I find myself in the situation nearly of a new beginner; for, although I have not houses to build (except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil, and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting), yet I have scarcely any thing else about me, that does not require considerable repairs.
George Washington to James McHenry, Secretary of War. Mount Vernon, 3 April 1797.
On a “Novemberish” day in 1835, Catherine Maria Sedgwick joined her teenaged niece and her friend John Gorham Palfrey, editor of the North American Review, on a visit to the Cambridge, Massachusetts residence of the leading antebellum collector and editor of American historical documents, Jared Sparks. Sparks was in the midst of finishing his mammoth eleven-volume compilation of The Writings of George Washington (1834–1837). Sedgwick had recently published her second historical novel, The Linwoods or, “Sixty Year Since” in America, in which George Washington made regular appearances. Mostly, her fictionalized depictions of the General cast him in the act of writing his wartime correspondence, the very archival material at the core of the volumes that Sparks was then editing.
For a decade, Sparks had gathered an unparalleled archive of Washington’s papers, which included a mix of manuscripts and documents copied from record offices in the 13 original states and British and French state archives, as well as the masses of materials Washington bequeathed to his nephew, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington. Promoting the project to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1827, Sparks envisioned this compilation as “a monument for posterity reared by the hands of our great hero himself.” In the first volume, Sparks explained to readers that his guiding principle was “to exhibit the writings of Washington in a manner, that will render strict justice to the imperishable name of the author, and contribute the greatest advantage to his countrymen, both at the present time and in future ages.” Although in such statements Sparks presented himself as an impartial editor, in practice he was deeply concerned with how this “monument” and the “imperishable name” of Washington appeared. Much seemed at stake.
In Sparks’ eyes, Washington’s papers were the nation’s single most important set of historical papers. The US Congress, many readers in the US and abroad, and members of US historical societies agreed. In 1834, George Corbin Washington, who inherited the papers, consented that they would be “deposited in the Archives of the nation” at the State Department once Sparks had finished editing them, in exchange for $25,000 appropriated by Congress. This was an unprecedented federal expenditure for an archival acquisition, which inaugurated the antebellum congressional practice of purchasing other founders’ papers. Over the following years, the volumes of Washington papers selected, edited, and annotated by Sparks met considerable acclaim. They were distributed to Congress, subscribers, libraries, universities, and learned societies throughout the United States. Abridged versions were spun off in Britain and in French, German, and Italian translations for foreign readers. Mourning Sparks’ death at a special meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1866, Harvard law professor Theophilus Parsons proclaimed that “his word-painting of Washington, for example, will carry down to distant generations the intellectual and moral features of the Father of his country, as Stuart’s portrait will carry down the lineaments and expression of his face. And Sparks’ word-painting will endure when Stuart’s canvas is dust.”
Calling on Sparks that day in 1835, Sedgwick hoped to glimpse the “word-painter” at work on Washington’s archive. Sedgwick’s was a bookish, New England version of the pilgrimage that tens of thousands of Americans and foreign visitors performed throughout that decade to Washington’s home and tomb at Mount Vernon. In doing so, she showed her fascination with both Washington and the process of manipulating his papers for publication. In her journal, Sedgwick recalled finding “Mr. Sparks in his room surrounded with the records of the revolution—he showed us the wonderful voluminous copies—journals, memos etc. of this most wonderful man.” Sedgwick’s observation reveals the close bond that she, like Sparks and many others, perceived between Washington’s archive and Washington himself: the “wonderful voluminous copies” of the original documents in Sparks’ office had been made by Washington, but as recorded in her diary they could be conflated with copies of “the most wonderful man.” Ensconced as the intermediary between Washington’s papers and the public was Sparks, appearing to Sedgwick like a “rich country squire” with his private manuscript collection.
The choreography of Sparks in the middle of Washington’s papers, Washington’s papers between Sparks and Sedgwick, and Sedgwick at an ambivalent distance observing this scene provides a helpful metaphor for this essay’s re-examination of The Linwoods. Unlike Sparks, Sedgwick did not physically gather primary documents or enter the archives of the nation’s many new historical societies while conceiving this work. Nor did she formally present the book as an act of archival preservation, commentary on how Washington’s legacy should be preserved and commemorated, or contribution to the booming antebellum historiography of the Revolution. Women made major contributions to the writing of national history in the antebellum US, but with few exceptions they were excluded from the institutions of historical preservation and deprived of the mobility, resources, and authority to procure primary documents and work them into original scholarship—or edited volumes like those by Sparks.
