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| Today, as I was discussing grief with some women who had recent losses, I remembered Lydia Sigourney and her 19th Century writing. My grandmother's sister was named Sigourney Jane out of respect and admiration for Mrs. Sigourney. My mother said she didn't know if Aunt Sigourney was trying to live up to the name or trying to live it down, but she felt certain her name influenced Aunt Sigourney's life and contributed to the development of her very strong personality. In search of more information about Lydia Sigourney, I found my way to the courthouse in Sigourney, Iowa in the late 1980's. I saw her portrait on the second-floor wall above the stairs, but little information accompanied the painting. I went to the newspaper office across the street from the courthouse and visited with the editor to learn more. As I recall, none of Mrs. Sigourney's publications was available in Sigourney, Iowa, her namesake. Her work had long been out of print.
Some years later, I read a feminist essay which asserted that Lydia Sigourney deserves a second look. The writer, whose name I no longer recall, suggested the dismissal of Mrs. Sigourney's work was part of a general dismissal of female writers of the 19th century by male publishers and critics, and as such, was an act of sexism rather than literary thinking. This whetted my already piqued curiosity. Now, with the internet, I can examine a significant portion of her work and related criticism. My goal is to understand her popularity and loss thereof and to understand her influence in my own life.
Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney was born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1791 and died in 1865. She was the only child of working-class parents. Her father was employed by a Mrs. Lathrop as gardener and handyman. Mrs. Lathrop initiated Lydia's education, and her wealthy relatives in Hartford continued supporting her education after Mrs. Lathrop's death. Thus Lydia was able to prepare herself for her long, productive writing life. Lydia Howard Huntley married and gave birth to 5 children, 2 of whom survived to adulthood. She was devoted to her parents, devoted to her faith, and her writing expressed ideals of social consciousness rooted in her Christianity, and some of her writing was clearly feminist. Publication of her work was driven, in part, as a means to provide financial support for her parents. Her husband, a merchant, actively discouraged publication of her work, but, she published anyway.
Lydia Sigourney advocated universal education and respect for all people including African Americans, Native Americans, the poor, and women. Her ideal included bringing everyone into the fold of Christianity. She promoted and demonstrated her commitment to these ideals through her writing, her financial choices, and her work as a teacher. Her writing took many forms including educational materials, essays, and poetry. Her subject matter was broad including history, current events and personal issues such as death. Her work experienced enormous popularity nation-wide among readers in the emerging middle class. People of Iowa named a town for her. There is a street named for her in Hartford, Connecticut, her home throughout her adulthood. During her lifetime, roughly ninety percent of the US population lived and worked on farms, and this included my great-grandparents. In cities, however, industrialization was rapidly moving forward. Poetry at that time filled the place of recorded music in today's culture. It was printed in daily newspapers and magazines and widely read. My grandmother, who was born in 1880, clipped poetry, tacked it above the kitchen sink and memorized it while she washed dishes. She recited poems spontaneously like people quote popular lyrics today. Lydia Sigourney was a super-star among poets of the day. Her writing expressed something vital to her readers. She wrote about their concerns. This biographical information clarifies for me why my great aunt was named for her, as Mrs. Sigourney espoused the values taught to me by my family. It does not explain why none of Mrs. Sigourney's writing remained in print.
Very early in my reading about Lydia Sigourney, I encountered the word "sentimental" describing her writing, and this was used to dismiss it. So, what does that mean? Sentimental: "dealing with feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way." Self-indulgent: "characterized by doing or intending to do exactly what one wants especially when this involves pleasure or idleness." (New Oxford American Dictionary.)
I see a huge inconsistency between Mrs. Sigourney's intentions and this dismissal of her work. It appears the critics are saying her writing is emotional and self-serving. Actually, the term sentimental describes a literary movement prior to the Civil War, also described as didactic and representing spiritual convention of the time. I have read two books of her poetry and some criticism. Her Christian values and concern for others are evident throughout. Following is one example:
The Lost Darling
She was my idol. Night and day, to scan
The fine expansion of her form, and mark
The unfolding mind, like vernal rose-bud, start
To sudden beauty, was my chief delight.
