Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Science in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Science in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's Hope Leslie

Article excerpt

"Philosophers may inquire into the process of nature, and find out, if they can, how such sudden changes are produced, though, after all, I fancy their inquiries will turn out like the experiment of the inquisitive boy, who cut open the drum to find the sound; but I love to lend my imagination to poets' dreams, and to fancy nature has her myriads of little spirits.... "

Catharine Maria Sedgwick (99)

So writes the colonial American Puritan Hope Leslie to her beloved Everell Fletcher in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's novel Hope Leslie (1827). When the young woman writes of what she sees as the vain work of "philosophers, "who might cut open the drum without realizing they have destroyed the source of the music, she is writing off those also known as "men of science." (1) Thus the paragraph introduces a topic central to the novel--science and its relationship to literature. Not insignificant, the letter addressed to Everell Fletcher also includes Hope's narration of her tutor Cradock's snakebite and Cradock's healing by a native woman, Nelema; and it is immediately followed by another letter to Everell Fletcher, this one from Hope's aunt Bertha Grafton, who expostulates upon her philosophies and daily practice of medicine. Contained in a single chapter, these letters encapsulate attitudes toward science Sedgwick promotes through the writing (and reading) of the novel. Rather than simply the anti-science stance Hope inscribes in her letter to Everell, the novel exposes the complexities of "science" and the discovery and dissemination of scientific "truths." In spite of what institutions, scientists, society or culture promote and believe to be scientific truths--about medicine, race, or gender, for example--Sedgwick suggests individuals may accept or reject those truths and may come to discover new ones. Science is meaningful as a field or method of study meant to improve culture, but it, like the arena of history, must be seen as one in which truths are in part created and presented through persuasive narratives. This attitude toward the individual and science upholds novels and novel reading as a viable means of coming to truth and effecting cultural change.


Among the many native American characters Sedgwick presents in the novel is Nelema, a female healer who successfully treats an Englishman, Cradock, for snakebite. As a result of the native's practice--employing methods unfamiliar to the English but successful nonetheless--Nelema is accused and convicted of witchcraft and forced to leave the colonial Massachusetts community. The narrator makes clear that Nelema's humanistic action is favored by the novel's title heroine, Hope Leslie; thus, the scene may be read as one in which Sedgwick questions the authority of patriarchal medical and legal institutions, the truths and judgments they proclaim, and the power they exert over undeserving but victimized individuals. (2) In recent years, Sedgwick's work has been discussed primarily for its political commentary on native American removal from the east to the western frontier during the 1820s and the natives' potential assimilation into Anglo culture; interracial marriage in the novel has been an integral part of this discussion. Another scholarly concern has been its presentations of women's roles. To this commentary, we would add that consideration of Sedgwick's novel--with attention to her depiction of "science"--distinguishes it from other romances published during the decade and broadens the relevance of her work to critics and students today. (3) "Science" in Sedgwick's novel, we assert, helps readers to understand the nature of knowledge that undergirds not only institutions such as law and medicine but also novel reading. (4)

We employ the word "science," then, not to refer to disciplines now considered science, but in the more general ways it was understood in Sedgwick's day. As the Oxford English Dictionary makes dear, prior to the mid-nineteenth century the word was used frequently to refer to "knowledge acquired by study of or mastery of any department of learning" (emphasis added)--not simply those disciplines which later in the century came to be seen as the sciences. …

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