From DAUGHTERS OF THE PURITANS By SETH CURTIS BEACH
CATHARINE MARIA SEDGWICK
During the first half of the nineteenth century, Miss Sedgwick would doubtless have been considered the queen of American letters, but, in the opinion of her friends, the beauty of her character surpassed the merit of her books. In 1871, Miss Mary E. Dewey, her life-long neighbor, edited a volume of Miss Sedgwick’s letters, mostly to members of her family, in compliance with the desire of those who knew and loved her, “that some printed memorial should exist of a life so beautiful and delightful in itself, and so beneficent in its influence upon others.” Truly a “life beautiful in itself and beneficent in its influence,” the reader will say, as he lays down this tender volume.
Catharine Maria Sedgwick was born at Stockbridge, Mass., in 1789, the first year of the presidency of George Washington. She was a descendant from Robert Sedgwick, major-general under Cromwell, and governor of Jamaica. Her father, Theodore Sedgwick, was a country boy, born in 1746, upon a barren farm in one of the hill-towns of Connecticut. Here the family opened a country store, then added a tavern, and with the combined industries of farm, store and tavern, Theodore, most fortunate of the sons if not the favorite, was sent to Yale college, where he remained, until, in the last year of his course, he managed to get himself expelled. He began the study of theology, his daughter suggests, in a moment of contrition over expulsion from college, but soon turned to the law for which he had singular aptitude. He could not have gone far in his legal career when, before the age of twenty-one, he married a beautiful girl whose memory he always tenderly cherished, as well he might considering his part in the tragedy of her early death. He had taken small pox, had been duly quarantined and discharged but his young wife combed out the tangles of his matted hair, caught the disease, and died, within a year after marriage.
Marriage was necessary in those days, his daughter suggests, and the year of conventional widowhood having expired, Mr. Sedgwick, then at the age of twenty-three, married Miss Pamela Dwight, the mother of his four sons, all successful lawyers, and his three daughters, all exemplary women. The second Mrs. Sedgwick was presumably more beautiful than the first; certainly she was more celebrated. She is immortalized by her portrait in Griswold’s “American Court,” and by a few complimentary lines in Mrs. Ellet’s “Queens of American Society.”
Theodore Sedgwick rose to distinction by his energies and talents but, as we have seen, he was of sufficiently humble origin, which could not have been greatly redeemed by expulsion from college; while at the age of twenty-three, that must have been his chief exploit. Social lines were very firmly drawn in that old colonial society, before the plough of the Revolution went through it, and there was no more aristocratic family than the Dwights, in Western Massachusetts.
Madame Quincy gives an account of a visit, in her girlhood, paid to the mother of Miss Pamela, Madame Dwight, in her “mansion-house,” and says that her husband, Brig.-Gen. Joseph Dwight, was “one of the leading men of Massachusetts in his day.” Madame Dwight was presumably not inferior to her husband. She was daughter of Col. Williams, of Williamstown, who commanded a brigade in the old French War, and whose son founded Williams College. A daughter of Madame Dwight, older than Pamela, married Mark Hopkins, “a distinguished lawyer of his time,” says Madame Quincy, and grandfather of Rev. Mark Hopkins, D.D., perhaps the most illustrious president of the college founded by Madame Dwight’s family.
The intermarriage of the Williamses, Dwights, and Hopkinses formed a fine, aristocratic circle, into which the Sedgwicks were not very cordially welcomed. “My mother’s family (of this,” says Mrs. Sedgwick, “I have rather an indefinite impression than any knowledge) objected to my father on the score of family, they priding themselves on their gentle blood; but as he afterwards rose far beyond their highest water-mark, the objection was cast into oblivion by those who made it.”
A few years after this marriage, the war of the Revolution began. Mr. Sedgwick entered the army, served as an officer under Washington, whose acquaintance and favor he enjoyed, and from that time, for forty years until his death, he was in public life, in positions of responsibility and honor. He was member of the Continental Congress, member of the House of Representatives, Speaker of the House, Senator from Massachusetts, and, at his death, judge of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Judge Sedgwick was a staunch Federalist and, in spite of the fact that he himself was not born in the purple, he shared the common Federalist contempt for the masses. “I remember my father,” says Miss Sedgwick, “one of the kindest-hearted men and most observant of the rights of all beneath him, habitually spoke of the people as ‘Jacobins,’ ‘sans-culottes,’ and ‘miscreants.’ He–and this I speak as a type of the Federalist party–dreaded every upward step they made, regarding their elevation as a depression, in proportion to their ascension, of the intelligence and virtue of the country.” “He was born too soon,” says his daughter apologetically, “to relish the freedoms of democracy, and I have seen his brow lower when a free and easy mechanic came to the front door, and upon one occasion, I remember his turning off the east steps (I am sure not kicking, but the demonstration was unequivocal) a grown up lad who kept his hat on after being told to remove it.” In these days one would hardly tell him to remove it, let alone hustling him off the steps.
The incident shows how far education, prosperity, wealth, and forty years of public life had transformed the father of Miss Sedgwick from the country boy of a hill-farm in Connecticut. More to our present purpose, the apologetic way in which Miss Sedgwick speaks of these high-bred prejudices of her father, shows that she does not share them. “The Federalists,” she says, “stood upright, and their feet firmly planted on the rock of aristocracy but that rock was bedded in the sands, or rather was a boulder from the Old World, and the tide of democracy was surely and swiftly undermining it.”
When this was written, Miss Sedgwick had made the discovery that, while the Federalists had the better “education, intellectual and moral,” the “democrats had among them much native sagacity” and an earnest “determination to work out the theories of the government.” She is writing to her niece: “All this my dear Alice, as you may suppose, is an after-thought. Then I entered fully, and with the faith and ignorance of childhood, into the prejudices of the time.” Those prejudices must have been far behind her when her first story was written, “A New England Tale,” in which it happens, inadvertently we may believe, all the worst knaves are blue-blooded and at least most of the decent persons are poor and humble. Later we shall see her slumming in New York like a Sister of Charity, ‘saving those that are lost,’ a field of labor toward which her Federalist education scarcely led.
She could have learned some condescension and humanity from her mother who, in spite of her fine birth, seems to have been modest and retiring to a degree. She was very reluctant to have her husband embark upon a public career; had, her daughter says, “No sympathy with what is called honor and distinction”; and wrote her husband a letter of protest which is worth quoting if only to show how a well-trained wife would write her doting husband something more than a century ago: “Pardon me, my dearest Mr. Sedgwick, if I beg you once more to think over the matter before you embark in public business. I grant that the ‘call of our country,’ the ‘voice of fame,’ and the ‘Honorable’ and ‘Right-Honorable,’ are high sounding words. ‘They play around the head, but they come not near the heart.'” However, if he decides for a public career, she will submit: “Submission is my duty, and however hard, I will try to practice what reason teaches me I am under obligation to do.” That address, “my dearest Mr. Sedgwick,” from a wife a dozen years after marriage, shows a becoming degree of respect.
We may be sure that this gentle mother would have encouraged no silly notions of social distinctions in the minds of her children. Even Mr. Sedgwick seems to have had a softer and more human side to his nature than we have yet seen. Miss Sedgwick enjoys repeating a story which she heard from a then “venerable missionary.” The son of the village shoemaker, his first upward step was as boy-of-all-work of the clerk of courts. He had driven his master to the court session in dignified silence, broken on arrival by a curt order to take in the trunk. “As he set it down in the entry,” says Miss Sedgwick, “my father, then judge of the Supreme Judicial Court, was coming down stairs, bringing his trunk himself. He set it down, accosted the boy most kindly, and gave him his cordial hand. The lad’s feelings, chilled by his master’s haughtiness, at once melted, and took an impression of my father’s kindness that was never effaced.”
The individual is so much a creature of his environment, that I must carry these details a little farther. Forty years in public life, Judge Sedgwick had an extended acquaintance and, according to the custom of the time, kept open house. “When I remember,” says Miss Sedgwick, “how often the great gate swung open for the entrance of traveling vehicles, the old mansion seems to me much more like an hostelrie of the olden time than the quiet house it now is. My father’s hospitality was unbounded. It extended from the gentleman in his coach, chaise, or on horseback, according to his means or necessities, to the poor, lame beggar that would sit half the night roasting at the kitchen fire with the negro servants. My father was in some sort the chieftain of his family, and his home was their resort and resting-place. Uncles and aunts always found a welcome there; cousins wintered and summered with us. Thus hospitality was an element in our education. It elicited our faculties of doing and suffering. It smothered the love and habit of minor comforts and petty physical indulgences that belong to a higher state of civilization and generate selfishness, and it made regard for others, and small sacrifices for them, a habit.”
Just one word more about this home, the like of which it would be hard to find in our generation: “No bickering or dissention was ever permitted. Love was the habit, the life of the household rather than the law.–A querulous tone, a complaint, a slight word of dissention, was met by that awful frown of my father’s. Jove’s thunder was to a pagan believer but as a summer day’s drifting cloud to it. It was not so dreadful because it portended punishment,–it was punishment; it was a token of suspension of the approbation and love that were our life.”
These passages have a twofold value. They tell us in what school Miss Sedgwick was educated, and they give us a specimen of her literary style. Language is to her a supple instrument, and she makes the reader see what she undertakes to relate.
Judge Sedgwick died in Boston, in 1813, when Miss Sedgwick was twenty-three. The biographical Dictionaries say he was a member of Dr. Channing’s church. As Miss Sedgwick relates the facts, he had long desired to “make a public profession of religion,” but had been deterred because he could not conscientiously join the church of his family, in Stockbridge, with its Calvinistic confession, and was too tender of the feelings of his pastor to join another,–“unworthy motives,” says Miss Sedgwick. Briefly stated, he now sent for Dr. Channing and received from him the communion. Later, Miss Sedgwick followed him into the Unitarian fellowship. She, and two distinguished brothers, were among the founders of the first Unitarian church in New York city.
Miss Dewey calls her volume “The Life and Letters” of Miss Sedgwick, but the Life is very scantily written. She has given us a picture rather than a biography. Indeed, to write a biography of Miss Sedgwick is no easy task, there was so much of worth in her character and so little of dramatic incident in her career. Independent in her circumstances, exempt from struggle for existence or for social position, unambitious for literary fame and surprised at its coming, unmarried and yet domestic in tastes and habits, at home in any one of the five households of her married brothers and sisters, she lived for seventy-seven years as a favored guest at the table of fortune. She saw things happen to others, but they did not happen to her. It was with her as with Whittier’s sweet Quakeress:
“For all her quiet life flowed on As meadow streamlets flow, Where fresher green reveals alone The noiseless ways they go.”
Of her outward career, Miss Dewey truly says: “No striking incidents, no remarkable occurrences will be found in it, but the gradual unfolding and ripening amid congenial surroundings of a true and beautiful soul, a clear and refined intellect, and a singularly sympathetic social nature. She was born eighty years ago”–this was written in 1871,–“when the atmosphere was still electric with the storm in which we took our place among the nations, and, passing her childhood in the seclusion of a New England valley, while yet her family was linked to the great world without by ties both political and social, early and deep foundations were laid in her character of patriotism, religious feeling, love of nature, and strong attachment to home, and to those who made it what it was. And when in later life, she took her place among the acknowledged leaders of literature and society, these remained the central features of her character, and around them gathered all the graceful culture, the active philanthropy, the social accomplishment, which made her presence a joy wherever it came.”
It is not singular if she began her existence at a somewhat advanced stage. She was quite sure she remembered incidents that took place before she was two years old. She remembered a dinner party at which Miss Susan Morton, afterward Madame Quincy, was present, and to which her father and her brother, Theodore, came from Philadelphia. If you are anxious to know what incidents of such an event would fix themselves in the mind of a child of two, they were these: She made her first attempt to say “Theodore,” and “Philadelphia,” and she tried her baby trick of biting her glass, for which she had doubtless been reproved, and watched its effect upon her father. “I recall perfectly the feeling with which I turned my eye to him, expecting to see that brow cloud with displeasure, but it was smooth as love could make it. That consciousness, that glance, that assurance, remained stamped indelibly.”
“Education in the common sense,” says Miss Sedgwick, “I had next to none.” For schools, she fared like other children in Stockbridge, with the difference that her father was “absorbed in political life,” her mother, in Catharine’s youth an invalid, died early, and no one, she says, “dictated my studies or overlooked my progress. I remember feeling an intense ambition to be at the head of my class, and generally being there. Our minds were not weakened by too much study; reading, spelling, and Dwight’s geography were the only paths of knowledge into which we were led;” to which accomplishments she adds as an after-thought, grammar and arithmetic.
Nevertheless, when in 1838, six of the Sedgwick family travelled together through France and Italy, doing much of those sunny lands on foot, Miss Sedgwick was interpreter for the party in both countries, apparently easy mistress of their respective languages. It is remarkable what fine culture seems to have been attainable by a New England child born more than a hundred years ago, when Harvard and Yale were, as we are told, mere High Schools, and Radcliffe and Wellesley were not even dreamed of. Instead of Radcliffe or Wellesley, Miss Sedgwick attended a boarding school in Albany, at the age of thirteen and, at the age of fifteen, another in Boston, the latter for six months, and the former could not have been more than two years. Both, according to her, gave her great social advantages, and did little for her scholarship. Miss Bell, the head of the Albany school, “rose late, was half the time out of the school, and did very little when in it.”
Miss Paine’s school in Boston, let us hope, was better; but “I was at the most susceptible age. My father’s numerous friends in Boston opened their doors to me. I was attractive in my appearance”–she is writing this to a niece and it is probably all true–“and, from always associating on equal terms with those much older than myself, I had a mental maturity rather striking, and with an ignorance of the world, a romantic enthusiasm, an aptitude at admiring and loving that altogether made me an object of general interest. I was admired and flattered. Harry and Robert were then resident graduates at Cambridge. They were too inexperienced to perceive the mistake I was making; they were naturally pleased with the attentions I was receiving. The winter passed away in a series of bewildering gayeties. I had talent enough to be liked by my teachers, and good nature to secure their good will. I gave them very little trouble in any way. When I came home from Boston I felt the deepest mortification at my waste of time and money, though my father never said one word to me on the subject. For the only time in my life I rose early to read French, and in a few weeks learned more by myself than I had acquired all winter.”
It will be seen that she had the ability to study without a teacher, and that is an art which, with time at one’s disposal and the stimulus at hand, assures education. Intellectual stimulus was precisely what her home furnished. “I was reared in an atmosphere of high intelligence. My father had uncommon mental vigor. So had my brothers. Their daily habits and pursuits and pleasures, were intellectual, and I naturally imbibed from them a kindred taste. Their talk was not of beeves, nor of making money; that now universal passion had not entered into men and possessed them as it does now, or if it had, it was not in the sanctuary of our home,–there the money-changers did not come.”
The more we know of her home life, the less wonder we have at her mental development. She says that “at the age of eight, my father, whenever he was at home, kept me up and at his side till nine o’clock in the evening, to listen to him while he read aloud to the family Hume, or Shakspere, or Don Quixote, or Hudibras. Certainly I did not understand them, but some glances of celestial light reached my soul, and I caught from his magnetic sympathy some elevation of feeling, and that love of reading which has been to me an education.” A modern girl is liable to nervous prostration without being kept up till nine on such juvenile literature as Hume and Shakspere at the age of eight; but Miss Sedgwick was a country girl who, in youth, lived out of doors and romped like a boy and, at the age of fifty, led a party of young nieces through France, Switzerland, and Italy, much of the way on foot and always at their head. Always fortune’s favorite, she enjoyed among other things remarkably good health.
She thinks she was ten years old when she read Rollin’s Ancient History, spending the noon intermission, when of course she ought to have been at play, out of sight under her desk, where she “read, and munched, and forgot myself in Cyrus’s greatness.”
A winter in New York, where she afterward spent so much of her time, was her first absence from home. She had a married sister there whose husband was in government employ, and her oldest brother was there studying law. She was eleven years old; the date was 1801; and her business in New York seems to have been to attend a French Dancing School of which at that era there was but one in the city. She saw her first play, and used to dry the still damp newspaper, in her eagerness to read the theatre announcements. She also experienced a very severe humiliation. She, with her brother, Theodore, attended a large dinner party at the house of a friend of her father. “Our host asked me, the only stranger guest, which part of a huge turkey, in which he had put his carving fork, I would take. I knew only one point of manners for such occasions, dear Alice,–that I must specify some part, and as ill luck would have it, the side-bone came first into my head, and ‘Side-bone, sir,’ I said. Oh what a lecture I got when we got home, the wretched little chit that compelled a gentleman to cut up a whole turkey to serve her! I cried myself to sleep that night.” It was too bad to spoil that dinner party for the little girl.
Her mother died when Miss Sedgwick was seventeen; her father when she was twenty-three. All her brothers and sisters were married and living, three of them in New York city, one in Albany, and one, her youngest brother, in Lenox. With this brother in Lenox, Miss Sedgwick for many happy years, had her home, at least her summer home, having five rooms in an annex to his house built for her, into which she gathered her household gods and where she dispensed hospitality to her friends. For many years, New York city was generally her winter home.
Theoretically, we have arrived with this maiden at the age of twenty-three, but we must go back and read from one or two early letters. She is ten years old when, under date of 1800, she writes her father: “My dear papa,–Last week I received a letter from you which gave me inexpressible pleasure.” This is the child’s prattle of a girl of ten summers. She writes very circumspectly for her years of a new brother-in-law: “I see–indeed I think I see in Mr. Watson everything that is amiable. I am very much pleased with him; indeed we all are.” The following is dated 1801, when she is eleven: “You say in your last letters that the time will soon come when you will take leave of Congress forever. That day shall I, in my own mind, celebrate forever; yes, as long as I live I shall reflect upon the dear time when my dear papa left a public life to live in a retired one with his dear wife and children; then you will have the pleasure to think, when you quit the doors of the House, that you are going to join your family forever; but, my dear papa, I cannot feel as you will when looking back on your past life in Congress. You will remember how much you have exerted yourself in order to save your country.”
