On a funny, telling story that was way ahead of its time.
In the course of her long and very diverse literary career, one that stretched from the early 1820s through the outset of the Civil War, I don’t think Catharine Maria Sedgwick topped Hope Leslie (1827), which is on my short list for the most complex and crucial works of American historical fiction. But if we remember Sedgwick only for that novel, or for any of her other interesting historical and moral fictions (such as her debut novel A New-England Tale ), we might well lose sight of her equally significant ability to engage with contemporary stories and issues, and in a style and voice as fresh and vital as those topics. I don’t know that any story of hers, or any other antebellum American literary work for that matter, does so more successfully than “Cacoethes Scribendi” (1830).
Sedgwick’s Latin title translates roughly as the “insatiable desire to write,” or perhaps even the “incurable disease of writing,” and her story features at least three characters who seem to suffer from versions of that malady: her two romantic protagonists, Alice and Ralph (especially Alice, but Ralph likewise dabbles in writing among many other pursuits); and, most complicatedly, Alice’s mother, Mrs. Courland, who “had imbibed a literary taste in Boston” and “had some literary ambition too,” but “had been effectually prevented, by the necessities of a narrow income, and by the unceasing wants of five teasing boys, from indulging her literary inclinations.” As the story unfolds, Alice similarly finds herself torn between her own literary ambition and her blossoming romance with Ralph—and Mrs. Courland finds herself torn once more, this time between her hopes for her daughter’s career and her dreams of her daughter’s marriage.
I won’t spoil the ending (to this or any of the week’s works), and will simply add that all those questions of writing and marriage, professional and familial roles, are given yet another layer of meaning when we consider that Sedgwick herself remained unmarried throughout her career, and late in that career published a somewhat didactic novel entitled Married or Single (1857) that tackles such questions head on. But what truly distinguishes “Cacoethes” is that it’s as funny as it is pointed, as wry (skewing and sympathizing with all of its focal characters in turn) as it is weighted. More than a century and a half before Ally McBeal famously portrayed a woman torn between career and family, work and love, Sedgwick did it with just as much wit and wisdom, and helped inaugurate 19th century New England women’s writing in the process.
Next writer and work tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other under-read writers or works you’d share?
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