Writing life sketches / interviews covering well-known poets, philosophers, and others keeps me in touch with history and current events.
Early America is rich in literary historical figures. From Anne Bradstreet to Philip Freneau to Emily Dickinson, many poets not only enjoyed a thriving career, but also, with the exception of Dickinson, of course, gained considerable recognition in their own life times. However, some of those who enjoyed celebrity in their own time have not stood the test of time famewise or through critical acclaim. Lydia Sigourney belongs to this latter group.
Early Life and Marriage
Born in 1791 to Ezekiel Huntley and Zerviah Wentworth and named Lydia Howard after her father’s first wife, this poet achieved fame in her own lifetime, unlike Emily Dickinson, whose name became widely recognized only after her death. Lydia experienced a happy childhood and remained devoted to her parents, and by her writing was able to support them in their later years.
In 1811, Lydia and Daniel Wadsworth established a girl’s school in Hartford. Wadsworth helped her secure funding and pupils for this school, urging daughters of his friends to attend. In 1815, Wadsworth was instrumental in the publication of Lydia’s first book, Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse.
After her marriage to Charles Sigourney in 1819, Lydia retired from teaching and wrote only in her leisure time. Her husband did not want her to publish, so when she did publish, she did so anonymously. However, after her husband’s business started to fail, Lydia started to write seriously in pursuit of financial gain to help her husband and also her parents.
Success as a Writer
Sigourney’s writing met with great success. According to Sandra A. Zagarell’s biographical sketch appearing in The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fourth Edition,
When Lafayette, the French hero of the American Revolutionary War, visited the United States in the 1820s, a procession of schoolchildren with wreaths proclaiming “NOUS AIMONS LA FAYETTE” greeted him in the city of Hartford, Connecticut. The phrase was the refrain of a poem in his honor by Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney.
The Lafayette event characterizes Sigourney’s position as a writer. Her poetry, like her prose, was about public subjects—history, slavery, missionary work, as well as current events. But it also treated personal matters, especially loss and death, as experiences common to all. In contrast to Dickinson or Emerson, Sigourney wrote for popular consumption; thus her work expressed a communal ethic based on compassionate Christianity and on conservative republicanism.
Sigourney was prolific in her writing and by the time of her death in 1865 had published at least fifty books. She was an aggressive business woman, who was able to negotiate lucrative contracts that resulted in substantial royalties. Sigourney's two books The Girl’s Reading Book (1838) and The Boy’s Reading Book (1839) were adopted for use in the public school system.
One might wonder why such an accomplished writer and skillful business negotiator who was enormously famous in her own day is no longer recognized. Part of the answer lies in the types of works she published; her moralizing is viewed today as old-fashioned, irrelevant, and in some circles just plain wrong. Her only biographer calls her a “hack writer.”
Sample Poem: "Indian Names"
The following poem offers a taste of Sigourney’s style as it demonstrates her mindset and interest in topics for exploring.
‘How can the red men be forgotten, while so many of our states and territories, bays, lakes, and rivers, are indelibly stamped by names of their giving?’
Ye say they all have passed away,
That noble race and brave,
That their light canoes have vanished
From off the crested wave;
That ’mid the forests where they roamed
There rings no hunter shout,
But their name is on your waters,
Ye may not wash it out.
’Tis where Ontario’s billow
Like Ocean’s surge is curled,
Where strong Niagara’s thunders wake
The echo of the world.
Where red Missouri bringeth
Rich tribute from the west,
And Rappahannock sweetly sleeps
On green Virginia’s breast.
Ye say their cone-like cabins,
That clustered o’er the vale,
Have fled away like withered leaves
Before the autumn gale,
But their memory liveth on your hills,
Their baptism on your shore,
Your everlasting rivers speak
Their dialect of yore.
Old Massachusetts wears it,
Within her lordly crown,
And broad Ohio bears it,
Amid his young renown;
Connecticut hath wreathed it
Where her quiet foliage waves,
And bold Kentucky breathed it hoarse
Through all her ancient caves.
Wachuset hides its lingering voice
Within his rocky heart,
And Alleghany graves its tone
Throughout his lofty chart;
Monadnock on his forehead hoar
Doth seal the sacred trust,
Your mountains build their monument,
Though ye destroy their dust.
Ye call these red-browned brethren
The insects of an hour,
Crushed like the noteless worm amid
The regions of their power;
Ye drive them from their father’s lands,
Ye break of faith the seal,
But can ye from the court of Heaven
Exclude their last appeal?
Ye see their unresisting tribes,
With toilsome step and slow,
On through the trackless desert pass
A caravan of woe;
Think ye the Eternal’s ear is deaf?
His sleepless vision dim?
Think ye the soul’s blood may not cry
From that far land to him?
© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes