July 31, 2010

Death of Catharine Maria Sedgwick

Only a couple weeks before her death, writer Catharine Maria Sedgwick wrote to a friend that she had been "in a wretched state... I have been very poorly of late." Sedgwick was 77 years old; the major part of her career, including the novel Hope Leslie (1827), were decades behind her. "'Tis hard work," she wrote, "to be sick, helpless and useless!" She died about two weeks later on July 31, 1867.

Modern literary scholar Nina Baym argues that the majority of Sedgwick's fiction depicts a heroine "who has much to teach her readers but nothing to learn herself." Her female protagonists remain unaltered through the events of the novels. It was not until after Sedgwick's first successes, Baym argues, that women characters in American writing undergo a psychological struggle in their inner lives. But, she notes, if Sigourney "had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent her."

Unlike women writers like Lydia Sigourney or even Harriet K. Wilson, Sedgwick did not begin writing for financial need. Instead, her motivation seemed to be boredom. Between 1822 and 1837, she published eight novels (a ninth, Married or Single?, was published in 1857).

Those who praised Sedgwick included Edgar Allan Poe, who declared The Linwoods (1835) the greatest of her works. William Wells Brown renamed a character in an 1864 revision of his novel Clotel after The Linwoods. Rufus Wilmot Griswold praised her style for being "colloquial, picturesque, and marked by a facile grace which is evidently a gift of nature." Nathaniel Hawthorne called her "our most truthful novelist."


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