Lydia Sigourney: Prolific Writer and Poet
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. 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.
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.”
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes