English, Department of


Date of this Version



“The Shape of Catharine Sedgwick's Career.” Cambridge History of American Women's Literature. Ed. Dale Bauer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 185-203.


Copyright (c) 2012 Cambridge University Press


Catharine Maria Sedgwick published her first novel in 1822 and her last in 1857. Her productivity slackened in the 1850S, as aging weakened her eyesight and arthritis made it difficult to write clearly. However, from 1822 through the 1840s, she published multiple works of prose fiction (tales, sketches, novellas, or novels) nearly every year. Despite this extraordinary record of productivity, Sedgwick regularly appears in literary history as the author of a single work, Hope Leslie (I827), her historical novel about relations between the Puritans and the native inhabitants of New England. A few other women authors before and contemporary with Sedgwick had careers as long or nearly as long as hers - Susanna Rowson as antecedent and Lydia Maria Child and Lydia Huntley Sigourney as contemporaries, for example. What was unprecedented and remained unequaled until later in the century, however, was that Sedgwick maintained a focus on the craft of fiction (with occasional forays into non-fiction prose) and remained exclusively a producer, never taking up the work of editing. In contrast, Rowson wrote novels, plays, poetry, and schoolbooks; Child produced a considerable body of non-fiction prose in addition to fiction and devoted much time to editing; and Sigourney was primarily a poet and also often an editor.

Despite Sedgwick's exceptional record, she is often characterized as a timid and reluctant producer of fiction who lost her ambition and drive in the mid-1830s, retreating into the writing of didactic fiction and domestic advice. Judith Fetterley, for instance, reintroducing Sedgwick and her story "Cacoethes Scribendi" to readers in her influential anthology Provisions (I985), writes, "After the publication of The Linwoods [I835], Sedgwick stopped writing fiction for twenty years, not to return to the genre until Married or Single? (I857), and turned her energies instead to the writing of a series of didactic tales intended to address and solve a variety of social problems." Adopting the hypothesis of another critic, Fetterley suggests that Sedgwick shifted to didacticism in I835 because she believed that producing "such works fit more comfortably into [her] definition of appropriately feminine behavior than did success as a major novelist" (Provisions, 44). In Private Woman, Public Stage: Literary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (I984), still a much cited source for biographical information about Sedgwick, Mary Kelley characterizes Sedgwick as "a bewildered, timid, and reluctant passenger" on the voyage of her own literary career who largely "regarded her literary endeavors as a pale substitute for what she believed should be the calling of a true woman. Not surprisingly, then, the woman who became a creator of culture was never able to regard herself as one" (I99-200). A decade after Provisions appeared, Fetterley pondered the consequences of the recovery work rising concurrently "with the dismantling of the interpretive strategies developed during the I950s and '60s to establish" the American literary canon, suggesting that "[t]hose interested in nineteenth-century American women writers may need to find ways to revitalize modes of criticism no longer fashionable" in order to secure canonical status for women's writing (Commentary," 605).