Lydia Sigourney’s (mis)identification as “The American Hemans” serves as a kind of parallel or allegory for the double-bind faced by nineteenth-century woman writers: to become famous, one must be like Hemans, but to be like Hemans is to lose sight of oneself; to signify oneself as a “proper” woman writer, one must utter the sobs of the sentimental woman, but such a voice has been valued by critics at about the level of “anonymous.” Sentimentalism, what is expected of the woman writer if she is to achieve fame, has been seen as manipulation, not an art. In a feminist prose essay on women’s education, Sigourney reveals her desire for fulfillment in roles other than the strictly domestic: she longs for the day when women can be “professors.” A canny poet-engineer taking up the tools of the new sensationist epistemology to become a professor of sentimental rhetoric, Sigourney deploys several poetic voices or personae to communicate her decidedly feminist ethos. The subject positions adopted in her poems are various, ranging from male seminary professor to an edgy, angry, male prophet, from woman rhetor to woman preacher. In Lucy Howard’s Journal, Sigourney prophesies and in some sense prepares her own reception history as a female writing subject whose textual voice can outlive the stultifying critique of feminine sentimentalism.
This business of the subject is tricky.Joan Didion on Robert Mapplethorpe’s Some Women
Cultural meaning attached to writing is not a single meaning that women or men participate in by the act of becoming writers; and in the early nineteenth century especially, women with ambitions to become writers faced a complex mixture of permission and prohibition, deriving from their sex, from which men were spared.Norma Clarke, Ambitious Heights
It is time to revive, not merely to reinvent, the ethos or subject supported by Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s own texts. So much has been made of Sigourney as elegist, the one who is said to be emblematic of nineteenth-century ‘true womanhood,’ that it is impossible to dissociate Sigourney from twentieth-century’s views of antebellum women and consolatory verse. However, without ignoring Sigourney’s concerns about death as a topic, I wish to move into an analysis of the past appropriate to a new millennium. I want to turn our attention instead to a kind of death and resurrection enacted by Sigourney’s feminine writing subjects, personae who figure even more prominently in her poetry than the fabled elegist.
For “the business of the subject is tricky,” as Joan Didion has written about Some Women, a book of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs (1). The subject is tricky because neither women in Mapplethorpe’s photographs, according to Didion, nor the personae of writer or rhetor in my take on nineteenth-century texts, are self-evident in thematic issues only. The purpose of this essay is to conduct in Sigourney’s sentimentalism a rhetorical analysis of “the status of ‘person’” which Emile Benveniste claimed is evident in the human relationships implicit in any text (729). As applied in this essay, Benveniste’s words call for us to articulate the location and status of the female writing subject constructed in works by the nineteenth-century’s most popular American woman poet. Doing so, we may revive in our imaginations Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s own complex ethos so familiar to the contemporaries who read her work.
Four pieces offer complex appearances of the gendered writing subject that Sigourney’s work as a whole presents: two poems discussed in the middle of this essay cloak her as a man, but I will begin and end with examples that speak more straightforwardly as a woman. All four poems are noteworthy examples of a fundamental sentimental code at work in pre-Civil War U.S. texts. In the middle of this essay, I will focus on a male-masked, virtually absent female self in “Sentiment in a Sermon” and on a likewise male-gendered poet in most--but not all--of the long poem, “Imitation of Parts of The Prophet Amos.” While these two are strong, purposeful voices, both enact a kind of eclipse of the woman poet’s self--a textual death some might call it--because she is hiding behind someone else. This self was contrived to speak to an American scene that remained persistently hostile to assertive women’s voices.
A remarkable move occurs, however, during the final entries of Sigourney’s late mixed-genre work, Lucy Howard’s Journal. Sigourney’s feminine narrator dies, but in the end amazingly rises from the grave again to address her readers. This is an ethos no less constructed or fictive than Sigourney’s masculine voices, but I want to emphasize that Lucy's reappearance marks the resurrection of an unashamedly female writer. Raising the woman writer from the dead in Lucy Howard’s Journal typifies a recovery Sigourney might inspire in our own imaginations every time we take up antebellum women poets’ texts.
I will begin this study by discussing a different, rather baffling Lydia Huntley Sigourney, peculiar because of an odd doubling of her feminine writing subject. This multiple mirror-image arises from a curious mistake, a confusion that occurred more than once between the poems and personae of Sigourney and the British poet, Felicia Hemans. While the mix-up has been seen as relegating “the American Hemans” to the same so-called obscurity of the British Hemans and other sentimentalists, I argue that Sigourney took heart from this fortunate error to unmask a self that was not only forcible, but also public--and feminine.
Her connections to Hemans persuade me that Sigourney and other forgotten authors of the past do not only rise again to speak to us as figures in newly recovered texts. Rather, if we conduct analyses of ethos--that is, if we conduct specifically rhetorical studies reanimating and transforming conventional wisdom about historical texts, the personae resurrected can also offer some of those “possible selves" that C. Jan Swearingen proposed in Rhetoric and Irony as "models for seeing and participating in both knowledge and experience, and for interacting with others” (236). Such provocative models might strengthen twenty-first century women's relationships in the same way that Sigourney gained strength from Hemans’ poetic personae.
In 1828, Sigourney’s reputation suffered one of those small fortunate errors--or was it a tragedy? That year New Haven editors mistakenly placed Lydia Huntley Sigourney's “Death of an Infant” in an American collection of Felicia Hemans' works (Haight 78). On the one hand, this mistake became an impetus to Sigourney's enormous popularity as “the American Hemans.” On the other, the editors’ mistake and Sigourney's nickname have reinforced, for some, the small worth of sentimental writers--of Hemans and Sigourney in particular, but also of all those Edgar Allan Poe so acidly referred to in the middle of the American nineteenth century as “animaliculae” who in “multiplication of zeroes” generated an infectious mass of “microscopial works” (cited by Haight 79). Poe apparently feared that some sentimental disease would make the public ill-disposed toward his own work.
How did Sigourney get caught up in the phenomenal pandemic of sentimentalism? This section on Sigourney’s ethos will not so much read nuances of the poetic lines as it will analyze the form of a double jeopardy involved in the play of reflected identities between Lydia Sigourney and Felicia Hemans. Risks of associating herself with Hemans were not confined to the possibility of Sigourney's being engulfed by the British poet’s fame and her brand of sentimentalism. On the positive side, there was also the possibility that by riding the apron strings of Hemans’ enormous posthumous fame, Sigourney’s reputation might earn her a like measure of immortality.
Always one chronological step ahead of Sigourney, Hemans’ life in Wales marked a path for the professional woman poet that would guide her American counterpart. At the start of their careers, each won a poetry prize in competition with well-reputed men. When Hemans was twenty-six in 1819, she won wide acclaim for best poem in a competition with others from all over the British Isles (Trinder 19). In 1828 at 37, Sigourney shared with N. P. Willis what was in those days an enormous $100.00 prize offered by The Token, the first successful American annual (Haight 77). Sigourney may well have known about Hemans’ prize, and it's likely the British poet’s well-known determination to keep writing despite her husband’s disapproval also encouraged Sigourney. Hemans put out two collections of poetry before she married, but unlike such thwarted writers as Jane Welsh Carlyle who stopped publishing once she wed the famous British romantic, Hemans kept up the pace of writing and publishing (Clarke 112). She produced three more books during the six years of her marriage before 1818 when Captain Hemans left Britain and his wife for Italy. Felicia meanwhile had given birth to his five sons (Trinder 15).
Similarly determined, Sigourney published only the slim volume Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse before her marriage in 1819, but she became widely known through dozens of magazine poems that were published under her name during the first ten years of marriage. In collections, however, her work appeared anonymously because Charles Sigourney disapproved of his wife’s public self. These objections, moreover, required that Lydia make “elaborate arrangements” to publish without his knowledge two 1832 collections of biographies, meant primarily as schoolbooks for her students (Haight 34). Charles finally agreed to her publishing openly only after his own financial collapse in 1833 (Haight 37). As professional writers who mostly published straightforwardly under their own names, Hemans and Sigourney both enjoyed enormous popular success, enough as chief breadwinners to support five children each--and enough besides to support worthy causes. Their lives were remarkably parallel, many said, but strikingly similar too were Hemans’ and Sigourney’s chosen topics, their use of poetic convention drawn from formal sentimentalism, and their enormous, often overlapping readership.
