Catharine Maria Sedgwick

A prolific writer ahead of her time


Edith Wharton may be the Berkshires' most famous female novelist, but she is not the county's most pioneering one.

That distinction belongs to Stockbridge native Catharine Maria Sedgwick, whose 19th century writings were among the earliest contributions to the U.S. literary canon that developed after the American Revolution. The preface to Sedgwick's anonymously published debut novel, "A New-England Tale," indicates just how few peers she had when the book was released in 1822.

"The writer of this tale has made a humble effort to add something to the scanty stock of native American literature," it begins.

She more than accomplished that modest goal, composing a novel that captured Berkshire life and foreshadowed, through orphan Jane Elton's striving, the vital role that women would play in the nascent nation's growth. Over the course of her life, she published five more novels, including "Hope Leslie." Her most well-known work was set in the 17th century and is regarded as forward-thinking for its time due to its positive treatment of Native Americans. Heroines also featured prominently in her work, which included two biographies, countless short stories and novellas.

"Miss Sedgwick is not only one of our most celebrated and most meritorious writers, but attained reputation at a period when American reputation in letters was regarded as a phenomenon," Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, naming Washington Irving and her friend, William Cullen Bryant, among her contemporaries.

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Sedgwick was born Dec. 28, 1789, into one of the Berkshires' most historic clans. Her parents were Pamela Dwight and Theodore Sedgwick, the latter a judge, lawyer and politician. Though arranged marriages were common at the time, Sedgwick rejected many suitors' offers, choosing to remain single until her death in West Roxbury, in 1867.

"Marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman," Sedgwick wrote in "Hope Leslie."

These days, Sedgwick's name has been in the news not only for an early brand of feminism but also because of her connection to Elizabeth "Mum Bett" Freeman. With Sedgwick's father representing her, Freeman became the first enslaved African-American to win a Massachusetts freedom suit in 1781. Afterward, she took a domestic service job with the Sedgwicks at their Stockbridge mansion. Catharine grew close to Freeman and, in 1853, published the former slave's life story under the title "Slavery in New England" in Bentley's Miscellany.

Today, Sedgwick is buried next to Freeman in the "Sedgwick Pie," the family's famous concentric circle burial plot within the the Stockbridge Cemetery.

— Benjamin Cassidy, The Berkshire Eagle


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