March 28, 2014

Catharine Sedgwick: to pour a golden light

Nevertheless, my dearest sister, I would not have you love me any less than you do, because your affection has an irresistible power to improve and to elevate, to lift above low attachments, to separate from unworthy associations, to cheer me when I am sad, to rouse me when I am inefficient, to rescue both me and the world from that sort of morbid quarrel into which we are apt to get with each other, when it seems as if there were nothing here worth living for, and to pour a golden light on every object that skirts the path of my pilgrimage.

The above quote comes from a letter from Robert Sedgwick to his sister, the author Catharine Maria Sedgwick, March 28, 1816. Miss Sedgwick, as she was often named, was then about 26 years old, had already begun submitting short contributions to periodicals. She was still six years away from her first novel, A New-England Tale (1822), and 11 years away from her most popular work, Hope Leslie (1827). These works and various others made her one of the first financially successful women writers in the United States — and one of the most popular.

Much of Sedgwick's writings promoted virtue, religious tolerance, and strong roles for women. She never married and remained quite devoted to her large family (she was the ninth child in the family). Her four brothers supported her work as a writer and encouraged her to publish when she was just starting. Throughout her life, she alternated living with her brother Charles in western Massachusetts and with her brother Robert in New York City. In fact, she dedicated her fourth novel, Clarence; Or, a Tale of Our Own Times (1830), "To my Brothers — my best friends... as a tribute of affection." As she was completing the novel, she wrote to her brother Charles that she was unsatisfied with it: "That is the misfortune of a familiarity with fine works, carrying your taste so far ahead of your capacity."

When she reissued Clarence nearly two decades later, Sedgwick admitted that popularity, and novels in particular, were "ephemeral." She hoped, nevertheless, readers would enjoy the "home atmosphere" of this novel of manners set in New York. More than that, Sedgwick had written a book that questioned the development of American society, concerned that there was less concern for spiritual or social responsibilities in a world that emphasized profit and materialism.

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