Critically over the long run, however, the more sinister implication for Sigourney in the Hemans link has been consignment to the resting place of forgettable sentimentalists. Trinh T. Minh-ha has written that “to see one's double is to see oneself dead” (22). In her 1989 Native, Woman, Other Minh-ha was reacting to the flattening and erasure of her life history as a Vietnamese immigrant in a U.S. culture that has dismissed her, except for marking any writer of color indifferently as ‘one of them.’ Looking into the eyes of the powerful, the unwelcome writer sees no living reflection. Women writers of color until very recently have shared a graveyard of obscurity with sentimentalists of the nineteenth century. There has indeed been grave danger of losing Sigourney in the devaluation and flattening of all sentimental writers, especially in the wake of her identification with Hemans.
Imitation itself was at issue for Gordon Haight, the modernist who in 1930 published a vociferously hostile Sigourney biography. He took her to be merely a pale copy, sarcastically labeling Hemans the sentimental “prototype” of Sigourney (37). In this, Haight took Poe at his word, for in an 1836 review Poe had claimed that he was “grieved” at the “almost identity between” Mrs. Hemans and Mrs. Sigourney (113). Poe abhorred the distinct rhetoric of sentiment as “mannerisms of a gross and inartificial nature” in Hemans; her use of these conventions was to him no mark of artistry. But for Poe the sentimental repertoire was “in Mrs. Sigourney. . . mannerisms of the most inadmissible kind--the mannerisms of imitation” (113). No matter to him that eighteenth-century rhetoricians had recommended imitation as entryway into recognizable poetic forms and as a way to practice a poet’s skills. To the outspoken proponent of American romanticism, imitating Felicia Hemans ought to doom Lydia Huntley Sigourney to obscurity. The sentence pronounced by Poe upon sentimental convention stood virtually unchallenged among academics well into the twentieth century.
Interestingly, late twentieth-century feminist readers turned to honor Felicia Hemans while continuing a near eclipse of her American counterpart. For instance, one good-sized university library has preserved eight copies of Hemans' nineteenth-century texts versus five by Sigourney, this in addition to the full array of Hemans' 1978 reissued works. None of Sigourney's works has been republished. While it is gratifying of late to see renewed calls for research on Sigourney, yet a quick survey of the MLA index shows that in current discussions there are many more recent comments in support of Hemans than for her American apotheosis. The call from Annie Finch and Laura Mandell for submissions to this issue on several women sentimentalists is a hopeful sign. Among scholars of British women’s poetry, however, Hemans has even become something of a cause célèbre, and Nanora Sweet at the University of Missouri has published a selection of essays from the boom of recent work that exclusively discuss Hemans. A more popular measure of Hemans’ reemergence is Garrison Keillor’s recent reading of Hemans’ “Evening Song of the Weary” to end National Public Radio’s Writers’ Almanac. You might almost think Hemans could become a household word again. Not so her American counterpart.
What happened early on to the American view of both writers when Sigourney in effect took Hemans’ name? Apparently the identification served Hemans well. Almost all of Hemans' works were posthumously issued and reissued in the antebellum U.S. and happily snapped up by Sigourney's public. In her thorough 1998 study of four British women sentimentalists, Ambitious Heights, Norma Clarke suggests that Hemans’ enthusiastic following in the U.S. may indeed have exceeded her British readership. Interestingly, there is no evidence that Sigourney felt threatened by Hemans’ fame, and one reason may be that Hemans died in 1835 just as Sigourney’s star began to rise (Trimbley 2). To the contrary, Sigourney wrote admiringly of Hemans: “Every unborn age / Shall mix thee with its household charities,” asserting that for years to come old men, mothers, and children (all among Hemans’ readers, she implies) would be blessed by her “sweet words” (cited in Repository 176). Sigourney wrote two biographies honoring Hemans, one an early sketch and the other a longer introduction to Hemans’ collected poems. Was Sigourney looking at herself dead or alive--or perhaps both--in these mirror-images? It seems quite clear that with these pieces she meant to place her own name in a metonymic slide that would link herself and the famous British poet in the popular mind. Perhaps she hoped to live and to die exactly as Hemans had--famously beloved and widely-read by an American public.
Resonance between the print personae of these two women is particularly uncanny in a second major mix-up which occurred in an annual, The Young Ladies' Offering, reissued with little change in the U.S. for eight years after it first appeared in 1849. Annuals generally were collections fairly equally divided between several writers, but this one prominently announces in its frontispiece that its “gems of prose and poetry” are “by Mrs. L.H. Sigourney; and others.” Oddly enough, however, the book lists Hemans in its table of contents more times than Sigourney. Given the frontispiece announcement, moreover, it is very peculiar that the first title attributed to Sigourney is fourth in the table of contents while Hemans' first entry tops the list--yet the fourth-listed piece said to be by Sigourney actually appears first in the body of the book. Leafing through it, furthermore, shows me that not one of the authors' names appears with any separate piece. Such odd labeling, shuffling, and masking makes a reader wonder who indeed wrote what. Did Hemans write everything in this book? Or maybe she wrote nothing. Is it all Sigourney's work, and not Hemans’ at all?
Whether the confusion was accidental or intentional, because of sloppy work by the annuals' editors, or because of sheer deceit, this second mix-up between the two poets works again to strengthen the identity between Hemans and Sigourney. Parentage is thematically at stake in two fictions under Sigourney's name in the contents: “The Father,” and “The Patriarch.” In these, she obviously emphasizes the paternal role, but am wondering about implications of form again--not topic--as I look at this collection, pondering a scrambled format that once more indicates the generative and maternal role played by Hemans in Sigourney’s professional life. The ambitious woman poet who was pathfinder, double, and comfort to Sigourney both simultaneously made her what she was and threatened to engulf her.
With alarm, an otherwise friendly contemporary review describes Sigourney’s association to Hemans as an “almost invidious” threat to Sigourney’s fame--which the Ladies Repository critic then hastens to reassure readers “will be as hearty and enduring” one day as Hemans’ is at the moment (177). Sentimental discourse did reductively melt these writers into one another, but solidarity and satisfaction was also apparent in the association. Resonance between the life and work of the British Hemans and of the American Hemans piques more than my curiosity, for it did more than inspire Sigourney’s career. In this doubling there are political and cultural implications for other would-be nineteenth-century women writers. Perhaps an antebellum woman reader felt drawn, herself, into the cloud of Hemans / Sigourney poetic identity. In that atmosphere she might imagine that she too could be a writer. One effect of such doubled readings was probably to bolster an antebellum American reader’s own aspirations to publish.
If indeed “all is empty when one is plural,” as Trinh T. Minh-ha warns, it may be particularly so when a mass of interlopers first dares to approach a discourse dominated by forbidding authorities who labels newcomers ‘you people’ out there. ‘We’ outsiders may even feel compelled to blur the details of our wonderfully quirky lives to become the ‘I’ to ‘you’ who are in power, especially in a dominant sign system that is relatively unfamiliar to 'us.' But Sigourney’s imitation of Hemans suggests that sentimentalism was not always only forbidding and empty to a woman entering the field. The remarkable dominant discourse whose name could doom women writers--might also allow women possibility and connection especially if ‘I’ can imagine sentimental forerunners who look something like ‘me,’ someone already out ahead.