Nonetheless, Washington’s archive is essential to the The Linwoods, and throughout the book Sedgwick engages through the genre of the historical novel with the archival project that Sparks had undertaken. At several key points, Sedgwick fictionalizes Washington in the act of writing and then deploys these writings in order to develop the plot. By rendering Washington as a writer and also using his writings, Sedgwick also makes historical claims about the general’s character and about the nation he was building. Ultimately, by dramatizing the production of Washington’s wartime archive and insisting on the intimate link between Washington, his writings, and the nation, she exalts both the historical materials and the historical argument that Sparks was devoting substantial time, emotion, and federal resources to preserving and publicizing. Although she never held Washington’s writings in her hands or belonged to the nation’s many new historical societies, Sedgwick made her historical novel into an archival space where she could maneuver Washington’s manuscripts and make important historical arguments about his character, his historical significance, and the role of his writing in building the nation.
Since its publication, the historical work performed by The Linwoods has generally been disregarded, though it is a historical novel in the terms of George Lukács’ classic study of the topic. “What matters therefore in the historical novel,” he explained in his analysis of Sir Walter Scott’s creation of the genre, “is not the re-telling of great historical events, but the poetic awakening of the people who figured in those events. What matters is that we should re-experience the social and human motives which led men to think, feel, and act just as they did in historical reality.”The Linwoods accords with this, and scholars have commented on the links between Scott’s and Sedgwick’s historical novels. But both she and her contemporaries diminished The Linwoods’ significance as a form of historical writing, insisting instead on its quality as domestic fiction; more recent critics have emphasized the cultural work that it performed in the context of the 1830s, but not taken seriously its engagement with history or historical materials. However, the fictional should not obscure the historical in The Linwoods. The book not only evokes the historical reality of the Revolution but engages with its archive and the broader antebellum practices of historical preservation and writing. In doing so, Sedgwick participated alongside Sparks in the project of using Washington’s life and writings as a means of nation-building—and in a form that was more accessible and popular among a wider audience of American readers.
As in Sparks’ office, Sedgwick seems to stay at arm’s length from archival materials in The Linwoods, never specifically citing or reproducing documents authored by Washington. But over the course of the novel the author surrounds herself with the very type of historical documents that surrounded Sparks in his office that November, and which would soon be archived by the federal government and reproduced in thousands of volumes. Like Sparks, Sedgwick also put these papers before the public’s eyes, and in so doing used fiction to depict a version of the man and vision of his archive that aligned with the project that Sparks undertook as an editor and historian. As discussed below, this correspondence between the historical work of Sedgwick and Sparks can be detected in their respective publications. Sparks’ influence on The Linwoods and their shared engagement with the history of the Revolution and Washington’s writings are also revealed in their literal, if brief, correspondence, which is preserved by Houghton Library and has not been analyzed in the scholarship on Sedgwick or on Sparks.
Rereading The Linwoods through this lens should help us see the historical novel as one of the means by which some antebellum women could participate in the work of preserving and working with historical materials, which was typically conceived as a masculine undertaking. After discussing how her antebellum readers and more recent scholars have perceived the historical content of The Linwoods, this essay re-contextualizes Sedgwick’s romance within antebellum historiography before delving into a closer literary analysis of the book’s engagement with Washington’s archive and the broader antebellum culture of archival preservation and reproduction.
