Mrs. Catherine Maria Sedgwick


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Mrs. Catherine Maria Sedgwick

Mrs. Catherine Maria Sedgwick

(Born: December 28, 1789 - Died: July 31, 1867)

Catharine Maria Sedgwick was an American novelist, essayist, and social reformer whose early writings are widely considered to have been instrumental in the formation of America’s national literature. Sedgwick was the sixth of seven children born to Theodore Sedgwick and Pamela Dwight (m. 1774).

Born in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, just two years after the convening of the Constitutional Convention, Catharine Maria Sedgwick was a model child of the new republic. The product of a union between a wealthy, blue-blooded mother and a self-made, lower-class lawyer, Sedgwick’s birth represented the equalizing power of American democracy, and her childhood was almost wholly defined by her father’s investment in the establishment of the American nation. Although she later criticized her haphazard education, which was completed through a miscellany of district and boarding schools, Sedgwick credited her father with developing her interest in self-improvement, a practice he considered vital for American citizens. Moreover, Sedgwick dated her love of reading to evenings spent listening to the works of Shakespeare, Hume, Cervantes, and Butler while perched on her father’s knee. Sedgwick’s character, however, was as equally defined by her father’s absences as by his presence. As a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice, Mr. Sedgwick was often separated from his family; this separation taught Sedgwick to prioritize the young republic’s need for cultural and moral leadership and likewise plunged Catharine’s mother into intermittent bouts of acute depression that colored Sedgwick’s childhood. In 1807, after a particularly severe bout, Mrs. Sedgwick died; six years later Justice Sedgwick followed her into eternity. Catharine, aged 23, was parentless.

In the wake of her parents’ deaths, Catharine’s relationships with her four brothers, already strong, grew deeper still, and Sedgwick attached herself to her several brothers and their families with a fervor she later admitted most women would have reserved for their own husbands and children. Perhaps her mind revolted against the idea of living in such helpless martyrdom as she had witnessed in her mother and her two elder sisters’ marriages; whatever the reason, Sedgwick elected to divide her years between the various homes of her brothers and their families, thus enjoying the supportive affection and emotional intimacy of familial ties with both adults and children without binding herself irrevocably in matrimony. Her love was others’; her mind, time, and will were her own.

As she processed her parents’ deaths and her brothers’ marriages, Sedgwick’s emotional turmoil deepened into a spiritual crisis that led her to probe her religious beliefs through the instrumentality of writing. Eventually abandoning Calvinistic doctrine for the more compassionate tenets of Unitarianism, Sedgwick began writing a tract on religion that gradually evolved into her first novel, A New-England Tale (1822). This novel met with such positive feedback from both readers and critics that Sedgwick quickly composed three further novels, including Hope Leslie (1827), the tale of race relations in colonial Massachusetts for which she is most recognized by modern scholarship. Shifting almost entirely from her initial religious emphasis, Sedgwick would publish an additional five novels over the 1830s, including Clarence; or, A Tale of Our Own Times (1830) and The Linwoods; or, “Sixty Years Since” in America (1835), the latter of which Poe reviewed during his editorial stint with the Southern Literary Messenger.

In each of these novels, Sedgwick employed a historical or contemporary setting calculated to highlight tensions between social class and personal character, a tension that further enabled Sedgwick to expound the republican ideals in which her father had schooled her. A thorough believer in social democracy, Sedgwick believed that the brilliancy of the American republic’s future could only be preserved through the deliberate inculcation of the morals and manners of the republic’s citizens. Beginning in 1825, Sedgwick accordingly produced a stream of children’s novels and novels of manners as well as essays and short stories for magazines. In these diverse pieces, she exhorted her readers to pursue social exaltation through the achievement of personal superiority. In 1841, Sedgwick further contributed to Americans’ sense of their relationship with European culture when she released Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home, a collection of correspondence she had penned while on a trip to the continent. In these letters, Sedgwick reflected on European customs, comparing them extensively (and almost always disadvantageously) with their American counterparts. Upon its release, the book became a popular travel staple, of which one reviewer opined that they “should like to have it read by all woman and man-kind too, for the sake of adding to their stock of sympathy” (“Review of Letters” 160).

