The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/Sarah Hall

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Mrs. Sarah Hall was born at Philadelphia, on the 30th of October, 1761. She was the daughter of the Rev. John Ewing, D. D., who was, for many years, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church at Philadelphia.

At the close of the revolutionary war, in the year 1782, she was married to Mr. John Hall, the son of a wealthy planter in Maryland, to which State they removed. Here she spent about eight years, upon a beautiful farm on the shores of the Susquehanna.

After their residence in Maryland, they settled in Philadelphia, where Mr. Hall filled successively the offices of Secretary of the Land Office, and Marshal of the United States, for the district of Pennsylvania.

Endowed by nature with an ardent and lively imagination, she early imbibed a keen relish for the beauties of polite literature, and devoted much time to such pursuits. When the Port Folio was established by Mr. Dennie in 1800, she was one of the literary circle with which he associated, and to whose pens that work was indebted for its celebrity. Elegant literature was at that time more successfully cultivated in Philadelphia than in any other part of the Union. To write for the Port Folio was considered no small honour; and to be among the favoured correspondents of Mr. Dennie was a distinction of some value, where the competitors were so numerous, and so highly gifted; for among the writers for that work were a number of gentlemen, who have since filled the most exalted stations in the Federal government, both in the cabinet and on the bench, and who have, in various ways, reaped the highest rewards of patriotism and genius. Some of the most sprightly essays and pointed criticisms which appeared in this paper, at the time of its greatest popularity, were from the pen of Mrs. Hall.

When the Port Folio came under the direction of her son, the late John E. Hall, who was its editor for more than ten years, she continually aided him in his labours; and her contributions may readily be distinguished, as well by their vivacity as the classic purity of their diction. She survived but a few months that son, her eldest, whom she had encouraged and assisted in his various literary labours for about twenty years.

She studied the Scriptures with diligence, and with prayer—with all the humility of Christian zeal, and with all the scholar’s thirst for acquisition. By such means, and with the aid of the best libraries of Philadelphia, Mrs. Hall became as eminent for scholarship in this department of learning, as she was for wit, vivacity, and genius. Her “Conversations on the Bible,” a practical and useful book, which is now extensively known, affords ample testimony that her memory is entitled to this praise. This work is written with that ease and simplicity which belongs to true genius; and contains a fund of information which could only have been collected by diligent research and mature thought. While engaged in this undertaking, she began the study of the Hebrew language, to enable herself to make the necessary critical researches, and is supposed to have made a considerable proficiency in the attainment of that dialect. When it is stated that she commenced the authorship of this work after she had passed the age of fifty, she being then the mother of eleven children, and that during her whole life she was eminently distinguished for her industry, economy, and exact attention to all the duties belonging to her station, as the head of a numerous family, it will be seen that she was no ordinary woman.

In a letter to a literary lady in Scotland, written in 1821, Mrs. Hall makes the following remarks, which will be read with interest, as showing the change that has taken place in the last thirty years:—

“Your flattering inquiry about my ‘literary career’ may be answered in a word—literature has no career in America. It is like wine, which, we are told, must cross the ocean to make it good. We are a business-doing, money-making people. And as for us poor females, the blessed tree of liberty has produced such an exuberant crop of bad servants, that we have no eye nor ear for anything but work. We are the most devoted wives, and mothers, and housekeepers, but every moment given to a book is stolen. The first edition of the ‘Conversations’ astonished me by its rapid sale; for I declare to you, truly, that I promised myself nothing. Should the second do tolerably, I may perhaps be tempted to accede to the intimations of good-natured people, by continuing the history to the end of the Acts of the Apostles. Yet I found so much difficulty in the performance of the first part, having never written one hour without the interruption of company, or business, that I sent off my last sheet as peevishly as Johnson sent the Finis of his Dictionary to Miller, almost vowing that I would never again touch a pen. In fact it is, as your friend says, ‘She that would be a notable housewife, must be that thing only.’”

Mrs. Hall died at Philadelphia, on the 8th of April, 1830, aged 69. A small volume containing selections from her miscellaneous writings, was published in Philadelphia, in 1833. This volume contains also an interesting sketch of her life, from which the present notice has been compiled.