The severely narrow glimpse of Sigourney usually available today also brings to mind Minh-ha’s ambivalence about losing herself in mediations of the dominant culture. “I write,” she says, “to show myself showing people who show me my own showing. I-You: not one, not two” (22). Always conscious of the eye of the beholder, an unwelcome writer senses that the personae she imagines for herself may slip and slide away in a house of mirrors created by the gaze of hostile criticism. ‘True womanhood’ remains the most glaringly obvious facet of a “totalizing narrative” which Judith Fetterley has recently complained “so effectively excludes those writers do not fit the story being told.” The label obscures by masking particularities of both the texts and the lives of thousands of nineteenth-century women (604-605). This distorting glass has certainly mesmerized readers of texts by Lydia Huntley Sigourney, and while today's readers cannot avoid cultural mediations such as the label of 'true womanhood,' we can grow more wary of how such terms influence our readings of sentimental poets and their texts. I certainly agree with Cheryl Walker that Sigourney is “one of many women poets we now know something about.” I also agree with Walker that “the problem is we don’t know how to read their poems” (1). I maintain that we will find a different sort of Sigourney than we once imagined if we do read her poems with sympathy. Attention to formal matters in her texts will support new readings of her textual selves.
Rhetoric gives a broader lens to the Sigourney whom Barbara Welter spotlighted in 1966 when she introduced ‘true womanhood’ into current discussions. Curiously, Welter herself admitted that Lydia Huntley Sigourney both did, and did not, match her scheme of piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. I argue that the study establishing the stereotype which Sigourney came to epitomize actually shows that the identity fit her ill.
Welter gave us a Sigourney in “The Cult of True Womanhood” (1966) who advocated women’s submission to “evils and sorrows,” and yet in the very lines Welter cites, Sigourney emphasizes “the continual effort” required to tolerate life’s difficulties in the nineteenth-century (161). With these words, I would say that Sigourney provides space for a woman's resistance in the face of an oppressive patriarchal culture. For example, on the subject of motherhood, Welter used Sigourney’s texts to support what Welter calls the “increase of power” an antebellum woman might gain in bearing children. But I read some ambivalence in the poet’s qualifying clause: “If in becoming a mother, you have reached the climax of your happiness, you have also taken a higher place in the scale of being” (cited by Welter 171). While Sigourney does urge women to rise “in the scale of being,” yet with the qualifier "if" she leaves open the possibility that some might not be satisfied with a maternal role. I do not hear Sigourney suggesting that every woman will find motherhood the epitome of happiness. She herself rejoiced to take up other roles than mothering.
After explaining to one editor why she lately wrote “more as a trade” than for the “recreation or solace” poetry gave her, Sigourney crowed a little:
It is now considerably more than a year, since I have supplied all my expenses of clothing, charity, literature &c, beside paying the wages of a woman, who relieves me a part of the day from household care, and I take great pleasure in doing it.cited by Haight 36
Sigourney is proud to say that she will no longer be defined exclusively as a housewife. Ever the teacher, however, she assures her publisher that she will still “educate my little children. . . in their daily lessons” (cited by Haight 36). It is obvious from these lines that Sigourney delighted in her writing partly because it gave her freedom from domesticity.
While Welter succeeded at constraining Sigourney in one narrow role, yet Welter's landmark essay also made remarkably clear that Sigourney took exception to U.S. antebellum thinkers who believed in women’s inferiority to men. This time with no specific reference to Sigourney’s texts, Welter wrote that Sigourney’s advice reassured “young ladies that although they were separate, they were equal.” Perhaps this allusion to ‘separate but equal’ is the critic's reference to hated Jim Crow slogans still haunting the Civil Rights movement when Welter’s article was published in 1966. Despite this backhanded compliment, Welter reasserts her own belief that Sigourney was satisfied with woman’s subordinate status because it was “part of that same order of Nature established” by God for men and women (159). I find, however, in more than one passage from Sigourney’s 1835 conduct book Letters to Young Ladies, passages Welter only vaguely cites, that the poet quite vigorously asserts not only women’s equality, but also their eventual prominence.
In the preface titled “To the Guardians of Female Education,” Sigourney would neither recognize any gender-based bar to young women’s education, nor would she accept any pedestals for women generally. “No . . . interdict continues to exclude them from the temple of knowledge, and no illusion of chivalry exalts them to an airy height, above life’s duties, and its substantial joys” (10). With faith in the forward-looking spirit of the times, Sigourney saw herself and her students as more advantaged than “our grandmothers,” whose “simple training” fit them only for “household-good.” There is life beyond the household, said Sigourney. Nevertheless, she did not see herself or her students rising to the eventual status of “our grand-daughters,” who if granted equal time to study, one day “may have an opportunity of becoming professors” (60). Sigourney emphatically insisted that women are at least the equals of men, and if she did admit that women’s achievements lagged behind, it was only for lack of opportunity in the moment. Rereading Welter’s comments in light of Sigourney’s own words, I find the notoriously sentimental poet at best a lively skeptic in the twentieth-century cult of antebellum ‘true womanhood.’
Turning to Sigourney’s poetry, compare Welter’s numbing parameters to the devout but astonishingly assertive writing subject in Lydia Sigourney’s “Sentiment in a Sermon” (Poems 194). If “Sentiment in a Sermon” were solely a lesson on religious feeling, its third-person narrator could justly be characterized as the sweetly pious soul required in Welter’s construct of womanhood, but the poem’s tone lacks the requisite meekness and domesticity.
HOPE'S soft petals love the beam
That cheer'd them into birth;--
Pleasure seeks a glittering stream
Bright oozing from the earth;--
Knowledge yields his lofty fruit
To those who climb with toil,
But Heaven's pure plant strikes deepest root
Where tears have dew'd the soil.
Hope with flow'rets trews the blast
When adverse winds arise;
Pleasure's garlands wither fast
Before inclement skies,
Knowledge often mocks pursuit,
Involv'd in mazy shade,
But Piety yields richer fruit
When earthly harvests fade.
This piece can be characterized as a classic sentimental poem for its evident attempt to shape reader’s moral affect or sentiment through faculty psychology, which to the eighteenth-century rhetorical theorist George Campbell was the new "science of the human mind" (lxxiv). Such brief odes as Sigourney’s, moreover, were familiar vehicles for the rhetoric of sentiment according to Campbell’s contemporary Hugh Blair, for Blair observed of this subgenre that “sentiments, of one kind or other, form, almost always, the subject of the Ode” (2.354 Lecture XXXIX). My point, here, is that the poet of “Sentiment in a Sermon” presents herself not as a simpering wimp of a woman, but as a canny engineer taking up the tools of the new sensationalist epistemology to become a professor of sentimental rhetoric.
The first of the poem’s two eight-line stanzas represents in turn three virtues: hope, pleasure, and knowledge. These are exuberantly personified and then transformed by a mix of metaphors into spiritual fruit borne by plants that grow because of sun, water, and careful tending. Notice that just as in the first few lines hope, pleasure, and knowledge have their analogues in earth-bound plants and streams, so in the last two lines of her first stanza, the poet conflates plant life with spirit-nurtured faith. Her emphasis here is on soil preparation for those roots:
But Heaven’s pure plant strikes deepest root
Where tears have dew’d the soil.
Sigourney ends this part of the poem by reiterating the thesis of her epigraph, “Piety flourishes best, in a soil watered by tears, and often succeeds, where harvests of temporal good have failed.” In other words, religious conviction will take hold most successfully in a heart that has been moved to weep.
To showcase the poem’s mastery of rhetorical convention, I want to emphasize that Sigourney’s sense of hope, pleasure, knowledge, and faith bear rather striking if inexact resemblance to elements of faculty psychology in the scheme laid out by rhetorician George Campbell. In Campbell’s version of sensationalist psychology, it is significant that the ends of rhetoric “are reducible to four. . . to enlighten the understanding, to please the imagination, to move the passions, or influence the will” (1). Sigourney’s “hope,” suggesting what lies ahead, is clearly a product of the faculty of imagination. Her reference to “pleasure” is linked to the faculty of the passions or feeling which would register pleasure. And one can easily associate “knowledge” with the faculty of understanding. “Faith,” or the conversion which a preacher seeks, could be produced by persuasion working first upon the first three faculties which together put pressure on the fourth faculty Campbell identifies: the will. In effect agreeing with Campbell, Sigourney says that any rhetorical discourse should enlighten, please, move, and compel action from the four mental faculties taken for granted as foundational to the new mental science.
