Judith Sargent Murray Society
JSM's dates: 1751-1820

Judith Sargent Murray's Letter 909



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This letter was written to Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood, Maine's first woman novelist. Although Judith takes Sally to task here, she was instrumental in opening literary doors for Sally--the next generation of American writers.

Letter 909
To Mrs K— of York
Boston Franklin Place 25th of November 1800

My Dear Mrs K—

Since the receipt of your very flattering epistle to me, a multiplicity of little vexatious incidents, all of them singly, perhaps, lighter than vanity, but sufficiently formidable in the aggregate have rapidly succeeded each other, rendering it absolutely impossible for me, to pen those responses, which, however, glowed at my heart, and were frequently upon my lips. The ability to contribute to the advancement of Mrs K— would, most assuredly, give me high satisfaction — I have exhibited her prospectus to the Circle of my friends, and I regret that the inclosed paper returns so few suffrages. Some Ladies never read novels! Others prefer taking them from a circulating library, and a third class, not condescending to an apology, think it enough to say that they do not choose to become subscribers. This is not the age, or rather the Country, of literary patronage; and Columbian authors, with a very few exceptions, must look to posterity, for that harvest of fame beneath the umbrageous perfume of which, they may have hoped to indulge the most exquisite feelings of the soul. Yes indeed, I have read your Julia — many of my nights, and not a few of my days, have been appropriated to novel reading, and I attend with peculiar avidity to indigenous productions. Your work is generally interesting, it seized irresistibly upon my faculties, and I did not relinquish the volume, until I had devoured every line. Grammatical errors are, comparatively, bagatelles — they may be typographical, or the result of that rapidity of thought, which wrapped in contemplation of the original beauties of its subject, eagerly hastens to sketch, and to fill its design, without that minute attention to subordinate rules, which a slower intellect exultingly parades — yet I would not depreciate the value of finished compositions: when brilliant talents both invent, and polish, the effect is perfect. I only observe, that a single stroke of native genius, would dash from my view, or at least richly atone for those pretty aberrations, which the arbitrary regulator of syntax, denominates unpardonable faults. I am perfectly satisfied with the period at which you seem, indirectly, to have fixed the expiration of my abode in the prison of mortality. Perhaps you do not know, that thirty years hence, should I be held n durance untill then, I shall be upwards of threesome years and ten, which is, you will recollect, the extreme boundary, beyond which the child of humanity may not pass, without augmenting labour and sorrow. But while I fully acquit you, my very lovely, very partial panegyrist, of the most remote design to abridge the number of my days, I have, in truth, a very formidable accusation to profer against you. In your preface, you positively declare, that you have ever hated female politicians! — Surely you will, upon reflection, confess that you have expressed yourself rather too strongly, nor can I forbear acknowledging an opinion, that the passage in question concedes abundantly too much. May not a female be so circumstanced, as to render a correct, and even profound knowledge of politicks, the pride and glory of her character? How egregiously deficient would that woman appear, who, succeeding, by the constituted authority of her country, to sovereign power, should be unable to investigate, to direct, and to balance the various views, and interests of her subjects. Peter the Great, Czar of Russia, was indebted to his Consort, for much of the wisdom of his government, and many of the best regulations which he established, are of female origin. The virtuous, and amiable Charlotte, upon the British Throne, is said to be deeply versed in politicks. — and the endeared companion of our beloved President, hath, through every stage of his useful, splendid, and eventful public life, been uniformly considered as a most respectable and very able Coadjutor — By the depth of her knowledge, the perspecuity of her reasoning and the obvious justice of her conclusions, questions the most intricate, and portentous, have been rendered luminous, and she has received the homage of the most enlightened Columbian politicians. Does Mrs K— hate those illustrious Women? Again, can knowledge even as it relates to common life, ever become burdensome? and what is a knowledge of politicks, but a capability of distinguishing that which will probably advance the real interest of the Community, and ought a female to become odious, or even to be subject to censure, merely because she happens to understand what would best conduce to the prosperity of her Country? Are not women equally concerned with men in the public weal? — or, to adopt the manner of Shylock in the play — who, when speaking of genes, is permitted to utter some passable truths, doth not a woman possess those sensibilities, that will be outraged at the wrongs, which a tyrant may inflict, hath she not eyes to weep for the misfortunes, that a ruinous administration may create; hath she not hands to be manacled, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions all of which will keenly suffer from the rod of the oppressor? Is she not fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer, and winter, as a man is? Yea, verily, and if you would not confine us to a state of idiotism, we shall assuredly enquire into the causes [and] effects, and our researches will furnish us with a knowledge of the resources of national respectability, or they will unveil to our view, the origin of those calamities which despoil and enslave us. But grant, that insulated from the male part of our species, we were exempted, as individuals, from all those evils that are consequent upon treacherous, or mistaken measures of government; yet, would not the tenderness which we are all allowed to cultivate, naturally give us deeply to feel for a Father, a Brother, a Husband, or a Son, and would not sorrows inflicted by the best affections of the heart, justify a critical investigation of existing circumstances?

            Had you expressed your disapprobation of an ostentatious, or intrusive display of patriotism and political knowledge, you would, I presume, have met with the concurrence of every sensible mind, but surely, my ingenious friend, an indulgence of that affected ignorance, and childish imbecility, which is supposed the characteristic of the female world, looks with no friendly aspect upon the interests of society — I will confess that I am jealous for the honor of our sex, that I have thought, and that I still believe that women are capable of the most arduous achievements, and this too, without neglecting their most appropriate duties — An acquaintance of mine, who hath lately emerged from the deep glooms of misfortune, merits a place in the most splendid records of worthy females — in connexion with her husband, she appeared nearly lost to every exertion, they continued together untill every shilling of their patrimony was expended; necessity ultimately produced a temporary separation, and although destitute of the aids of education, and deriving assistance only from her own capacious mind, from books adventitiously snatched, and from judicious observations, she has suddenly, and astonishingly, burst upon her friends, the respectable preceptress of a large, and well regulated collection of young Ladies. Plain sewing, and embroidery, reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, geography, and painting are all successfully taught by this respectable woman — She is an admirable proficient in vocal music and, self taught, performs enchantingly upon the flute and upon the guitar which are the only instruments that chance hath thrown in her way — She has established in her school the most excellent rules — three assistant Misses, and a Librarian, elected weekly, and in rotation, are appointed to preside at the assembling and departure of the pupils, to distribute the books for which they become responsible, and to aid in the support of that Order, which is beautifully, and uniformly preserved in this little seminary — As these delegates always succeed to office by genuine merit, they rationally plume themselves upon their elevation, and they are distinguished by a knot of ribbon, worn on the left side next to the heart. Once their amiable Preceptress consumed her mornings in bed, but now the early dawn, with each succeeding hour in the day, witnesses her efforts to accelerate the improvement of the young persons committed to her tuition, and while she has thus raised herself to a state of dignified independence, she is justly considered as an honour to human nature.

            Passing lately in the stage coach from Hampstead to Boston the passengers, while they seemed completely wrapped up in considerations originating wholly in self, observed, as if by common consent, a general silence — The features of one gentleman, in particular, appeared so immovably fixed in, if I may thus express myself, a vacant kind of contemplation, that I concluded nothing less than the upsetting the vehicle, would have softened this frigidity. We were thus circumstanced, when we happened to pass by a little farm, which appeared in a state of high cultivation; a neat built tenement, with out houses in good repair, distinguished the demesne, and every thing wore the farce of well earned competency.

            There is a singular anecdote, cried one of the passengers, relative to that Estate; it has descended, for two or three generations, a patrimonial inheritance — some time since its owners died, and it was supposed it would, of course, become the property of his children: but to the great astonishment of his friends, it was mortgaged to its full value! The sons declining any uncommon effort yielded to an imaginary necessity, and making a formal relinquishment of their claims, instantly removed from the premises. It was at this period that the daughters, all single, and very young women, cherishing a high degree of family pride, and family attachment, stepped forward, and importantly solicited a term of time, to redeem the mortgage — The humane Creditor, greatly surprised, and most agreeably impressed, granted without hesitation, their petition — and having now, by their industrious application, to the making, and disposing of straw bonnets, paid him the last farthing, they are become the legal, and worthy possessors of an unincumbered estate, which is fully adequate to all their rational wishes — It would be difficult to delineate the effect which this little narration produced upon our little party, every one expressed his, or her, peculiar feelings, as they were variously affected. A Bostonian shopkeeper observed, she had purchased many of the bonnets and that they were nearly equal to those manufactured in Europe — an expression of benignity gradually pervaded the features of our sullen gentleman, they positively relaxed into a most becoming smile — his countenance meliorated, its apathy vanished, and my eye no longer indignantly tracing the gloomy misanthrope, moistened with pleasure, at beholding the lover of humanity.

            Yes indeed, all the relative duties, every philanthropic, every patriotic virtue, are proper to women — if we concede one point, we throw down the barriers, and it will not be easy to determine where they may again be erected. God forbid, that I should be considered as an advocate, for the pernicious doctrines attributed to Mary Wollstonecraft — I have only read her Rights of Women, and if that volume is not entirely unexceptionable, it however contains many luminous truths — I am free to own, that I exult in the capability of females, to realize the independences delineated in its pages, I think it could only have been the offspring of a superior mind, and I should most sincerely rejoice, to see every female, qualified to make those exertions, which in the event of orphanage, or widowhood, would ensure to herself, and to her dependents, an easy competency — I feel confident that my dear Mrs K— will forgive the freedom of the foregoing remarks — sincerity is a gem, the lustre of which I cannot contribute to diminish, divested of a painful consciousness of error, if not of criminality.

            Your Dorval, I trust, will soon issue from the press: may its success correspond with your most sanguine expectations — Lady Temple, who is one of your Subscribers upon my list, will leave America early in the Spring, and I hope you will enable me to present her copy, previous to her embarkation.

            Should you give a second edition of Julia, I wish your Printer may transcribe the quotations from the Gleaner, accurately — he has left out whole words, placed the singular for the plural, and in one instance changed the possessive for the nominative case! These mistakes may probably appear frivolous to the type setter, but you, who can experimentally decide upon the tenacity of an Author’s feelings, will know how to appreciate their importance. I offer to your respectable parents, and your other connexions, my cordial salutations — my husband, my niece, and my daughter, unite with me in this tender to them, and to yourself — and I am, with much esteem, and affectionate respect, yours &c &c &c

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  2014/2009 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

Independent scholar and author Bonnie Hurd Smith is the president and CEO of History Smiths, a public relations and marketing company that works with businesses to incorporate history -- their own and their community's -- into their branding, marketing, and community outreach to attract customers, boost customer loyalty, and secure a high status reputation in the communities they serve.