement is very gracefully acknowledged in the preface to the new edition of her works, commenced by Mr. Putnam, in 1819.
Miss Sedgwick’s first publication was “The New England Tale.” The author informs us in the preface, that the story was commenced as a religious tract, and that it gradually grew in her hands, beyond the proper limits of such a work. Finding this to be the case, she abandoned all design of publication, but finished the tale for her own amusement. Once finished, however, the opinions and solicitations of her friends prevailed over he own earnest wishes, and the volume was given to the world in 1822. The original intention of this book led the author to give special prominence to topics of a questionable character for a professed novel, and the unfavourable portraiture which she gives, both here and elsewhere, of New England Puritanism, has naturally brought upon her some censure. The limited plan of the story did not give opportunity for the display of that extent and variety of power which appear in some of her later productions. Still it contains passages of stirring eloquence, as well as of deep tenderness, that will compare favourably with anything she has written. Perhaps the chief value of “The New England Tale” was its effect upon the author herself. Its publication broke the ice of diffidence and indifference, and launched her, under a strong wind, upon the broad sea of letters.
“Redwood” accordingly followed in 1824. It was received at once with a degree of favour that caused the author’s name to be associated, and on equal terms, with that of Cooper, who was then at the height of his popularity; and, indeed, in a French translation of the book, which then appeared, Cooper is given on the title-page as the author. “Redwood” was also translated into the Italian, besides being reprinted in England.
The reputation of the author was confirmed and extended by the appearance, in 1827, of “Hope Leslie,” the most decided favourite of all her novels. She has written other things since, that in the opinion of some critics are superior to either “Redwood” or “Hope Leslie.” But these later writings have had to jostle their way among a crowd of competitors, both domestic and foreign. Her earlier works stood alone, and “Hope Leslie,” especially, became firmly associated in the public mind with the rising glories of a native literature. It was not only read with lively satisfaction, but familiarly quoted and applauded as a source of national pride.
Her subsequent novels followed at about uniform intervals; “Clarence, a Tale of our Own Times,” in 1830; “Le Bossu,” one of the Tales of the “Glauber Spa, in 1832; and “The Linwoods, or Sixty Years Since in America,” in 1835.
In 1836, she commenced writing in quite a new vein, giving a series of illustrations of common life, called “The Poor Rich Man, and the Rich Poor Man.” These were followed, in 1837, by “Live and Let Live,” and afterwards by “Means and Ends,” a “Love Token for Children,” and “Stories for Young Persons.”
In 1839, Miss Sedgwick went to Europe, and while there, wrote “Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home.” These were collected after her return, and published in two volumes.
She has written also a “Life of Lucretia M. Davidson,” and has contributed numerous articles to the Annuals and the Magazines. Some of her recent publications have been prepared expressly for children and young persons. “The Boy of Mount Rhigi,” published in 1848, is one of a series of tales projected for the purpose of diffusing the sentiments of goodness among the young. The titles of some of her other small volumes are “Facts and Fancies,” “Beautitudes and Pleasant Sundays,” “Morals of Manners,” “Wilton Harvey,” “Home,” “Louisa and her Cousins,” “Lessons without Books,” &c.
The quality of mind which is most apparent in Miss Sedgwick’s writings is that of strength. The reader feels at every step that he has to do with a vigorous and active intellect. Another quality, resulting from this possession of power, is the entire absence of affectation of every kind. There is no straining for effect, no mere verbal prettinesses. The discourse proceeds with the utmost simplicity and directness, as though the author were more intent upon what she is saying than how she says it. And yet, the mountain springs of her own Housatonick do not send up a more limpid stream, than is the apparently spontaneous flow of her pure English. As a novelist, Miss Sedgwick has for the most part wisely chosen American subjects. The local traditions, scenery, manners, and costume, being thus entirely familiar, she has had greater freedom in the exercise of the creative faculty, on which, after all, real eminence in the art mainly depends. Her characters are conceived with distinctness, and are minutely individual and consistent, while her plot always shows a mind fertile in resources and a happy adaptation of the means to ends.