Writing America’s Past: American Women Writers Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child
Fans of American literature know the names Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, but how many know about Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child? These two early American women writers wrote historical fiction (among other genres) that helped to shape American culture and identity.
Early American literature played an important role in establishing the new nation as a separate entity from England and other countries and in forming American identity and patriotism. Around the time of the American Revolution, many histories and narratives were reprinted as inspirational propaganda. William Hubbard’s History of New England, originally written around 1680, was published again just before the Revolution and then again by the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1815. Mary Rowlandson’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (also known as The Sovereignty and Goodness of God) was first published in 1682 and also reprinted again in the late eighteenth century.
In addition to reprints of earlier texts, historical fiction also functioned as patriotic literature by creating and imagining stories from that history. Writers hoped to inspire and unite communities as well as to reconcile or reimagine some of the more shameful elements of that history.
Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Lydia Maria Child both wrote early American historical fiction, which was based largely on the European tradition of popular writers like Sir Walter Scott. But these American writers adapted the unique features of the American landscape and narrative tradition to create a different brand of historical fiction. Their novels featured vast wildernesses, stories of courage and survival, conflict with Native Americans, and struggles to build new communities in areas where there was no established government or even class system.
Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, published in 1827, is set in New England in 1643 after the Pequot war. Sedgwick may have been inspired by captivity narratives like Rowlandson’s, and she uses Cotton Mather’s and William Hubbard’s histories. Sedgwick even summarizes some of that history in her novel, with the result that Hope Leslie often has a didactic tone. But the characters and plot are largely fiction, even sensational, especially in the second half.
Child’s Hobomok was published three years earlier than Hope Leslie, in 1824, but is also set in the early 1640s. Child uses historical figures like Hobomok, who was a guide and close friend to the Plymouth Pilgrims, but creates entirely fictional events for her plot. And those events were somewhat shocking for 1824: Child depicts an interracial marriage between her English heroine and the Wampanoag Hobomok that results in the birth of a biracial child.
While these two novels did not sell as well as Irving’s or Cooper’s, they still played an influential role, not only by their impact on other writers, but also because they demonstrate that American women certainly felt authorized to share their opinions and perspectives on American history, culture, and identity.