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  • Catharine Sedgwick and the Circles of New York
  • Charlene Avallone, Independent Scholar

Although Catharine Maria Sedgwick lived and wrote in New York City nearly half her adult life, her status as a notable New Yorker has become involved in ambiguities and contradictions. In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe situated Sedgwick in Knickerbocker circles with "Irving, Cooper, Paulding, Bryant, Halleck, and one or two others" as one "of our literary pioneers" of national reputation, but Poe set critical precedent in discrediting her metropolitan status along with "the absolute merit" of her writing: "Strictly speaking, Miss Sedgwick is not one of the literati of New York city [sic]" (Literati 1200, 1204). A century later, Tremaine McDowell, in the influential Literary History of the United States, linked her status as "a distinguished authoress who wintered in New York" only to a decline in her art. After her first fictions portraying New England domestic manners, McDowell claims a shift to New York settings and a focus on "the chitchat of her ladies . . . smothered Miss Sedgwick's innate realism and made her . . . an apostate to her region and a purveyor of sentimental romance to genteel females" (290). Recent criticism continues to discount Sedgwick in representing her as a New England woman in isolation from the circles that literary men and women frequented in the city.1 Yet, while critical tradition diminishes Sedgwick's accomplishment through repressing her relations to New York, no one has yet detailed her city residence or her ties to contemporary urban culture as that culture determined its own shape and the shape of national literature.

In 1800, Sedgwick first visited New York as an eleven-year-old to obtain the polish necessary to reproduce her mother's station among the ruling elite. She lived with Frances Watson, her sister, and Frances's publisher husband and circulated with her brother Theodore, a law student, who "was very ambitious that his sister should be an adept in the polite arts" (Sedgwick, "Autobiography" 92). She loved the culture and society of the young urban center, where she met other daughters of the elite likewise sent "to be perfected in the arts and graces of young ladies" ("Autobiography" 93). Yet despite the designs of her family and an education that immersed her in elevating society in New York and other cities, Sedgwick resisted becoming "conventional," despite years of her brother's dreaded criticism and her later "long social life" ("Autobiography" 92).2 Consequently, she was not publicized, as was her mother, in Elizabeth F. Ellet's Queens of American Society. Ultimately, Sedgwick's city experience instead [End Page 115] facilitated her becoming a writer and involved her in the struggle to determine the shape that the American social formation would take, including the positions it would afford to women and its fostering of literary culture.

The three-and-a-half decades that Sedgwick worked as a New York writer, beginning in the mid-1820s, coincided with what Thomas Bender describes as the city becoming the national economic center, then "a base for national political and cultural influence," the country's leading publishing hub, and a site of significant religious and social reform (146). In this essay, I begin to outline ways that engagement with the city's overlapping conversational communities involved Sedgwick in these events and how this involvement factored in her entire literary career—its motives, its thematics, and its forms—as well as in the history of publication and reception of her written works. Following a sketch of her claims on New York society and her urban ideals of conversational culture, the essay traces Sedgwick's connections with several of these circles: Knickerbocker writers and artists, Democrats, Unitarians, reformers, and literary salons. Examining such circles can open up the sphere of the social, where ladies' "chitchat" signifies and engages more public conversations and thus enlarges our understanding of Sedgwick's significance, now muted by a critical tradition that largely defines her in relation to New England domesticity and a Puritan past. At the same time, reassessing notions of Sedgwick's place in American literary history leads to questioning some of that history's larger assumptions.

In the 1820s, Sedgwick wintered in New York with...


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pp. 115-131
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