From 1835, readers enjoyed The Linwoods as a family drama superimposed upon war-torn revolutionary New York and New England. Sedgwick aligned its plot with the fortunes of Washington’s Continental Army in the tenuous middle years of the conflict, mainly between 1778 and 1780. The domestic dynamics of the Linwood family mirror the broader civil war portrayed in the book among American revolutionaries, loyalists, and a variety of neutral, wavering, and opportunistic actors. The opposing political allegiances of the loyalist Mr. Linwood, his daughter Isabella, and rebel son Herbert nearly tear the family apart. In direct opposition to his father, Herbert’s revolutionary sentiment swells. He joins the American forces alongside the virtuous New England hero, Elliot Lee, who later saves Washington from a British scheme to capture him and end the war. In order to see his estranged family, Herbert surreptitiously accompanies Elliot on a special errand on behalf of Washington to Commander-in-Chief Sir Henry Clinton in British-occupied New York. Herbert is imprisoned, and amid the domestic turmoil that ensues, Isabella gravitates toward the American cause and away from both her father and her effete suitor, Jaspar Meredith. In a parallel plot, Meredith seduces Elliot’s hapless sister Bessie in New England, “a gem fit to be set in a coronet,” (32) he writes, who recklessly seeks him in Manhattan too.
Bessie is ultimately saved, Meredith wrecked, Elliot and Isabella wed, and the Linwoods reconciled by war’s end. If still disdainful of the rebels’ cause, Mr. Linwood respects his children’s commitment to it—and above all the man who led it. “I’ll have one look at Washington,” he tells Isabella during the American army’s triumphal march through Manhattan at war’s end. “By George of Oxford! a noble figure of a man!” (358).
In a culture suffused with commemoration of the Revolution and inundated by books about it, readers would have recognized this historical arc and the social value of the work, which Sedgwick hoped would “give her younger readers a true, if slight, impression of the condition of their country at the most—the only suffering period of its existence, and by means of this impression to deeper their gratitude to their patriot-fathers” (5). From the start, Sedgwick positions herself as a maternal figure transmitting moral lessons through history, which, as Nina Baym has shown, women writers of history often did in this period. Gendered in this fashion, the book appears not to engage in the typically masculine work of examining archival materials in order to authentically depict the past. Despite the obvious historical content of the book, Sedgwick prefaces that the context of the Revolution is meant more to gratify than inform her readers, “affording a picturesque light for domestic features” (5). It is not she, the writer, who casts light on the past—a trope for antebellum collectors and historians such as Sparks—but history that casts light on Sedgwick’s domestic drama.
In contrast with the detailed depiction of military history by novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper or William Gilmore Simms, Sedgwick places warfare just outside the field of vision of her novel. In the preface, she assures that “historic events and war details have been avoided; the writer happily being aware that no effort at ‘A swashing and a martial outside’ would conceal the weak and unskilled woman” (5). The Linwoods, as Sedgwick’s enthusiastic reviewers were quick to identify, was indeed a validating domestic story, which many relished. The American Monthly Magazine reported one reader’s reaction: “I should as soon think of galloping through paradise as down one of Miss Sedgwick’s pages.” Following Sedgwick’s cues, such readers and her critics concluded that the book did not constitute historical writing designed to inform their understanding of the past.
Sedgwick’s critics in the press gendered her writing in a way that diminished or obscured its potential significance as historical writing. Lauding The Linwoods upon its publication in 1835, Edgar Allan Poe, newly the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, emphasized that the “character of her pen is essentially feminine.” For Poe—who was markedly interested in the relationship between character, penmanship, and text—this meant that the text was feminine in stylistic terms, but also that Sedgwick’s pen had impressed her distinctively feminine qualities into the text as she movingly portrayed the fortunes of its female characters. He intended this as praise. Any man would agree, Poe went on, that “his own abilities would have proved unequal to the delicate yet picturesque handling; the grace, warmth, and radiance; the exquisite and judicious filling in, of the volumes which have so enchanted him.” In focusing on the aesthetic qualities of Sedgwick’s writing and coding its “grace, warmth, and radiance” as feminine, Poe clearly did not consider The Linwoods in the same category as other historical novels that depended on source-based analysis and detailed renderings of historical events.