To find her fairy footsteps following mine,
Her hand upon my garments, or her lip
Long sealed to mine, and in the watch of night
The quiet breath of innocence to feel
Soft on my cheek, was such a full content
Of happiness, as none but mothers know.
Her voice was like some tiny harp that yields
To the slight fingered breeze, and as it held
Brief converse with her doll, or playful soothed
The moaning kitten, or with patient care
Conned o'er the alphabet but most of all,
Its tender cadence in her evening prayer
Thrilled on the ear like some ethereal tone
Heard in sweet dreams.
But now alone I sit,
Musing of her, and dew with mournful tears
Her little robes, that once with woman's pride
I wrought, as if there were a need to deck
What God hath made so beautiful. I start,
Half fancying from her empty crib there comes
A restless sound, and breathe the accustomed words
"Hush! Hush thee, dearest." Then I bend and weep
As though it were a sin to speak to one
Whose home is with the angels.
Gone to God!
And yet I wish I had not seen the pang
That wrung her features, nor the ghastly white
Settling around her lips. I would that Heaven
Had taken its own, like some transplanted flower
Blooming in all its freshness.
Gone to God!
Be still, my heart! what could a mother's prayer,
In all the wildest ecstasies of hope,
Ask for its darling like the bliss of Heaven?
In this poem, Mrs. Sigourney focuses on dealing with the loss of a child, a common occurrence of her era, and one she experienced with her first three children. In this, as well as other poems on the subject, she presents the struggle between religious faith and grief with an apparent goal of resolving inherent conflict rather than accepting, focusing on, or clarifying the conflict. Other poets of the time express a different view. For example, Emily Dickinson wrote:
Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.
This could not be more different in its approach to the topic. It seems to me that Mrs. Sigourney is using her writing to control emotions, to make them conform to a set of principles and beliefs, where Ms. Dickinson, is pointing out contradictions between those beliefs and real experience. In today's largely secular age, it makes sense that the Dickinson approach would receive acceptance where Mrs. Sigourney's work would be left behind. I realize the present age also contains a strong, conservative religious movement, and wonder if Mrs. Sigourney would find acceptance among its members.
Lydia Sigourney's writing reminds me of common attitudes about crying. As a child, I was taught "big girls don't cry" by the women in my family, through positive reinforcement and imitation. They would catch me before I started to cry over an injury or event and would say "there's a good big girl for not crying." I was also given didactic literature, very similar to Mrs. Sigourney's writing and encouraged to read and discuss it with my parents. Like Mrs. Sigourney, I tried to conform to a strict set of rules defining "lady" which assert that I am to hold my personal experience secondary to the idea that God, and therefore events, are always right, and direct expression of personal pain is unacceptable. These rules are intended to control, or contain emotion rather than to express, or heal. When, as a young woman, I was confronted with intense grief, these ideals were not helpful. At first, I could not tolerate Emily Dickinson, I was so steeped in didactic thinking. As I abandoned the "no cry rule," and the "no talk rule," my thinking was freed from the idea that I should be happy about my loss because God willed it, and in the process, I came to understand Emily Dickinson's assertion.
Looking now at Lydia Sigourney's writing, I recognize her ideas were passed on to me, though not through her specific writing. I suspect my great Aunt Sigourney railed against some of these ideals while also trying to conform and this might explain some contradictions in her personality. I see that Mrs. Sigourney's writing is not self-indulgent, but instead, coming from an impulse to enforce social convention and spread traditional Christian values. Her writing represented external social control. I see Emily Dickinson railing against the emotional attitudes expressed by Lydia Sigourney, speaking from a place of inner control. I suspect this is the central conflict of American culture. Mrs. Sigourney's career was firmly launched in Hartford at the time of Harriett Beecher Stowe's birth. I wonder if Lydia Sigourney's expressed ideals had any influence on the formation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's attitudes presented in her book, Uncle Tom's Cabin. That question just may move me to more exploration.
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