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  • Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada: Shifting Fortunes of an American Family, 1764–1826 by Susan Clair Imbarrato
  • Lindsay M. Keiter
Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada: Shifting Fortunes of an American Family, 1764–1826. By Susan Clair Imbarrato. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. 224 pages. Cloth, ebook.

Susan Clair Imbarrato encountered Sarah Gray Cary while researching an earlier project and was so impressed that she decided to write a book exploring the wider context of Cary's writing. To Imbarrato's delight, "what had initially appeared to be a collection of fascinating letters written by a thoughtful, articulate, intelligent woman to her family and friends evolved into multivocal conversations of a family at the center of a dramatic period of American history" (11). The Carys represent an unusual case of a family transplanted from Boston to Grenada, whose return was unexpectedly delayed for nearly two decades by the American Revolution and its aftershocks. Imbarrato, as a scholar of early American literature, treats the letters as literary artifacts, showing how Sarah encouraged her sons' moral, intellectual, and business development through the correspondence that sustained their relationships despite long separations. Imbarrato is sensitive to her subjects' epistolary conventions and rhetorical strategies and has done the time-consuming work of identifying many of the poems, plays, and novels the Carys discussed. She explains how the literature consumed by the family reflected not only their personal preoccupations but also their wider transatlantic conversations about education, philosophy, and the amelioration of slavery. Though historians will find themselves doing much of the work of situating the Carys in their historical contexts, Imbarrato's extensive introduction to Sarah and her family offers a singular perspective on the tumultuous years from 1764 to 1826.

The Carys' literary conversations were a stable feature throughout the letters exchanged during a long stretch of tumult and uncertainty. Imbarrato's Sarah Gray Cary from Boston to Grenada is "organized chronologically and thematically" (11), with subheadings breaking up a narrative of the family's exploits gleaned from letters and supplemented by one daughter's nineteenth-century recollections and another's transcriptions of entries from the eldest son's memoranda book. Because Imbarrato focuses on correspondence relating to the family's "shifting fortunes," Sarah is its central actor but hardly the sole focus; in fact, we have little idea of what Sarah does beyond engage in correspondence about her husband and sons' employment. Whether because of the letters' survival or Imbarrato's choices, therefore, this project is as much about the efforts of Sarah's sons Samuel Jr. and Lucius to support their Boston family from the West Indies as it is about their mother. Yet this is not quite a family history. Imbarrato concentrates on Sarah's efforts [End Page 812] to shape her elder sons' careers and characters, leaving largely unexamined the question of how their pursuit of fortune influenced the other children or the succeeding generation.

The introduction lays the groundwork by sketching the family backgrounds and the courtship of Sarah Gray and Samuel Cary. The first chapter concerns Samuel's attempts to establish himself in Grenada shortly after their marriage; Sarah is absent from this portion of the book as Imbarrato explores the West Indian foundation of the family's financial aspirations. Samuel pursued two lines of business, as a commission merchant and a plantation manager. Imbarrato situates his quest within transatlantic debates over the morality of slavery, and throughout the book she suggests antislavery sympathies among the Cary family while conceding that they actively participated in a brutal system of exploitation. In 1769, assisted by his employer, Samuel purchased a coffee plantation, cultivated and processed by enslaved laborers, which he converted to sugar. This investment would materially link the Carys to the West Indies for more than forty years.

Sarah and her elder sons eclipse her husband as the focus for the remainder of the book. Both chapters 2 and 3 focus on her relationship with her first child, Samuel Jr., one primarily conducted by letter. Three months after giving birth to Samuel Jr. in late 1773, Sarah left him with his grandmother and sailed for Grenada to rejoin her...

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