Looking again at her second stanza, readers see Sigourney continue her display of sentimental tactics. This section presents hope, pleasure, and knowledge now withering from wind, heat, or “mazy shade.”
Hope with flow’rets strews the blast
When adverse winds arise;
Pleasure’s garlands wither fast
Before inclement skies,
Knowledge often mocks pursuit,
Involv’d in mazy shade.
Translating these lines through Campbell’s rhetoric, I find that the poet says a mind that is moved to assent only by means of ordinary deductive logic will also be easily moved to doubt when trouble comes along. As an evangelical writing during what is now acknowledged as the second Great Awakening, Sigourney is asserting her view that ordinary secular impressions on the understanding, imagination, or passions will eventually grow dim. “But,” the writer says, concluding the poem with a new version of her epigraph: “Piety yields riper fruit / When earthly harvests fade.” Faith alone, Sigourney writes--but not an unreasonable faith--will abide. The faith she promotes springs from empirical experience plus a transforming act of will (conversion). And she believes that this kind of piety impresses itself indelibly upon the human mind. While Sigourney's evangelical goal uses sentimentalism to conventional ends here, the speaker's assertive tone and showy display of sensationalist strategies both exceed conventional boundaries for women.
To my mind, however, something beyond sensationalist epistemology or new methods of conversion is at stake in this little ode. After all, Sigourney is imagining herself giving directions to ministers, some of the most powerful men of her day. It seems obvious that the reason this woman poet veiled herself in cultural expectations about rhetors being male, was to allow herself to preach to preachers about how to evoke commonsense response. At stake in “Sentiment in a Sermon” is the cross-gendered figure of a woman writer instructing preachers about how to move their congregations. If we grant the poem’s debt to formal sentimentalism and lift the apparently masculine narrator’s mask, we find that the writer might be a woman seminary professor of homiletics--that is, Sigourney positions herself as that professor of rhetoric she'd said that women might one day become.
Elaborating upon a plan for exploiting empirical systems in preaching, the poet exhibits the confidence and ease of one who frequently engages three different and pervasive discourses of her day: spirituality, rhetoric, and plant husbandry. From the poem’s agricultural metaphors--soil, petals, roots, harvest--I would guess its writer’s seminary graduates will serve country churches. From the same humble trope, the poet is also likely not to be an elite or wealthy person herself, but is well acquainted with growing things. She might even be the gardener’s daughter who has married up--indeed, so goes the historical account of Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s life. Ann Douglas called Sigourney a social climber, a “determined intruder” from Connecticut's working class who marries “well above herself” (Space 165). Douglas failed to mention, though, that Sigourney's ‘catch’ was a financially inept widower with three children. Indeed, for ten years after his death, she was entirely on her own, supporting by her pen both her stepchildren and her own two. To be sure, as I have noted, the role of professional writer was a pleasure to her—for the money it gave her, for the freedom from a domestic role, for the recognition, for the public power. She produced some fifty-six books (Collin 20).
‘Determined intruder’ is a view of Sigourney’s ethos that draws attention to the poet’s material circumstances as a girl, and if this characterization shows a somewhat self-interested Sigourney, it also suggests some class bias on the part of those who like Douglas and Welter have attempted to keep Sigourney within the bounds of ‘true womanhood.’ Another was Professor Timothy Dwight of Yale, co-editor of The New Englander in 1866, whose definitive and mean-spirited review of Sigourney’s memoir praised her “true womanly character” (347). In view of Dwight's evident concern about her rise in social status and in readership, this faint praise seems designed to damn the woman writer again to more conventional roles.
Within strictly gendered boundaries, Dwight is complimentary about the years Sigourney spent before she gained much literary fame, for they were, he said,
marked, like every woman’s life with so little that can be told of to the world, and yet with so much that is noble and pure,-- with so much that is full of kindness, and is quite as essential to the world’s happiness as any of the more conspicuous works on which men pride themselves.352
The purpose of a woman’s domesticity, according to Dwight, is evidently to make her world happy--that is to live for a man and his household, a husband who with society’s approval ventures out to perform “more conspicuous works.” No wonder Dwight proffered a backhanded compliment then upon that part of Sigourney’s school curriculum which addressed “those amiable dispositions which are so essential to the true womanly character” (347). He was otherwise snidely critical of this schoolteacher’s homey pedagogy, “not one, indeed,” he insisted, “that could be universally adopted in larger schools or among all classes of children” (347). He was likewise critical of Sigourney’s “generous commendation" in print "of every one of her own sex.” Definitely a woman-centered writer, she praised women up and down the ranks, from a society woman who had once been her student to a black housemaid who rendered the poet “heart-service” for twenty-five years. Today's reader may be uncomfortable with a note of condescension in Sigourney's cheery kudos, but her reviewer was incredulous of this grateful eulogy from Sigourney to the servant: “She was to me as my own flesh and blood” (355). Dwight was most alarmed, however, by Sigourney’s descriptions of the Lathrop estate which her father had groomed--as if “they were all alike the property of Mrs. Sigourney’s own family.” For it seemed to Dwight that by admiring the Lathrop estate, “the kindly heart of the authoress appropriates them all to herself” (336). Dwight selectively endorses those bits of a professional woman’s life which reflect his own narrow view of femininity, an approval which coincides with his pointed criticism that when she became a successful writer, she not only violated womanly norms, but she was encroaching on the territory of her betters.
This prestigious editor seems intent on relegating the working-class woman poet to some properly domestic and subordinate place. As wife or schoolteacher, Sigourney posed little threat to the male literary establishment. As successful professional woman writer, by contrast, Sigourney competed with men for column space, readership, money, and status. Until very recently, putting Sigourney in her place met with some success, and few careful readers have looked closely enough to imagine that she could rise in their estimation. For some, even seeing her in the guise of a seminary professor will do little to dislodge her from ‘her place,’ a too-familiar sentimentalist.
Referring to a lack of critical recognition, Lydia Huntley Sigourney once sighed, “I have no other claim to the title of prophet, save the absence of honor in my own country” (Collins 21). While this obscurity was perhaps the norm in Dwight’s neighborhood of Connecticut where both he and Sigourney had grown up, it was hardly so in Hartford which in 1862 named a street after its famous woman writer and reformer (Haight 169). Dwight's attack and Sigourney’s lament take on a different cast in the context of the longest piece in her 1846 collection Poems, “Imitation of Parts of the Prophet Amos.” In one hundred eighty-six lines of energetic heroic couplets, the first person rhetor invokes the force of biblical prophecy to exhort the complacent among her wealthy readers--for sins against the poor and fatherless, for idolatry, for waste of material goods, and for holding slaves. This is a heavy theme indeed for the woman remembered primarily as “the sweet singer of Hartford”!
The poem is not solely remarkable for its style drenched in sensationalist epistemology, or for the vigorous masculine role its narrator takes in order to shake up complacent readers. Particularly for my understanding of Sigourney’s ethos, “Amos” is significant for its shifts between personae and a discordance between them. For Sigourney slides from a male voice, to a female one, and then back to a male writing subject in this long poem. It is to such shifts and “discordance” rather than to thematic statements that theorist Julia Kristeva directs readers' attention, claiming that in such passages we will find the human relations of texts. Textual “discordance in the symbolic function and consequently within the identity of the transcendental ego itself,” she says, both point to ethical dimensions that may be more reliable than overt thematic statements for “establishing meaning” (Identity 140 emphasis hers). For as Norma Clarke has observed of nineteenth-century British women, “Cultural meaning attached to writing is not a single meaning that women or men participate in by the act of becoming writers.” Clarke’s comments fit Americans as well. In other words, ‘discordance’ between male and female subjectivities in Sigourney’s “Amos” is fundamentally a product of what Clarke calls the “complex mixture of permission and prohibition” faced by all nineteenth-century “women with ambitions to become writers” (6). Sigourney’s “Amos” in two distinct voices exploits both the permissions and prohibitions of antebellum sentimental discourse.
