November 25, 2012

Sedgwick: the feeling of the times

On November 25, 1841, Catharine Maria Sedgwick reflected on her success as a writer in an informal account book. She noted that her 1835 novel The Linwoods sold 4,300 copies of its original print run of 5,000 within a year (a number which doubled typical sales figures, according to publisher George Palmer Putnam). It remains one of her most popular works, after the earlier novel Hope Leslie.

The Linwoods; or, 'Sixty Years Since' in America was set during the American Revolution but published, as the subtitle suggests, about six decades after that conflict (the subtitle also references Sir Walter Scott). As Sedgwick writes in her preface:

The writer has aimed to exhibit the feeling of the times, and to give her younger readers a true, if a slight, impression of the condition of their country at the most—the only suffering period of its existence, and by means of this impression to deepen their gratitude to their patriot-fathers; a sentiment that will tend to increase their fidelity to the free institutions transmitted to them. 

Despite the setting, Sedgwick chose to ignore most of the historic events and war-related details, though General Lafayette makes an appearance. Amid this period of conflict (apparently Sedgwick believed the "only suffering period"), the titular Linwood family are loyalists who remain dedicated to the King of England. The next generation of Linwoods, however, question that loyalty, including a daughter named Isabella, who becomes the main heroine of the story.

Isabella (and, ultimately, Sedgwick herself) questions her place in the status quo, not only in the form of revolution from England, but also in the role of women and blacks in the New World. Her friend Rose, an enslaved black woman, believes it as merely a beginning: "Can't you see these men are raised up to fight for freedom for more than themselves? If the chain is broken at one end, the links will fall apart sooner or later." The Linwoods was an immediate success; contemporaries referred to it as a "charming tale of home life." Sedgwick did not publish another novel until 22 years later.

*I am entirely indebted to James L. Machor for much of the information in this post, found in his Reading Fiction in Antebellum America: Informed Response and Reception Histories, 1820-1865 (2011). Further information comes from Catherine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives (2002), edited by Lucinda Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements.

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