Thus, by the time the mid-nineteenth-century American literary scene heralded the figures for which it is now best known — Edgar A. Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, et al — Sedgwick was already a confirmed fixture in American letters. Indeed, as both contemporary and modern critics acknowledge, Sedgwick’s efforts were among the first that can truly be called American rather than pseudo-British in tone. Her true peers were not the vanguard of the American Renaissance — Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. — but rather the members of the earlier, pioneering set — James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and William Cullen Bryant. Poe himself acknowledged Sedgwick’s honored place in America’s literature in a review of her third novel, in which he admitted a few minor flaws in her writing but wrote, “Miss Sedgwick is one among the few American writers who have risen by merely their own intrinsic talents, and without the a priori aid of foreign opinion and puffery. . . [.] She is at the same time fully deserving of all the popularity she has attained” (“Review of Linwoods” 57). By the time he penned the “Literati” sketch of her, his boldness allowed him to identify more significant flaws in her work, but he nevertheless described her as, “one of our most celebrated and most meritorious writers” (“Sedgwick” 130). The Ladies’ Garland was more complimentary still, noting that Sedgwick, “deservedly ranked among the most elegant prose writers of the day” (15). Of Sedgwick’s faults as a writer, contemporary criticism, including Poe’s, tended only to complain that her plots were occasionally contrived and that she made her Native and African American characters too eloquent and noble for belief. This latter assertion, rooted as equally in racism as in realism, serves only to elevate her motives for the modern reader.

Indeed, Sedgwick’s stances, while now seemingly tame, made her something of a progressive in her own era. While not a thorough abolitionist, her great love of her family’s childhood servant, Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman, prompted Sedgwick to argue for the similarities, rather than the differences between races. This perspective appeared even in her earliest writings, such as in the preface of Hope Leslie (1827), in which she succinctly expresses her position:

The liberal philanthropist will not be offended by a representation which supposes that the elements of virtue and intellect are not withheld from any branch of the human family; and the enlightened and accurate observer of human nature, will admit that the difference of character among the various races of the earth, arises mainly from difference of condition. (vii)

Similarly, while not a suffragist, Sedgwick involved herself in multiple women’s and prison reform projects and helped to establish several free schools for underprivileged women and children. She also sought to depict accurately the struggles of working class and “fallen” women, scathingly exposing how treating such women as outcasts of moral society, far from aiding in their reform, instead prevented them from ever regaining control of their lives or rejoining civil society. Further, while supporting the dogma that a happy marriage is the best situation a woman may occupy, Sedgwick challenged the notion that all marriages are categorically happy and argued for the normalization of so-called “spinsterhood” for women whose only alternative to singlehood lay in an unhappy or potentially abusive marriage.

The last few decades of Sedgwick’s life were a scene of great tragedy. While she continued to write and to glory in the affection of her siblings’ children, one by one those siblings — and their spouses — died, leaving Sedgwick the last of her generation. Shortly after moving to Boston to reside with her favorite niece and namesake, Kate Sedgwick Minot, Sedwick herself died of old age on July 31, 1867. After her death, Mary E. Dewey, a relative, collected Sedgwick’s autobiographical writings and a selection of her letters into a volume that she released under the title Life and Letters of Miss Sedgwick (1871).

Works Used for Research

Avallone, Charlene. “Catharine Sedgwick and the Circles of New York.” Legacy 23, no. 2 (2006): 115-31.

“Biography: Catharine Sedgwick.” The Ladies’ Garland 4, no. 4 (June 1827): 15.