Given resistance like Dwight’s to the upstart Sigourney, the uppity working class male voice that starts and ends her poem may be a mouthpiece to attack people like Dwight who saw themselves as Sigourney's betters. The poem’s first four lines repeatedly note the speaker’s lower-class background:
I from no princely stock, or lineage came,
Nor bore my sire, a prophet’s honor’d name,--
But ‘mid the Tekoan shepherds’ manners rude,
My speech was fashion’d, and my toil pursued.
Except for the “Tekoan” reference, Sigourney’s lines depart from the first verses of “Amos” in the King James Bible since she calls attention five times to a humble parentage. Sigourney's prophet also alludes to a familiarity with hard work by use of words like “shepherds’ manners rude” and “toil.” By contrast, class and the stance of the speaker in general seem relatively unimportant to the authorized version’s writer who simply states that its prophet came from "among herdsmen of Tekoa."
And although the Bible’s prophet is already shouting in verse two that “the LORD will roar from Zion,” it takes the versified Amos longer to warm up. Sigourney’s writer first explains at length why at this moment in the antebellum U.S. a working class prophet must speak out about injustice--because God commands it in no uncertain terms. In fact, Sigourney puts words into God's mouth: "Shepherd, forsake thy flock, and be the seer of God" (line 41). After a hundred lines, Sigourney’s Amos finally attains white heat: “Repent! Repent!--ye rebel race!” From a searing blast in the poem’s last seventy lines, one can imagine that just as the Almighty roars through the Bible’s prophet, God roars through Sigourney’s too. Here is one stark, accusing stanza from her prophet's final tirade:
Ho!-- ye, who sink on couches, soft with down,--
And all your crimes in wine and music drown,--
Who snatch the garment from the shivering poor,
And wrest his pittance, to increase your store,--
You, first, the plagues and wants of war shall vex,
The captive's yoke shall cling around your necks
And you shall groan, in servitude and scorn,
Like the slave sorrowing o'er his dead first-born.
Ah sinful nation!-- of thy God accurst,
Thy glory stain'd, thy crown defil'd with dust,
Go,-- hide thee in Mount Carmel,-- dive the deep,--
Plunge in the slimy cells where serpents creep,--
Make through the earth's dark dens, thy secret path,--
Yet canst thou shun the purpose of His wrath?
This prophet forces wealthy Americans to face what they have tried to deny, namely that "they snatch the garment from the shivering poor"; their luxury has caused the poor to have less. Sigourney's God and prophet both do see this sin, and both claim the "accurst" wealthy people shall "groan" themselves one day in "servitude and scorn." Even if the well-off flee to "plunge in… slimy cells" trying to avoid God's wrath--they will surely suffer for their greed.
An edgy angry persona like this poem’s masculine Amos certainly ranges far from the ethos of a woman writer Nina Baym found most nineteenth-century reviewers preferred. The approved narrator was gentle and loving toward her subject, pronounced “healthy” values, and in contrast to this prophet, was “not egotistical about the narrator’s self-presentation” (Novels 254-258). Sigourney’s Amos figure instead aggressively engages all the force of sentimental rhetoric with lavish sensationalist appeals that insist on a complete turnaround in morality and behavior. And part of the buildup to these final exhortations involves a remarkable temporary shift into what seems to me a recognizably feminine voice--feminine and maternal, but still not a conventional representative of ‘true womanhood.’ Rather than endorsing it, Sigourney’s 'Amos' poet may instead by this momentary shift underscore the distance between the poem’s dominant figure and some preferred narrator. The shift suggests the writing persona of a woman who is enthusiastic about a vocation of letters, and one who is also simultaneously conscious of leaving her home flock unattended.
The turn of voice from what seems to me a masculine to a feminine voice occurs at a significantly maternal moment, and in it Sigourney’s prophet weeps as she wonders who will tend her lambs when she leaves. But only once. And only briefly. The outburst occurs when this suddenly feminine Amos first turns from a pastoral life to respond to God’s call to preach. In order to follow the call of God, this determined Amos lays down her shepherd's crook and begins to ford the rushing stream that will divide the new self from the old.
But pressing on my path, I heard with pain,
The approaching footsteps of my cherished train,--
And wept, as gazing on their fleecy pride,
I thought who now their wandering steps would guide.
Yet still, within, the hallow'd impulse burn'd,
And soon, its answering thoughts my heart return'd;--
"My tender lambs, my unfed flock, adieu,
My God, a shepherd will provide for you,
One kind as I have been, whose care shall guide
You, where fresh pastures smile, and fountains glide;
A hand unseen, a voice and purpose true,
Divide you from my charge, and me from you."
The shepherd-prophet must leave behind her “tender lambs” and “cherished train” to preach and write as God insists. But until she tearfully shoos her flock home and turns once more to follow her vocation, the sheep--like children--have come pattering after her. Such a shift in personae and the show of suspiciously maternal sentiment might be seen as lapses of form, or even as a stumble in Sigourney’s resolve as a professional woman writer. Yet we might also read such a turn and display of feeling as deliberate strategies of sentimental rhetoric. This passage may show Sigourney acknowledging and exploiting the criticisms women would have to expect if they should choose to follow the vocation to write in the nineteenth century.
Readers in Sigourney’s day would have linked the weeping, 'feminine' prophet with the rhetorician’s stock figure, “beauty. . . in tears.” Campbell’s Philosophy of Rhetoric advised student rhetors that “distress to the pitying eye diminishes every fault,” and he personifies 'distress' with a rather feminine attribute that will haunt nineteenth-century women's writing: “beauty is never so irresistible as in tears” (133). By her brief appearance as a weeping woman, Sigourney's prophet / poet / rhetorician of the 'Amos’ poem shows once again not only that the poet understands rhetorical conventions and will use them boldly. She demonstrates too that she is quite aware of societal norms for women and resolutely chooses to violate them anyway. And yet women are supposed to cry. This woman prophet weeps. If she cries over her children, she’s certainly a proper woman, right? So, despite the stinging rebuke she delivers, Sigourney's prophet locates herself within acceptable feminine discourse. One important message of the passage may be that by invoking tears, the poet-prophet covertly gains her audience’s grudging assent to a woman’s speaking out about moral and social reform. Another implicit message could be that her hearers’ sins are so egregious that in order to root them out, a woman is forced away from her 'natural' calling. Her violation of convention marks the greater seriousness of the hearers' transgressions.
The prophetess does finally leave her little sheep to spread a call of doom; thus Sigourney belies attempts--perhaps even of her own conscience--to confine moments some notion of ‘true womanhood.’ I tend to believe in the shrewd pragmatism of a working class prophet who might knowingly employ tears to persuade contemporaries they must change their behavior in commerce and in race relations--and they must accept a woman’s vocation as something other than domestic and maternal. Through sympathetic identification wrought by a feminine figure’s tears, Sigourney has “insinuated” (Campbell’s term 96) into her readers’ minds the activist sentiments of her speaking subject. More openly than when she played the role of homiletics professor, Sigourney's shifting ethos of the ‘Amos’ poem is at least momentarily a woman rhetor--one who both gestures toward and thwarts her cultures’ gendered expectations about who can preach American jeremiads.
In those final hot exhortations, as I say, Sigourney’s forceful Amos matches the tone of the biblical figure. The Amos of the King James Version wails, “Woe to them that are at ease. . .! . . . For, behold, the LORD commandeth, and he will smite the great house with breaches” (6:1, 11). With at least the same force, Sigourney’s Amos wallops readers with sixteen rhetorical questions in the last few lines, interrogations that silence any remaining challenge to the prophet’s authority.
Say,-- whose strong arm compos'd this wondrous frame?
Who stay'd the fury of the rushing flame?
Who made the mighty sun to know his place?
And fill'd with countless orbs yon concave space?
Who from his cistern bade the waters flow
And on the spent cloud hung his dazzling bow?
Who drives thro' realms immense his thundering car
To far Orion and the morning star?
Who light to darkness turns?-- and night to death?
Gives the frail life and gathers back the breath?
Who have this ponderous globe, with nicest care
To balance lightly on the fluid air?
Who raised yon mountains to their lofty height?
Who speeds the whirlwind in its trackless flight?
Who darts thro' deep disguise, his piercing ken
To read the secret thoughts and ways of men?
