- Catharine Maria Sedgwick: Critical Perspectives
Lucinda L. Damon-Bach and Victoria Clements's edited collection of critical essays on the work of Catharine Maria Sedgwick makes a valuable contribution to the study of nineteenth-century American literature, and it will doubtless stand as a landmark work in the field of Sedgwick studies. The collection consists of the editors' introduction, sixteen essays, a chronology of Sedgwick's life, and a complete chronological bibliography of her works. Excerpts from contemporary reviews, published biographical sketches, and letters precede each critical essay. Some parts of the book are more helpful than others. The introduction, lucid and informative, is absolutely indispensable; however, the excerpts from reviews and biographical sketches seem beneficial only because they provide a shortcut for researchers seeking primary texts. Of uniformly high quality, the essays offer new perspectives on the works at hand, but their usefulness to the individual scholar will depend upon which of Sedgwick's texts the reader is researching.
Having published an article on Sedgwick's currently most well-known work, Hope Leslie, I found two of the essays that deal with that work particularly impressive. Judith Fetterley's "'My Sister! My Sister!': The Rhetoric of Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie" greatly adds to the scholarship on that work, changing the focus from Republican Motherhood to Republican Sisterhood. Fetterley's article, previously published in American Literature, and Susan K. Harris's, "The Limits of Authority: Catharine Maria Sedgwick and the Politics of Resistance," are the strongest essays in this collection. Centering on the politics of Sedgwick's works, Harris examines four of Sedgwick's novels and successfully argues that they "intervened in that most privileged debate of the period, the debate about resisting legitimate authority—when resistance is appropriate, who has the 'right' to undertake it, and what its limits and consequences should be" (2 73). Harris interrogates this conflicted site and produces fascinating and illuminating results.
Melissa Homestead contends that Sedgwick's name graces only one of her works because Sedgwick was deliberately creating a literary persona. Victoria Clements focuses on the character of Crazy Bet and explains her presence in Sedgwick's A New England Tale as a destabilizing force in church orthodoxy just at the time the author was converting from Congregationalism [End Page 246] to Unitarianism. Damon-Bach's essay deals with Redwood, asserting that Sedgwick creates women characters who overturn typical nineteenth-century gender roles and make their own decisions, particularly about whom and even whether to marry. Brigitte Bailey's contribution centers on nineteenth-century American women's roles in visiting Italy and, through its beauty, transforming the men in their lives into worthy citizens who can demonstrate sympathy and feeling for others.
Patricia Kalayjian's essay on Clarence focuses on Gertrude, the only woman character in the novel, who exemplifies the values of Republican Citizenship, while the other female characters are shown to be greedy, materialistic social climbers. Robert Daly's postmodern reading of The Linwoods demonstrates the various traits its women characters display, none of which are typically gendered female. Deborah Gussman's essay examines how Sedgwick defines the model of Republican Motherhood and extends it to unmarried women. Karen Woods Weierman situates Sedgwick's position on slavery through her work on "a Slave story I began and Abandoned," located at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Weierman posits that Sedgwick opposed slavery, but feared that its abrupt abolition would cause the demise of the United States; ultimately, her first loyalty lay with the Republic. Sondra Gates Smith engages issues of class in her reading of three of Sedgwick's novels, determining that upward mobility through meritocracy included only Anglo-Americans.
John Austin's work on Tales and Sketches from 1835 demonstrates the centrality of this collection in Sedgwick's attempt to "redirect her career and refine her authorial vocation" (159). Charlotte Avallone deals with Sedgwick's intervention in the "Culture of Conversation," showcasing her eloquence and artistry in that form. Jenifer Banks's essay delineates Sedgwick's "vision of a more inclusive society," one...