Foletta, Marshall. “‘The dearest sacrifice’: Catharine Maria Sedgwick and the Celibate Life.” American Nineteenth Century History 8, no. 1 (March 2007): 51-79. doi:10.1080/14664650601178866.

Garvey, T. Gregory. “Risking Reprisal: Catharine Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie and the Legitimation of Public Action by Women.” American Transcendental Quarterly 8, no. 4 (Dec. 1994): 287-98.

Griswold, Rufus W., ed. “Catherine M. Sedgwick.” In The Prose Writers of America, 357-63. Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1847.

Healey, Kathleen. “Catharine Maria Sedgwick.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: 243: The American Renaissance in New England: Fourth Series, edited by Wesley T. Mott. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 2001.

Kalayjian, Patricia Larson. “Catharine Maria Sedgwick. In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 239: American Women Prose Writers, 1820-1870, edited by Amy E. Hudock and Katharine Rodier. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 2001.

Kelley, Mary. “A Woman Alone: Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Spinsterhood in Nineteenth-Century America.” The New England Quarterly 51, no. 2 (June 1978): 209-25.

Kelley, Mary and Catharine Maria Sedgwick. “Negotiating a Self: The Autobiography and Journals of Catharine Maria Sedgwick.” The New England Quarterly 66, no. 3 (Sep. 1993): 366-98.

“Notices of Books: Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home.” Mothers’ Monthly Journal 6, no. 10 (October 1841): 159-60.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “Catharine M. Sedgwick.” Godey’s Lady’s Book 33, no. 3 (Sept. 1846): 130-32.

——. “Review of The Linwoods.” Southern Literary Messenger 2, no. 1 (Dec. 1835): 57-59.

Reynolds, David S. “Sedgwick, Catharine Maria.” American National Biography. February 1, 2000.

Sedgwick, Catharine M. Hope Leslie; or Times in the Massachusetts. New York: White, Gallagher, and White, 1827.

——. Life and Letters of Catharine M. Sedgwick. Edited by Mary E. Dewey. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1871.

The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Catherine Maria Sedgwick.” Encyclopædia Britannica. July 27, 2021.

Tingley, Stephanie A. “Catharine Maria Sedgwick.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 183: American Travel Writers, 1776-1864, edited by James Schramer and Donald Ross. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997.

Wilson, James Grant and John Fiske. “Sedgwick, Robert.” In Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography Vol. V, 450-52. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888.

This capsule biography was contributed to the Poe Society by Percy Verret, Middle Tennessee State University


  • Review of The Linwoods   (December 1835, text “A” — Southern Literary Messenger)
  • Review of Tales and Sketches   (January 1836, text “A” — Southern Literary Messenger)
  • Notice from “Autography”
    • C. M. Sedgwick” (“Autography” - part I) — February 1836 — Southern Literary Messenger
    • C. M. Sedgwick” (“A Chapter on Autography” - part I) — November 1841 — Graham’s Magazine
  • Notice from “The Literati”


  • Anonymous, “Catherine M. Sedgwick,” Graham’s Magazine, January 1843, 22:53  (In his unpublished notes on “The Literati” at the U. of Iowa, T. O. Mabbott suggests that this notice may be by R. W. Griswold.)
  • Duyckinck, E. A. and G. L., “Catharine Maria Sedgwick,” Cyclopedia of American Literature, New York: Charles Scribner, 1856, 2:292
  • Giles, Jane, “Catherine Maria Sedgwick,” American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, ed. Lina Mainiero, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1970, 4:46-48
  • Heartman, Charles F. and James R. Canny, A Bibliography of First Printings of the Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Hattiesburg, MS: The Book Farm, 1943.
  • Mabbott, Thomas Ollive, ed., The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Vols 2-3 Tales and Sketches), Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978. (Second printing 1979)
  • Thomas, Dwight and David K. Jackson, The Poe Log: A Documentary Life of Edgar Allan Poe 1809-1849, Boston: G. K. Hall & Sons, 1987.


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