Who gave the morning and the midnight birth?
Whose muffled step affrights the quaking earth?
Who curb'd the sea? and touch'd the rocks with flame?
Jehovah, God of Hosts, is his tremendous name.
Sigourney’s Amos demands that evil-doers acknowledge both the authority and “tremendous name” of “Jehovah, God of Hosts,” and in the same gesture she is of course also demanding that they acknowledge her in the prophet’s role.
Hot as these final rebukes are, I would argue that it is only because Sigourney's prophet once again echoes the aggressive masculine voice of the biblical prophet that she could hope to get away with blasting at powerful people. In her day, when women preachers did attempt to speak in public, they did not fare well. Christine L. Krueger’s study on women preachers refers to “ad feminam attacks on the prophet as fallen woman,” attacks that brought to bear the full weight of popular opinion against nineteenth-century women’s asserting themselves before “promiscuous” mixed-gender audiences (19). My guess is that despite Sigourney’s masculine cover in Amos, and despite her careful allusions to motherhood when she turns from her sheep, nevertheless, her forceful style of prophesy likely struck contemporary readers as an affront.
Alongside the woman in her texts who violated class and gender boundaries, historical records also construct a Sigourney who was nearly as formidable a reformer as any ancient prophet. The activist was a dedicated contributor to abolitionist periodicals (Baym 1993: 386). She also crusaded for temperance (Douglas Feminization 131). She started at least two schools for young women and was a founding member of the Willard Association for the Mutual Improvement of Female Teachers (Walker 80). She overcame the loss of a son, dead at nineteen, and later she took in her aging parents. In her last years, despite reduced circumstances, she remained committed to correspondence with a wide circle of friends; she visited the sick; she fed hungry people who came to her door (Collin 20). Sigourney’s moral stature in life lived out her prophetic stance in “Amos.”
A nineteenth-century woman poet hiding behind a male persona, however, is one more reminder that women in the U.S. and in Britain faced a field of letters that was overwhelmingly male. With an intensity surprising even to most feminists who lately chart that gendering, early nineteenth-century women found “the identity of the writer, the authorial position, ha[d] been defined as the property of the male sex” (Clarke 6). For Sigourney then to put aside a feminine self for a male mask was to admit, as Paula Bennett aptly puts it, that “nineteenth-century women’s poetry was most accurately thought of as, figuratively if not literally, an ‘anonymous’ Art. That is, it functioned as a craft, where making--not being--was the dominant mode” (14). Making poetry that got read was important to antebellum women writers even when being known as public poets was impossible. Generally, women had to go undercover if they went into the public eye, either by remaining anonymous, or by wearing men's garb. In matters overstepping social convention, a male persona in Sigourney’s Amos offered her near invisibility. She put on a mask, deepened her voice, so that she could express her outrage on issues of reform and be taken seriously. Whenever she could get away with it, however, Sigourney did not write anonymously; she wanted to reap the rewards of publishing under her own name. The poet in drag, nonetheless, emphasizes the rhetorical constructedness of textual subjectivity, namely, that textual personae shape-shift to suit particular situations and persuasive aims. The shift of personae in Sigourney’s “Amos” could have urged her readers that a woman writer should not have to act invisible in this way, or to play dead--despite small-minded critics' efforts to virtually bury her alive.
A stranglehold of prejudice against ‘Sigourney as elegist’ has benumbed responses to one of her most delightful and disturbing books. Notably, Ann Douglas has claimed that Sigourney’s Lucy Howard’s Journal “is fascinating in its inability to work up an incident,” and Douglas maintains that even Lucy’s religious conversion experience was without trauma. “She did not know it was happening,” Douglas says curtly, “a description which could cover the whole of her life.” Douglas’ morbid characterization of the “extinguished” life lived by the “sentimental songstress” in “calm hypnosis” (1972: 174), may take permission for its acerbic tone from Dwight’s cutting remark in 1866 that Sigourney’s “life that had already opened itself in a whole volume of obituaries might properly show, at its close that it was itself one obituary volume” (331). The woman writer in the artful Lucy Howard’s Journal springs up despite her adversities and Sigourney's adversaries.
If you read Lucy Howard’s Journal watching for the life trajectory and ethos of its principal figure, a woman writer, I argue that you will find this little book presenting not simply a full and various life, but also a death and an astonishing resurrection in its last few pages of its central subject-in-process. In this final section on Lydia Huntley Sigourney's ethos, I intend to resuscitate subjectivities that we can glimpse not only in shifts between dispositions taken up by the Journal’s writer, but also in the styles of its various genres, and finally in the indefatigable pioneer woman who will not stay in the grave.
The daily entries of Lucy’s journal give us what today might be hundreds of snapshots framing Sigourney’s impressions of a young, white, low-to-middle class antebellum woman’s life. Journal entries, however, like letters in an epistolary novel, imply a narrative that must be constructed from them in readers’ imaginations, and yet these entries obviously are each a discrete discourse, too. Important for Lucy’s subjectivities is Benveniste’s observation that “I refers to the act of individual discourse in which it is pronounced. . . and by this it designates the speaker” (730-731). What we have in these entries, then, is not the ‘single unified effect’ so desired by Poe and other followers of the German romantic, Schlegel. Instead, in epistolary novels and journals we have a fragmented writing subject, or perhaps here a welter of Lucys. Moreover, given the slender line between fiction and autobiography in many nineteenth-century women’s narratives, what we may have in this text is a welter of Sigourneys.
Lucy is a schoolgirl and later a teacher and still later a mother, all rather conventional nineteenth-century women's roles. But Sigourney’s presentation of various perspectives on each self may unsettle conventional notions both about Lucy and about this particular sentimentalist. You might predict that a journal begun as a school project will comment upon education, but you might not expect a conventional Sigourney to write this:
If I kept school, I think I’d try to make every body (sic) have a good time; for if children get mad, they won’t learn. If they are very cold, or very warm, or very tired, and you say to them “study, study!” and look cross all the time, . . . then there is no doing them any good till they get into a better mood. If teachers would only just look pleasant, and speak pleasant, and not get mad themselves, what a nice place school would be!6-7 italics hers
The little schoolgirl writing here is by turns too hot and too cold and too tired to learn. By extension, this young person observes that the teacher who ignores material conditions affecting learning in her classroom and then mercilessly harasses her young charges, will simply not find them receptive students.
Not this rebel, but a different Lucy--a more compliant writer--begins the next entry, “I hope I did not write unkindly yesterday. When I read it over this morning it seemed just like a slap of slander” (7). But by the very next entry, the cranky little journal writer is complaining again: “I was half frozen in going to school this morning, and not much better off after I got there. We took turns, indeed, in standing at the fire, but the wood was green, . . . and the chimney smoked so fiercely that we all shed tears” (8). Here, alternately, are both a critical and a meek and a cranky Lucy Howard--and a critical and a meek and a cranky Lydia Sigourney. While apologies from one suggest the submissiveness required of ‘true womanhood,’ the next one's critical impulses resonate with the spirit of antebellum reformers who crusaded for better women’s education.
There is a schoolgirl in this journal who is sometimes undeniably priggish. Two-thirds of one longish entry consists of dialogue between Lucy and another girl who wishes out loud that she “could have my own way sometimes.” As if restraining some persistent anti-social alter ego, Lucy poses questions to this unruly friend in a format that parallels a religious catechism: “Can’t you make your own way the same as your mother’s? Then you’d always have your own way” (25). The last third of the day's entry is written by an insufferable little Lucy who announces that she is always completely obedient to her own mother, asserting that “if I were thinking how I might rule her, or hide things from her, I should be miserable.” The day’s catechism at last ends, “I would have repeated the fifth commandment [Honor your father and mother…] to my school-mate if she had not got so angry and flown away” (26). This goodie-two-shoes Lucy has forgotten that a few pages back her own more secretive self worried about the propriety of writing “piles” of poems. This other girl poet had admitted, “I hope mother will not find them. I never tried to conceal any thing from her before” (15). Evidently, Lucy was of at least two minds in this journal on secrecy and obedience to her mother.
It is verse that moves another self-righteous Lucy to relent and join in what she imagines her mother would call the “bold and hoydenish” play of girls and boys sliding hand in hand down a snowy slope. One girl flying past taunts little Lucy Howard with a couplet parodied from Pope: “What can ennoble slaves or cowards? / Not all the blood of all the Howards.” Unable to keep from laughing, Lucy herself then lets her admirer Henry grab her hand for a run down the hill (21). Actually, poetic language with a lighthearted note rather often interrupts more serious prose passages in the journal. For while in more serious poses, Lucy includes lines written out from famous poets and hymns, verse summaries of her lessons, poems for birthdays, and even recipes that she’s set to rhyme and meter; nevertheless, a playful Lucy also fools around with puns like the child’s slip on the prayer, “Now I lay me down to sleep. . . .” The child innocently asks, “Mamma, I’m awful tired of always saying ‘Now I lama’; won’t it do once in a while to say, ‘Now I camel down to sleep’?” (66 italics hers).
The crowd of personae suggested by Lucy’s changing tone and by some of the poetry scattered among her entries are enlivened by a variety of other genres, too. For instance, the supportive wife Lucy writes a historical dialogue to help instruct her teacher-husband’s students. The would-be preacher lists sermon topics she thinks ought to be delivered. And the adventurer narrates the story of her family’s move to the “great, glorious West” (251), a journey which the historical Sigourney never took. When she establishes her own school, Lucy includes minute directions in the journal for what E. Jennifer Monaghan would call a “dame school” of early America (Monaghan 55). Its curriculum was set up to teach indigent neighbor girls a kind of literacy considered appropriate to their status: no writing, but first sewing so that they could make their own clothes and a meager living, and only then some reading. Indeed, Lucy’s steps for setting up her school are written out in such detail that they could easily guide readers who might one day plan to teach classes in their own neighborhoods.
My favorite among the Lucys of this mixed bag of genres appears in a sensationally comedic recipe for her own novel, an outline clearly drawn from potboilers of the day--though a pious Lucy claims, “I have never read one.” She directs would-be novelists to mix “Earls and Countesses, and several singular people, and beauty and love, and dangers and escapes, and perils and quarrels, and shake all up together, and the end would be matrimony.” Lucy summarizes her story this way: “A great deal of uncommon action to arrive at a common condition. And then, I understand, all the romance vanishes” (76). The wife who will appear later on in Lucy’s journal will not question the continuing romance of marriage, for she simultaneously adores and teases her husband as “a being quite above me; something to look up to and be afraid of, like the Grand Mogul” (179). But the young girl Lucy who writes her own potboiler can’t help challenging ‘happily ever after’ endings.
The husband described later in Lucy’s journal shares her passion for teaching schoolchildren and joins with her and another couple in a weekly study group discussing history, Hume, and other subjects (220) Most significantly this fictional husband encourages her writing of poetry. Lucy’s Henry “could not forgive himself should he be the means of destroying any gift or attainment I might have possessed in earlier years” (226). While much of Lucy Howard’s Journal may have been lifted from young Sigourney’s diary, this strand on a supportive husband is pure fantasy, according to accounts of the poet’s marriage. Lucy’s potboiler comment on marriage as the end of romance may have hit closer to home for Sigourney than her narrative of Lucy’s blissful married life. Conflicting views on marriage for the younger and the older Lucy, and also between Lucy and the Sigourney of record, suggest to me why Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s work was so popular--and why today’s readers might seriously consider Sigourney’s personae among C. Jan Swearingen’s “possible selves” and “models” who are archived in historical texts. Other antebellum women--and our own lives--have had clashes like these. From the example of Lucy’s flexible selves, we might also imagine other lives for ourselves.
The journal’s title page epigraph is attributed to Webster: “We want a history of firesides.” This line should give the reader advance warning that the book has designs on its readers’ atrophied domestic sentiments. I confess the book inflicts guilt on me because its self-searching entries model “inner habitudes” of a mostly domestic life that I do not share (296). Lucy’s reader cannot help but identify with the “I” of every journal entry, and often becomes “herself” with undone housework. But readers also become the bright and competitive young woman who competed successfully in a boy’s school. She is the girl who protests against the taunts of the fellows: “I only hesitated once to-day in a long lesson in Philosophy, and yesterday in the conjugation of a French verb, and heard them whisper to each other, ‘There! that’s a’most a mistake.’ It was not, neither (sic).” Her persecutors are to her mind the “Scribes and Pharisees,” “Judges. . . without any jury” (10-11), “the pedantic bench of wiseacres,” who expect to win the end of year medal for best scholar. Their taunts pique Lucy’s ambition, and she retorts, “Let’s see a little to that, though” (14). With her, we become at last the one who does earn that medal.
Since language and the self are social constructs, sooner or later as we read along, readers’ selves get inexorably drawn into discursive webs like Lucy Howard’s Journal, and we are changed by the writer’s shifting ethos. While I am bent on resisting the domestic agenda of parts that read like a narrative conduct book, nevertheless, I must admire the powerfully ambitious, assertive personae appearing in other parts of Lucy Howard’s Journal who each “makes history by convincing the people of the world that [her] description of the world is the true one” as Jane Tompkins wrote of sentimental rhetoric (Designs 141).
Sigourney’s favorite strategy illustrates Suzanne Clark’s point that a degree of the sentimental is with us yet: “Sympathetic personification gives a face to the audience we address, marking the juncture of rhetoric as figure and rhetoric as persuasion” (Bad 102). In other words, all discourse involves some strategies that nineteenth-century sentimentalists would recognize. The discourse of sentiment only more dramatically foregrounds the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ implicit in any text. Readmission of sentimentalism to scholarly discussion urges those of us who are scholars to grant this subversive tactic its due power--and to grant as well that other constructs, such as rationality and gender, are also rhetorical and not always stable. Today’s marks for sympathetic personification differ from the weeping and the “O!” and the genre-shifting Lucy often used, but current practice reveals itself, too, to be rhetorical and persuasive--and in some ways complexly sentimental.
I recommend that in our own day we take to heart the woman writer who disappears and then reappears in a very curious passage near the end of Lucy Howard’s Journal, for this occurrence suggests the profoundly resilient power of sentimental discourse. One might say that the event engenders sentimental strategies used 150 years later, for in recent readings of Anne Frank’s diary, to name just one, another woman writer with designs on our sentiments exceeds her own text to rise again and again in our imaginations. Lucy dies in childbirth out in the “great West” that Sigourney never visited--but that was hardly news in her day, though it's more unusual in ours. What is strange about Sigourney's account of this death is that Lucy’s passing does not occur at the end of the text. Oddly, the book whose title presents itself as Lucy’s journal continues for some pages post mortem.
A reader must repeatedly comb the last few pages to figure out that Lucy’s earthly life apparently leaves off with a six-line ode about "the homeless child" and "the unsheltered guest, / Whom thou on earth didst cheer." These are needy people who mourn at the death of their benefactor (341). This poem appears some three pages before the end of the journal. I am left to infer from these lines that Lucy herself has died because her newborn twins no longer have their own mother-benefactor.
Amazingly enough, another narrative persona nevertheless carries on, unaccountably continuing as if Lucy herself is still describing the scene from an out-of-body vantage point. First, this voice conflates religious devotion with a husband's adoration of his dead wife, for the bereaved man is described “as one amazed--one whom God hath forsaken” (342). It is as if God--and not the wife--has died. The narrator next shows Lucy’s own mother cradling two newborns at the dead woman’s bedside. We are given to understand that the grandmother will now raise Lucy's children. If this narrator is still indeed Lucy, speaking now from beyond the grave, her departing spirit assures us, in an elliptical way, that earthly life and love will carry on without her. Finally, the disembodied voice asserts that Lucy really is gone, "She lingered not" (343). But her spirit certainly abides--in her mother, in her earthly children, and in her text. Even death cannot keep a good woman writer down.