There was something in the relations of this Sedgwick family, not perhaps without parallel, but very beautiful. These brothers and sisters write to each other like lovers. To her brother Robert, Miss Sedgwick writes, “I have just finished, my dear brother, the second perusal of your kind letter received to-day…. I do love my brothers with perfect devotedness, and they are such brothers as may put gladness into a sister’s spirit…. Never, my dear Robert, did brother and sister have a more ample experience of the purity of love, and the sweet exchange of offices of kindness that binds hearts indissolubly together.”
There are three letters from Robert Sedgwick to show how he reciprocated this affection. He says: “I can never be sufficiently grateful to my Maker for having given me such a sister. If I had no other sin to answer for than that of being so unworthy of her as I am, it would be more than I can bear, and yet when I read your letters I almost think that I am what I should be. I know I have a strong aspiration to be such, and I am sure they make me better as well as happier.” Again, he says: “Thanks, thanks–how cold a word, my dearest Kate, in return for your heart-cheering letter! It came to me in the midst of my Nol Pros., special verdicts, depositions, protests, business correspondence, etc., like a visitant from the skies. Indeed, my dearest Kate, you may laugh at me if you will for saying so, but there is something about your influence over me which seems to have shuffled off this mortal coil of earthiness; to be unmixed with anything that remains to be perfected; to be perfectly spiritualized, and yet to retain its contact with every part of its subject…. Lest I should talk foolishly on this subject, I will dismiss it, only begging you not to forget how your letters cheer, rejoice, elevate, renovate me.”
Here is a love-letter from Theodore, her eldest brother: “Having this moment perused your letter the third time, I could not help giving you an answer to it, though there be nothing in it interrogative. Nor was it meant to be tender or sentimental, or learned, but like all your letters, it is so sweet, so excellent, so natural, so much without art, and yet so much beyond art, that, old, cold, selfish, unthankful as I am, the tears are in my eyes, and I thank God that I have such a sister.” Let us revenge ourselves upon these brother and sister lovers by saying that perhaps they did not feel any more than some other people, only they had a habit of expressing their feelings. If that was all, we cannot deny that the habit was very beautiful.
Why did Miss Sedgwick never marry? We are not distinctly told; but she did not need to, with such lovers in her own family. Besides, how could she find any one, in her eyes, equal to those brothers, and how could she marry any one of lower merit? “I am satisfied,” she writes, “by long and delightful experience, that I can never love any body better than my brothers. I have no expectation of ever finding their equal in worth and attraction, therefore–do not be alarmed; I am not on the verge of a vow of celibacy, nor have I the slightest intention of adding any rash resolutions to the ghosts of those that have been frightened to death by the terrors of maiden life; but therefore–I shall never change my condition until I change my mind.” This is at the age of twenty-three.
Later in life, after many changes had come, she seems to have wished she had not been so very hard to suit. Fifteen years roll away, during which we see one suitor after another, dismissed, when she writes in a journal not to be read in her life-time, “It is difficult for one who began life as I did, the primary object of affection to many, to come by degrees to be first to none, and still to have my love remain in its full strength, and craving such returns as have no substitute…. It is the necessity of a solitary condition, an unnatural state…. From my own experience I would not advise any one to remain unmarried, for my experience has been a singularly happy one. My feelings have never been embittered by those slights and taunts that the repulsive and neglected have to endure; there has been no period of my life to the present moment when I might not have allied myself respectably, and to those sincerely attached to me…. I have troops of friends, some devotedly attached to me, and yet the result of this very happy experience is that there is no substitute for those blessings which Providence has placed first, and ordained that they shall be purchased at the dearest sacrifice.” Those who have paid the price and purchased the blessings may have the satisfaction of knowing that, according to Miss Sedgwick’s mature opinion, they have chosen the better part.
We might call this statement the Confessions of an Old Maid who might have done better. She closes her testimony with an acknowledgment that she “ought to be grateful and humble,” and the “hope, through the grace of God, to rise more above the world, to attain a higher and happier state of feeling, to order my house for that better world where self may lose something of its engrossing power.” This religious attitude was not unusual, nor merely conventional and unmeaning. All the Sedgwick family seem to have been constitutionally religious. The mother was almost painfully meek in her protest against her husband’s embarking upon a public career; Mr. Sedgwick has been deterred from joining a church only by some impossible articles of puritan divinity, but cannot die happy until he has received the communion from Dr. Channing; “both my sisters were very religious,” says Miss Sedgwick; while the letters I have quoted from two of her brothers, young lawyers and men of the world, have the devoutness of the psalms. “I can never be sufficiently grateful to my Maker for having given me such a sister,” says Robert; and Theodore: “selfish, unthankful as I am, the tears are in my eyes, and I thank God that I have such a sister.” Of course one can use a religious dialect without meaning much by it, but these Sedgwicks were cultivated people, who thought for themselves, and did not speak cant to each other.
