In her day, Catherine Maria Sedgwick was one of the most important novelists in the United States. She was considered one of the fountainheads of a new, uniquely American literature. Subsequent generations considered her a trail blazer. Nineteenth-century women writers considered her an icon.
She worked mostly in the genre of historical romance, one of the most popular forms of fiction in her day. In fact, there were three "major" historical romancers of this period: Sedgwick, William Gilmore Simms (a writer Poe considered the finest ever produced in America), and James Fenimore Cooper (he of the "Leatherstocking" or Natty Bumppo tales). Sedgwick mostly outsold the other two--and was often a bigger critical hit, too. Yet she's largely forgotten today. In fact, we're more likely to know about Fenimore Cooper, certainly the lesser light among the three in his own day (and perhaps even so now). How did this strange set of events happen? How have we forgotten Sedgwick and remembered Cooper?
As always, through a complicated set of cultural and political circumstances.
Women writers in the nineteenth century enjoyed outstanding publishing and critical success. Although novels started off with a generalized readership in the eighteenth century, they were fast becoming part of a "woman's world" (as opposed to histories and biographies which were what men read, if they read at all--why that happened is itself an interesting subject for discussion).
Most of the "big boys" we now consider the stalwarts of American literature were troubled by all these women writing. Take Hawthorne's assessment, for example:
"America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash–-and should be ashamed of myself if I did succeed. What is the mystery of these innumerable editions of 'The Lamplighter,’ [a novel written by Maria Susanna Cummins in 1854 and one of the best-sellers of the day) and other books neither better nor worse?–-worse they could not be, and better they need not be, when they sell by the 100,000."
This screed was actually in a private letter written from England in 1855 to Hawthorne's publisher back home, but it exemplifies the "dis-ease" with women's writing among the alleged literati. The women outsold the boys; most of the boys sneered at the women. Yet we've gotten to a point where two "failed" writers--Thoreau and Melville--are considered the lions and Sedgwick is forgotten. Seems the boys won in the long run. But how?
Part of the answer lies in the politics of the early twentieth-century. American literature was becoming a matter of study in the United States (as opposed to American novels lumped in as lesser lights among British novels). There was a need to find a "usable" past, a great literary tradition. Scholars like Harvard's F. O. Matthiessen began "uncovering" the novels like THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE SCARLET LETTER, MOBY-DICK, and more. Melville had been out of print for decades; Thoreau, largely forgotten, a footnote in Emerson biographies. Yet in his major work, AMERICAN RENAISSANCE: ART AND EXPRESSION IN THE AGE OF EMERSON AND WHITMAN (1941), Matthiessen codified the thinking of his moment and enshrined a long line of male New England writers at the center of the American experience. In other words, he and others "overlooked" the majority of novelists--women and Southerners--to find a uniquely "American" (read "New England white male") past. Why? Here are three reasons:
- New England itself was becoming marginalized in the national discourse. Boston was no longer the center of learning or commerce. San Francisco seemed to have more energy than Hartford or Albany. The United States had pushed to its western edge. The movement of civilization was distinctly south and west from here, leaving vast tracts of New England out of the rush (including our own Litchfield hills and Berkshire mountains). There had to be a way to re-commit New England to the center of the story. There had to be a way to reclaim our--that is, the Puritan--centrality. (Note that even now when we think of the settling of North America, we think of the Puritans--not the colonies further south like Jamestown, settled earlier, or Maryland, settled by Catholics at about the same time.)
- Women had gained the vote and had been a major part of the effort to gear up during two world wars (think "Rosie the Riveter"). Political power seemed to be tipping away from the all-boy club. Men were coming home from the wars ragged and defeated. We need to find a bunch of men who represented the best of the country--even if it was in the past, a nostalgia for the day when "men were men."
- The South was not reconstructed. Rather, it was regressing back to pseudo-slavery in the form of Jim Crow. H. L. Mencken and other literary critics wanted to dismiss the region out of hand--a country of the "booboisie," as he called it--so there was a need to overlook both Southern women writers like Ellen Glasgow as well as the major writers who had flourished down south before the Civil War, including William Gilmore Simms, one of America's best.
Thus, Cooper, not Sedwick or Simms. Interestingly, F. O. Mattheissen himself carried on an "out" gay life at Harvard in the '30s and '40s, openly living with his partner and attending events as a couple--until he threw himself off the twelfth floor of a Boston hotel. Perhaps the disconnects were just too great.
Nonetheless, he and others established an all-male curriculum that ruled universities and secondary schools until an American scholar of British literature, Elaine Showalter, published A LITERATURE OF THEIR OWN: BRITISH WOMEN NOVELISTS FROM BRONTE TO LESSING in 1978. Showalter wasn't from the New England boys' club: although born in Boston, she'd gotten her degrees from Bryn Mawr and UC-Davis. In what seems patently obvioius today but was a bombshell in its time, she argued that Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf were as compentent and critically exciting as Dickens and James. Of course you can't think otherwise now. But that's only a measure of how far we've come. Indeed, her book was still something of a radical tome when I went off to a Ph. D. program in 1985. The old boys didn't like it one whit.
Although Showalter wrote about British fiction, her book caused a general roiling in American literary studies. Suddenly, there were dozens of women writers on this side of the pond who "needed" to be re-discovered--Catherine Maria Sedgwick among them. And yet the old boys club holds on. Thus, reading HOPE LESLIE still feels a bit like finding something new. In fact, it's something very old--and very foundational to the American experience.