English, Department of

 

Date of this Version

2002

Citation

Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives (Northeastern University Press, 2002), edited by L.L. Damon-Bach & V. Clements.

Comments

Copyright 2002, Northeastern University Press. Used by permission.

Abstract

Catharine Sedgwick's name appeared on the title page of only one of her books published during her lifetime, her 1835 Tales and Sketches, a volume collecting pieces that had originally appeared in the annually published "gift books" in the preceding nine years. Sedgwick is the earliest writer included in Mary Kelley's influential book on women's authorship, Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America, and Kelley claims that women writers published anonymously or pseudonymously because of the great anxiety that appearing in public through the medium of print caused them: "The literary domestics could write and, as it were, attempt to hide the deed. Psychologically as well as physically they could make the gesture of writing behind closed doors. They could write hesitantly for the world and try to stay at home. The invisible figure . . . could become the secret writer.”1 By simultaneously going public and denying it, Kelley claims, such "secret writers" "demonstrated that their social condition was powerful enough to cripple their efforts, if not prevent them."2 In her remarks on Sedgwick's anonymity in particular, Kelley quotes a number of Sedgwick's letters to family and friends in which she makes such statements as "I have a perfect horror of appearing in print" and "I did hope my name could never be printed except on my tomb."3

Private Woman presents the most fully developed analysis of American women's anonymous publication in the nineteenth century and the one bearing most directly on Sedgwick, but Kelley is not alone in reading women's anonymous and pseudonymous publication as symptoms of gendered anxiety. The idea that women in past centuries withheld their names because they experienced their own authorship as shameful or scandalous has achieved the character of received wisdom. Ask a typical lower-level undergraduate what she knows about women's authorship in the United States during the years of Sedgwick's greatest productivity (the 1820s through the 1840s), and she will tell you: "It wasn't considered respectable for women to write back then, so they didn't give their names, Or they took male pseudonyms.”4 I argue instead that Sedgwick's anonymity was a market strategy for constructing an authorial persona rather than an absence of an author or a denial of authorship, and her anonymity serves as a useful example through which we can reconsider the function of women's anonymous publication in the 1820s, '30s, and '40s.