Since it was a religious impulse that turned Miss Sedgwick’s mind to literature, it is worth while to follow the thread of her spiritual history. This was written at the age of twenty when she was looking for a religious experience that never came, and would have considered herself one of the wicked: “On no subject would I voluntarily be guilty of hypocricy, and on that which involves all the importance of our existence I should shrink from the slightest insincerity. You misunderstood my last letter. I exposed to you a state of mind and feeling produced, not by religious impressions, but by the convictions of reason.” Of course “reason” was no proper organ of religion; but besides this defect, her interest in serious things was liable to interruption “by the cares and pleasures of the world” and, perhaps worst of all, “I have not a fixed belief on some of the most material points of our religion.” One does not see how a person in this state of mind should have anything to call “our religion.” She seems to have advanced much further in a letter to her brother Robert, three years later: “I long to see you give your testimony of your acceptance of the forgiving love of your Master.
… God grant, in his infinite mercy, that we may all touch the garment of our Savior’s righteousness and be made whole.”
The editor of these letters tells us that Miss Sedgwick is now a member of Dr. Mason’s church in New York city, having joined at the age of twenty, or soon after the letter in which she says she is not satisfied on certain points of doctrine. Dr. Mason is described as an undiluted Calvinist, “who then was the most conspicuous pulpit orator in the country–a man confident in his faith and bold to audacity.” Miss Sedgwick stands the strong meat of Calvinism ten years, when we have this letter. “I presume you saw the letter I wrote Susan, in which I said that I did not think I should go to Dr. Mason’s Church again…. You know, my dear Frances, that I never adopted some of the articles of the creed of that church and some of those upon which the doctor is fond of expatiating, and which appear to me both unscriptural and very unprofitable, and, I think, very demoralizing.”
What perhaps stimulated the zeal of Dr. Mason to insist upon doctrines always objectionable to Miss Sedgwick, was an attempt then being made to establish a Unitarian church in New York city. She has not joined in the movement, but does not know but it may come to that. It is a critical moment in Miss Sedgwick’s history, and it happened at this time she went to hear Dr. Mason’s farewell sermon. “As usual,” she says, “he gave the rational Christians an anathema. He said they had fellowship with the devil: no, he would not slander the devil, they were worse, etc.” Very possibly this preaching had its proper effect upon many hearers, and they gave the “rational Christians” a wide berth, but it precipitated Miss Sedgwick into their ranks. She was not then a thorough-going Unitarian, saying, “there are some of your articles of unbelief that I am not Protestant enough to subscribe to”; a little more gentleness on the part of Dr. Mason could have kept her, but she could not stand “what seems to me,” she says, “a gross violation of the religion of the Redeemer, and an insult to a large body of Christians entitled to respect and affection.”
She joined the tabooed circle in 1821, and wrote from Stockbridge, “Some of my friends here have, as I learn, been a little troubled, but after the crime of confessed Unitarianism, nothing can surprise them”; she longs to look upon a Christian minister who does not regard her as “a heathen and a publican.” An aunt, very fond of her, said to her, one day as they were parting, “Come and see me as often as you can, dear, for you know, after this world we shall never meet again.”
These religious tribulations incited her to write a short story, after the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, to contrast two kinds of religion, of one of which she had seen more than was good. The story was to appear as a tract, but it outgrew the dimensions of a tract, and was published as a book under the title of “A New England Tale.” It is not a masterpiece of literature but, like all of Miss Sedgwick’s works, it contains some fine delineations of character and vivid descriptions of local scenery. It can be read to-day with interest and pleasure. As a dramatic presentation of the self-righteous and the meek, in a New England country town a century ago, it is very effective. “Mrs. Wilson” is perhaps a more stony heart than was common among the ‘chosen vessels of the Lord,’ but so the Pharisee in the parable may have been a trifle exaggerated. The advantage of this kind of writing is that you do not miss the point of the story.
Miss Dewey says The New England Tale gave Miss Sedgwick an “immediate position in the world of American literature.” Her brother Theodore wrote, “It exceeds all my expectations, fond and flattering as they were”; her brother Harry, “I think, dear Kate, that your destiny is fixed. As you are such a Bibleist, I only say don’t put your light under a bushel.” That the book did not fall still-born is evident when he says further, “The orthodox do all they can to put it down.” On the other hand, her publisher wanted to print a cheap edition of 3,000 copies for missionary purposes. I should like to see that done to-day by some zealous liberal-minded publisher.
The New England Tale appeared in 1822, when Cooper had only published “Precaution” and “The Spy.” In 1824, Miss Sedgwick published “Redwood,” of which a second edition was called for the same year, and which was republished in England and translated into French. It reached distinction in the character of Deborah Lenox, of which Miss Edgworth said, “It is to America what Scott’s characters are to Scotland, valuable as original pictures.” Redwood was reviewed by Bryant in the North American, in an article which, he says, was up to that time his “most ambitious attempt in prose.” “Hope Leslie” appeared in 1827. It was so much better than its predecessors, said the _Westminster Review_, that one would not suppose it by the same hand. Sismondi, the Swiss historian, wrote the author a letter of thanks and commendation, which was followed by a life-long friendship between these two authors. Mrs. Child, then Miss Francis and the author of “Hobomok” and “The Rebels,” wrote her that she had nearly completed a story on Capt. John Smith which now she will not dare to print, but she surrenders with less reluctance, she says, “for I love my conqueror.” “Is not that beautiful?” says Miss Sedgwick. “Better to write and to feel such a sentiment than to indite volumes.”
“Clarence” was published in 1830, and I am glad to say, she sold the rights to the first edition for $1,200, before the critics got hold of it. The scene is laid in New York and in high life. The story, said the _North American Review_, is “improbable” but not “dull.” Miss Dewey says, “It is the most romantic and at the same time the wittiest of her novels,” but Bryant says it has been the least read. “The Linwoods, or Sixty Years Since in America,” appeared in 1835, and Bryant called it “a charming tale of home life, thought by many to be the best of her novels properly so called.”
If Miss Sedgwick had written none of these more elaborate works, she would deserve a permanent place in our literature for a considerable library of short stories, among which I should name “A Berkshire Tradition,” a pathetic tale of the Revolution; “The White Scarf,” a romantic story of Mediaeval France; “Fanny McDermot,” a study of conventional morality; “Home,” of which the _Westminster Review_ said, “We wish this book was in the hands of every mechanic in England”; “The Poor Rich Man and the Rich Poor Man” of which Joseph Curtis, the philanthropist, said, “in all his experiences he had never known so much good fruit from the publication of any book”; and, not least, “Live and let Live: or domestic service illustrated,” of which Dr. Channing wrote, “I cannot, without violence to my feelings, refrain from expressing to you the great gratification with which I have read your ‘Live and let Live.’ Thousands will be better and happier for it…. Your three last books, I trust, form an era in our literature.”
This was high praise, considering that there was then no higher literary authority in America than Dr. Channing. However, a message from Chief Justice Marshall, through Judge Story, belongs with it: “Tell her I have read with great pleasure everything she has written, and wish she would write more.” She had gained an enviable position in literature and she had done a great deal of useful work during the fifteen years since the timid appearance of “A New England Tale,” but she seems to have regarded her books as simply a “by-product”: “My author existence has always seemed something accidental, extraneous, and independent of my inner self. My books have been a pleasant occupation and excitement in my life…. But they constitute no portion of my happiness–that is, of such as I derive from the dearest relations of life. When I feel that my writings have made any one happier or better, I feel an emotion of gratitude to Him who has made me the medium of any blessing to my fellow creatures.”
In 1839, Miss Sedgwick went to Europe in company with her brother Robert, and other relatives. The party was abroad two years and, on its return, Miss Sedgwick collected her European letters and published them in two volumes. They give one a view of Europe as seen by an intelligent observer still in the first half of the last century. She breakfasted with Rogers, the banker and poet, with whom she met Macaulay whose conversation was to her “rich and delightful. Some might think he talks too much; but none, except from their own impatient vanity, could wish it were less.” She had tea at Carlyle’s, found him “simple, natural and kindly, his conversation as picturesque as his writings.” She “had an amusing evening at Mr. Hallam’s”; he made her “quite forget he was the sage of the ‘Middle Ages.'” At Hallam’s she met Sydney Smith who was “in the vein, and we saw him, I believe, to advantage. His wit is not, as I expected, a succession of brilliant explosions but a sparkling stream of humor.”
In Geneva, she visited her friends, the Sismondis, and in Turin received a call from Silvio Pellico, martyr to Italian liberty. “He is of low stature and slightly made, a sort of etching of a man with delicate and symmetrical features, just enough body to gravitate and keep the spirit from its natural upward flight–a more shadowy Dr. Channing.”
Soon after Miss Sedgwick’s return from Europe, she became connected with the Women’s Prison Association of New York City, of which from 1848 to 1863 she was president. An extract from one letter must suffice to suggest the nature of her activities in connection with this and kindred philanthropies: “It is now just ten, and I have come up from the City Hall, in whose dismal St. Giles precincts I have been to see a colored ragged school…. My Sundays are not days of rest…. My whole soul is sickened; and to-day when I went to church filled with people in their fine summer clothes, and heard a magnificent sermon from Dr. Dewey, and thought of the streets and dens through which I had just walked, I could have cried out, Why are ye here?”
A fellow-member of the Prison Association, who often accompanied her on her visits to hospitals and prisons, “especially the Tombs, Blackwell’s, and Randall’s Island,” says, “In her visitations, she was called upon to kneel at the bedside of the sick and dying. The sweetness of her spirit, and the delicacy of her nature, felt by all who came within her atmosphere, seemed to move the unfortunate to ask this office of her, and it was never asked in vain.”
Always a philanthropist, Miss Sedgwick was not a “reformer” in the technical sense; that is, she did not enlist in the “movements” of her generation, for Temperance, or Anti-Slavery, or Woman’s Rights. She shrunk from the excesses of the “crusaders,” but she was never slow in striking a blow in a good cause. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1852, but its indictment of slavery is not more complete than Miss Sedgwick made in “Redwood,” her second novel, twenty-five years before. A planter’s boy sees a slave starved to famishing and then whipped to death. It hurt his boy heart, but he afterward became hardened to such necessary severity and he tells the story to a fellow planter with apologies for his youthful sentimentality. Does “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” show more clearly the two curses of slavery: cruelty to the slave and demoralization to the master?
She sympathized with the abolitionists in their purpose but not always with their methods: “The great event of the past week has been the visit of the little apostle of Abolitionism–Lucy Stone.” This was in 1849 when Mrs. Stone was thirty-one. “She has one of the very sweetest voices I ever heard, a readiness of speech and grace that furnish the external qualifications of an orator–a lovely countenance too–and the intensity, entire forgetfulness and the divine calmness that fit her to speak in the great cause she has undertaken.” But in spite of this evident sympathy with the purpose of the Abolitionists, Miss Sedgwick declined to attend a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society, saying: “It seemed to me that so much had been intemperately said, so much rashly urged, on the death of that noble martyr, John Brown, by the Abolitionists, that it was not right to appear among them as one of them.”
Not even Lucy Stone, however, could have felt more horror at the institution of slavery. The Compromise Measures of 1850 made her shudder: “my hands are cold as ice; the blood has curdled in my heart; that word _compromise_ has a bad savor when truth and right are in question.” When the Civil War came, in her seventieth year, she had “an intense desire to live to see the conclusion of the struggle,” but could not conjecture “how peace and good neighborhood are ever to follow from this bitter hate.” “It is delightful to see the gallantry of some of our men, who are repeating the heroic deeds that seemed fast receding to fabulous times.” Some of these young heroes were very near to her. Maj. William Dwight Sedgwick, who fell on the bloody field of Antietam was her nephew, Gen. John Sedgwick, killed at the battle of Spottsylvania, was her cousin.
As she was not in the Anti-Slavery crusade, so she was not in the Woman’s Rights crusade. She wished women to have a larger sphere, and she did much to enlarge the sphere of her sex, but it was by taking it and making it, rather than by talking about it. “Your _might_ must be your _right_,” she says in a chapter on The Rights of Women, in “Means and Ends.” Voting did not seem to her a function suited to women: “I cannot believe it was ever intended that women should lead armies, harangue in halls of legislation, bustle up to ballot-boxes, or sit on judicial tribunals.” The gentle Lucy Stone would not have considered this argument conclusive, but it satisfied Miss Sedgwick.
In 1857, after a silence of twenty-two years, in which only short stories and one or two biographies came from her hand, she published another two-volume novel entitled, “Married or Single.” It is perhaps her best work; at least it has been so considered by many readers. She was then sixty-seven and, though she had ten more years to live, they were years of declining power. These last years were spent at the home of her favorite niece, Mrs. William Minot, Jr., in West Roxbury, Mass., and there tenderly and reverently cared for, she died in 1867.
Bryant, who was her life-long friend, and who, at her instance wrote some of his hymns, gives this estimate of her character: “Admirable as was her literary life, her home life was more so; and beautiful as were the examples set forth in her writings, her own example was, if possible, still more beautiful. Her unerring sense of rectitude, her love of truth, her ready sympathy, her active and cheerful beneficence, her winning and gracious manners, the perfection of high breeding, make up a character, the idea of which, as it rests in my mind, I would not exchange for anything in her own interesting works of fiction.”