Married or Single?

Married or Single?

Married or Single?

Married or Single?


Married or Single?, published in 1857, was Catharine Maria Sedgwick's final novel and a fitting climax to the career of one of antebellum America's first and most successful woman writers. Insisting on women's right to choose whether to marry, Married or Single? rejects the stigma of spinsterhood and offers readers a wider range of options for women in society, recognizing their need and ability to determine the course of their lives.

Sedgwick's touching, witty, and shrewdly observant novel centers on Grace Herbert, a New York City socialite who must negotiate the marriage market and also learn to develop her own character and take control of her own destiny. The story merges a wide range of popular American literary forms--including the seduction novel, the conversion narrative, the novel of education, and social reform fiction--and provides a window on many of the cultural and political anxieties of the 1850s beyond marriage, including immigration, slavery, and urban poverty. Sedgwick's lifelong concern with women's duties to the nation as citizens is demonstrated through her depiction of exemplary women of various backgrounds and circumstances who illustrate the idea that becoming a worthy human being is more important than becoming a wife, especially in a democratic society.


Our story will not have been in vain, if it has done any thing
towards raising the single women of our country to the
comparatively honorable level they occupy in England—
any thing to drive away the smile already fading from
the lips of all but the vulgar, at the name of “old maid.”


In the preface to her final novel, Married or Single?, published in 1857, Catharine Maria Sedgwick declared that her latest work had an ambitious goal: to change American attitudes about single women, from ridicule to respect. Having spent decades in the spotlight as a celebrated author who was also a single woman, Sedgwick had both the literary and personal experience needed to accomplish this mission. In 1834, on the occasion of her forty-fifth birthday, Sedgwick wrote in her journal: “I have enjoyed far more of the world’s respect than I ever expected, or believe I can honestly say, care for” (Kelley 148). That same year she was included in The National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, alongside such luminaries as George Washington, James Fenimore Cooper, Chief Justice John Marshall, Washington Irving, and Daniel Webster; indeed, the only other woman mentioned in the volume was Martha Washington. Her previous full-length works answered the call for a national literature and had been understood by her contemporaries as a major contribution to this urgent civic project. In 1846 Edgar Allan Poe pronounced, “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” (105). The novellas of Sedgwick’s mid-career, likewise, were written in response to a personal and national concern over the question of how to prepare . . .

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