"It Should Be a Family Thing": Family, Nation, and Republicanism in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's a New-England Tale and the Linwoods

By VanDette, Emily | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), March 2005 | Go to article overview

"It Should Be a Family Thing": Family, Nation, and Republicanism in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's a New-England Tale and the Linwoods


VanDette, Emily, ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


Trying to bridge her father's federalism and the Jacksonian democracy of her own generation, Catharine Maria Sedgwick disseminated her own brand of republican virtue throughout her prolific career as a writer of domestic advice literature and fiction. A federalist-turned-democrat, and a Calvinist-turned-Unitarian, Sedgwick clearly embodied processes of synthesis and transformation. She sought to bring together the republican values of virtue, selflessness, and patriotism, and the democratic principles of equality, opportunity, and independence. Throughout her career, she grappled with the clash between the restrictive codes of her Calvinist upbringing and the post-Enlightenment appeal to human reason and rationalism that informed the nation's founding) In her fictional depictions of the American family--its values, dynamics, and governance--Sedgwick imagines resolutions to these ideological conflicts.

With her configurations of family life in A New-England Tale (1822), Sedgwick attempts to persuade her readers that a healthy republican nation/family must raise independent-thinking, self-determining citizens/ children. More than a decade later, in response to national political embattlement concerning states' rights versus federal authority, Sedgwick's allegorical portrayal of an American family as the American nation in The Linwoods (1836) addresses the conflicts that arise when self-determining citizens exercise their independence. In both A New-England Tale and The Linwoods, Sedgwick explores the style of authority, as well as the political, religious, and social codes that make "good" republican families, nations, and citizens. While both novels advocate a Lockean paradigm for familial/national governance, it is not until The Linwoods that Sedgwick attempts to imagine resolutions to the conflicting agendas of rationalist independence and filial obedience/patriotism.

In this article, I map out the philosophical inquiries and literary strategies Sedgwick would later develop more fully in The Linwoods. I begin my analysis by examining Sedgwick's earliest attempt to address familial and national governance and authority in her first novel. My overall argument is that while Sedgwick advocated a somewhat simplistic, idealistic policy of self-determination in A New-England Tale, she later adopted conventions of historical narrative to depict more compellingly and provocatively the family as a microcosm of the new republican nation, and to interrogate the practicality of rationalist ideology in national governance in The Linwoods. Given the shifts in national politics that took place during the years between the publications of A New-England Tale and The Linwoods, particularly the willingness of factions to put the founding ideology of self-determination to the test and challenge the national government, Sedgwick asks a timely question in her Linwood family allegory: to what extent can republican national/familial unions actually function under a policy of total self-determination? Tracing the literary and ideological shifts in Sedgwick's novels exposes or re-acquaints those of us interested in nineteenth-century American literature and women's intellectual history to the implications of a writer altering her stylistic and political practices in order to address the real concerns of nation and family through her fiction. (2)

A New-England Tale of Tyrannical Family Governance

After leaving the Calvinist church and converting to Unitarianism in 1821, Sedgwick set out to write a religious pamphlet exposing the hypocrisies of the denomination she abandoned. When her attack on Calvinism led to depictions of distinctly New England settings and characters, her project became her first novel, A New-England Tale; or, Sketches of New-England Character and Manners. Because A New-England Tale began as a religious tract, its characters are more transparent than in her other works of fiction, and her didactic messages more explicit. …

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