This passage from a disembodied Lucy is odd and unsettling. Much as I might wish it, however, even with the help of ongoing rescue work in the twenty-first century, such a passage will likely not entirely unsettle what have been fixed identities for ‘true womanhood’ or for ‘weak sentimentalism,' figures that have controlled nineteenth century women writers for so long. If we cannot completely shake the ghosts of sentimental epithets, perhaps we can work to rise above them and recognize the sentimental craft that connects an implicit ‘I’ in Sigourney's discourse to ‘you,’ that is, to us who now read her text a hundred and fifty years after Lucy would have died. Such sentimental connections are no mean feat. For if Sigourney's odes, her tirades, her collected works, and entries in Lucy’s journal do at times arrange themselves thematically inside parameters of nineteenth-century convention, yet current notions of ‘true womanhood’ cannot contain the restless antebellum woman poet who still reaches out to us through Sigourney's texts.
For almost all of today’s critics, Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s elegies have eclipsed all other issues in her work. Introducing Sigourney in her anthology of women poets, Cheryl Walker at first defends the woman, “much maligned as a sentimentalist,” and calls for more work on her, yet she emphasizes Sigourney’s reputation for “moralistic sentiments and her poems about death” (1991: 1). Barton Levi St. Armand has claimed that Sigourney was chief evangelist of the ‘Sentimental Love Religion’ which he says centered on obsessions with dead loved ones, especially children (43). To St. Armand, Mark Twain's Emmeline and Sigourney share the camp of “duplicitous popular culture” whose “sedulous imitation” Huck Finn cannot bring himself to perform (43). Emily Dickinson’s funeral crowns St. Armand’s chapter that compares Sigourney and Dickinson in “Dark Parade: Dickinson, Sigourney, and the Victorian Way of Death.” In a recent study that celebrates Emily Dickinson’s elegies, Elizabeth A. Petrino uses Sigourney’s commemorative verse as a foil for the twentieth-century's most famous nineteenth-century woman poet.
Nina Baym’s thoughtful 1988 study (revised in 1993), “Reinventing Lydia Sigourney,” takes Sigourney’s “elegiac project” seriously (390), categorizing the obituary verse by its various topics and acknowledging her power “to make suffering people feel better--and make them feel better fast” (389). Even in Baym’s ‘reinvention,’ however, Sigourney comes off as a dispenser of bromides. Baym’s criticism of sentimentalism is surprising since she herself earlier challenged conventional use of the modifier “sentimental” as too “often a term of judgment rather than of description, and the judgment it conveys is of course adverse” (Woman’s Fiction 24). These and other critics provide useful information about Sigourney as elegist, but each finally reinscribes a partial view of Sigourney.
I refer to Knight Library at the University of Oregon which has large and useful holdings by nineteenth-century popular writers.
Clarke writes of Hemans that “American readers in particular, were relentless in pursuit of her,” noting that “she lived and worked in a ‘constant excitement, homage’ [Hemans’ own words] which made her profoundly uneasy” (50).
Dwight’s ‘compliment’ recalls similar backhanded praise in James Nathan’s 1873 introduction to Love Letters of Margaret Fuller. Here Nathan asserted that love letters between himself and Fuller would reveal “that great and gifted as she was as a writer, she was no less so in the soft and tender emotions of a true woman’s heart” (5).
Among those who do look carefully at topics of Sigourney’s poetry, besides Baym and Paula Bennett, Patricia Okker notes in “Sara Josepha Hale, Lydia Sigourney, and the Poetic Tradition in Two Nineteenth-century Women’s Magazines,” that Sigourney's poetry, “rather than focus on women’s passivity as the genteel tradition prescribes, … repeatedly insists on women’s strength” (37). When Sigourney addressed themes about the West, she stands out in contrast to Alice and Phoebe Cary, says Steven Olson. He notes in The Prairie in Nineteenth-Century American Poetry that “unlike the Carys, Sigourney does not stress the role of white women in the West. Rather, she emphasizes the difficulties faced in the wilderness by Indian women” (82). “Furthermore,” Olson continues, “unlike Bryant, whose ‘Monument Mountain’ remains purely romantic, she focuses on some real hardships confronting native women” (83). Annie Finch has virtually stood alone in taking Sigourney seriously enough to read formal qualities of her lines. Finch traces Romantic and sentimental traditions there, unfolding multiple identifications she calls Sigourney’s “sentimental attitude” which will for the poet and the reader “bind her to her society in a nonindividuated, nonegotistical way like the emotions of Christian faith and parental or filial love” (1988:12). Apostrophe is one of Sigourney’s most effective means, says Finch, of attracting and holding her audience.
The biblical version gives more space than Sigourney to situating the prophet’s message in a conventional historical way, noting contemporary kings and an earthquake which took place at about the time of its writing.
Baym does try to counter Ann Douglas and others who follow Gordon Haight’s sarcastic caricature of Sigourney in the 1930s as “the most private and domesticated of antebellum women authors,” for Baym elaborates on the broader “moral republicanism” of Sigourney’s political verse (404, 403). Moreover, Baym emphasizes what she sees as the “public arena and. . . practical goal” of even the consolatory verse (389)--over “any immediate occasion of death” even in Sigourney’s most poignant memento mori poems (388).
In other texts, Sigourney sounds more consistently like a mother. The adviser / narrator in Letters to Young Ladies, as I have noted, takes a maternal tone. Numbers of her poems and stories also speak to mothers, and as we might expect, in them she will appeal to other more familiar conventions of nineteenth century women’s roles. However, she advocates traditional aspects of womanhood less often than one might anticipate. Of the 100 titles in her 1846 collection, Poems, fewer than twenty refer to wives, sisters, and mothers, or include the names of women.
An eighteenth- and nineteenth-century feminist tradition of women preachers in Methodist and Quaker groups is the subject of Kristina Krueger’s recent book, The Reader’s Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse. Krueger focuses on British novelists Hannah More, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot, asserting that the “paradoxical relationship of female speakers and writers to patriarchal discourse cannot be overemphasized.” Some insist the link amounts to “immasculation” for women, but Krueger emphasizes the “dialectic and opposition” offered by women who “mounted vigorous resistance to domestic ideology on the basis of scripture and evangelical teaching” (6-7).
Sandra A. Zagarell in her unpublished paper, “Collective Identities in Lydia Sigourney’s Lucy Howard’s Journal and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” considers a general subjectivity in Lucy Howard’s Journal, one akin to Campbell’s “man in general” of sensationalist psychology. Zagarell delivered this paper in the special session, “The Collective Subject in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” at the 1995 MLA convention.
A star pupil, Lucy undertakes this project at fourteen, persuaded by her grandfather to quit her own schooling in order to learn “the domestic science of making home happy” (62).
Older than most brides of her day, Sigourney was married at twenty-eight to recently widowed Charles Sigourney who already had three children and was a blunt, rather pedantic man thirteen years older than she. He was a well-born, not always successful Hartford merchant and banker (Haight 15-16, 21). I have found his pocket notebook among Lydia Huntley Sigourney’s papers at the Connecticut Historical Society in which he lists her faults including insubordination--and among these papers is also a four-page complaint against her writing and publishing, in Charles Sigourney’s script, a document which reads like a legal indictment.
On the fiftieth anniversary of Anne Frank’s death, for example, a March 1995 National Public Radio report concluded with a number of young teenage women's voices reading excerpts from Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl. The last to read was a young woman refugee from Bosnia whose own displaced sense of self, as I imagined her, served to multiply the personae-in-process in the text and the power of Anne’s words, as well as serving to extend the life of Frank’s text. Anne Frank wrote,
It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.Yours, Anne (237)
“I must uphold my ideals,” Anne Frank insisted just days before German forces arrested all the occupants of her Amsterdam “Secret Annexe” (243). When she signs herself “Yours, Anne,” this is an ‘I’ one must take to heart.
Samuel McChord Crothers wrote Gentle Reader, an affectionate book on the audience of sentimental discourse. Crothers described this reader in 1903 as a masculine-gendered lover of books. “There is no one in all the world so careless of the distinctions between Meum and Tuum,” he claimed (vii).
- “Anne Frank Remembered.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. WNYC, New York. 15 March, 1995.
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