“So Truly Afflicting and Distressing to Me His Sorrowing Mother”: Expressions of Maternal Grief in Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia
Abstract

Abstract:

In 1781, Lowry Wister produced an eight-page account of her three-year son’s death from small pox. Lowry Wister’s narrative offers important insights into the emotional landscape of mothering, mourning, and religion in late eighteenth-century America. Religious and cultural prescriptions stressed restraint throughout the mourning process, and in particular admonished women to avoid excessive displays of grief. Lowry Wister’s emotional struggles as a “sorrowing mother” enable us to examine the relationship between individual experiences and prescribed expressions of grief and mourning. While eighteenth-century conventions stressed quiet resignation to God’s will, emerging cultural changes increasingly enabled – indeed, encouraged – women to give public voice to their private emotions. By the nineteenth century, sentimental views of childhood, along with a culture of mourning, inspired parents – especially mothers – to give full expression to intense feelings of loss and sorrow. Lowry Wister’s narrative reveals how women responded to and negotiated various religious, cultural and literary conventions that shaped their understandings of motherhood and mourning. Her narrative illustrates the various ways in which individual women challenged cultural norms and helped usher in new forms of emotional and literary expression. Comparisons of Wister’s narrative to other eighteenth-century women’s writings on grief and mourning further illuminate the interplay between cultural convention and individual expression.