“an intense ambition to be at the head of my class”

Catharine Maria Sedgwick of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was a widely read novelist during her lifetime. She was the daughter of Theodore Sedgwick, a prominent lawyer, judge, and politician, and Pamela Dwight of the renown New England family. Persuaded to recall her “fragmentary childhood” in the late 1790s for her niece Alice, she began her Recollections with this paragraph.

My dear little Alice,— … If you live to be an old woman, as I now am, you may like to rake in the ashes of the past, and if, perchance, you find some fire still smouldering there, you may feel a glow from it. It is not till we get deep into age that we feel by how slight a tenure we hold on to the memories of those that come after us, and not till then that we are conscious of an earnest desire to brighten the links of the chain that binds us to those who have gone before, and to keep it fast and strong.

This is what she wrote about her education.

Education in the common sense I had next to none, but there was much chance seed dropped in the fresh furrow, and some of it was good seed, and some of it, I may say, fell on good ground. My father was absorbed in political life, but his affections were at home. My mother’s life was eaten up with calamitous sicknesses. My sisters were just at that period when girls’ eyes are dazzled with their own glowing future. I had constantly before me examples of goodness, and from all sides admonitions to virtue, but no regular instruction. I went to district schools … no one dictated my studies or overlooked my progress. I remember feeling an intense ambition to be at the head of my class, and generally being there. Our minds were not weakened by too much study; reading, spelling, and [Nathaniel] Dwight’s Geography were the only paths of knowledge into which we were led. Yes, I did go in a slovenly way through the first four rules of arithmetic, and learned the names of the several parts of speech, and could parse glibly. … I enjoyed unrestrained the pleasures of a rural childhood; I went with herds of school-girls nutting, and berrying, and bathing by moon-light, and wading by daylight in the lovely Housatonic that flows through my father’s meadows. …

Think of a girl of eight spending a whole summer working a wretched sampler which was not even a tolerable specimen of its species! But even as early as that, my father, whenever he was at home, kept me up and at his side till nine o’clock in the evening, to listen to him while he read aloud to the family [David] Hume, or Shakespeare, or Don Quixote, or [S. Butler’s] Hudibras! …

The walking to our school-house was often bad, and I took my lunch (how well I remember the bread and butter, and “nut-cakes,” and cold sausage, and nuts, and apples, that made the miscellaneous contents of that enchanting lunch basket!).

Works by Catharine Maria Sedgwick are listed here. The first paragraph of her memoir appears here. The description of her education is from In the Words of Women, pages 231-32.

posted July 15th, 2013 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Education, Sedgwick, Catharine Maria

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