Poe further emphasized that the captivating theme of The Linwoods was femininity itself. Like other critics, he was most taken by the suffering of the New England ingénue, Bessie Lee, at the whim of Meredith. These two characters are the least entwined in the historical context of the Revolution and the least politically engaged. Meredith, though Tory in sympathy, distances himself from any active participation in the conflict, “a self-idolater” rather than faithful to any cause (301). Bessie is mostly oblivious to the war and so delicate to external forces that she appears like “the exquisite instrument that responds music to the gentle touches of the elements, but is broken by the first rude gust that sweeps over it” (21). Moreover, in a book about history, her undated letters place her conspicuously on its margins; Bessie’s letters “were strictly feminine,” Sedgwick notes, “even to their being dateless,” and thus hard to place within the plot (34). Meredith and Bessie conform to the characters of the well-trodden seduction narrative, representing the extremes of American innocence and European decadence. In addition to Bessie’s tribulations, Isabella’s attraction to the revolutionary Elliot despite her father’s Toryism moved Poe. But rather than read this as a meaningful depiction of how Americans wrestled with political allegiance and personal loyalties in revolutionary New York, Poe distilled their romance and the book’s larger worth to “that gentle and beautiful mystery, the heart of woman.”
Such appraisals disregarded Sedgwick’s use of historical context, figures, and materials throughout the book, focusing instead on the emotional and moral quality of the work. Writing in her popular Ladies’ Magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale agreed that The Linwoods was “essentially a domestic story,” and that, “the plan of the work is the development of the deep feelings of the heart.” In New York, The Knickerbocker went further. As the drama was not embedded in the historical events of the period, it “cannot be judged as a historical romance,” they deemed. Despite the various historical events and individuals present in the book, “the connection is so slight and casual” with the important elements of the plot that the work was strictly fictional. The American Monthly Magazine likened the book to fantasy, mooning that “we feel, while under her spell, like the child of the German tale, listening to the story of nature from the little tenant of the woods.”
Reviewers ascribed this ahistoric quality to Sedgwick’s intentions as a woman. A long review in the North American Review applauded her introduction of Washington, the “grand figure of the hero himself,” into the plot. But history remained a backdrop to Sedgwick’s domestic drama. “Upon this rich canvas of historical fact, our author has embroidered a very ingeniously contrived and pleasantly told story.” The reviewer expounded that men and women authored novels for essentially different reasons: whereas a man approached a novel “as a means of effecting some, as he supposes, more important end”—such as “an inquiry into the antiquities of Italy, Egypt, or China”—The Linwoods was further proof that “a female novelist gives up her whole work, with her heart and soul in it, to the distresses of the lovers.” According to such circular reasoning, Sedgwick of course could not comment on the course and significance of the Revolution or seek to inform readers’ understanding of it. She wrote, rather, to please and to uplift her readers. The Southern Literary Messenger later applauded Sedgwick for “narratives at once natural, simple, touching, and so contrived that no one can rise from the perusal without feeling himself elevated and improved.”
These appraisals did not grate against Sedgwick’s own presentation of The Linwoods and various authorial choices in the book. She disclaimed any pretention to the transatlantic literary tradition of deeply researched historical fiction, and the plot mostly avoids detailed depictions of historical actors and events. The title suggests the book’s kinship with the paragon of historical fiction, Walter Scott’s Waverley; or,’Tis Sixty Years Since (1814), which inspired antebellum Americans’ fascination with the genre. In the preface, however, she backs away from the comparison, explaining that “it was chosen simply to mark the period of the story.” In the adjoining footnote on that page, she further denies “a charge of such insane vanity” as emulating Scott’s famous work (5–6). From these first pages, Sedgwick displays the “trepidation about the quality of her work and about public visibility” that scholars have detected across her decades as a popular author, as well as the “familiar adaptive act of doing and denying” that Mary Kelley has observed, by which writers like Sedgwick “had been able to transgress traditional boundaries and enter the world beyond the home by denying to herself and to the world that she had committed any transgression at all.”
Throughout the book, she often obfuscates the historical context in which the plot develops. Of the many fictional letters that Sedgwick uses throughout the novel to connect the far-flung characters, only a small number are dated; these are only from Herbert and Elliot and do not include the full date and provenance. While she includes discernible junctures in the military history of the war, she skirts the depictions of battle that featured prominently in contemporary historical novels and histories. Even when the plot does glance off notable military events, Sedgwick keeps her reader at an ambivalent distance from the action. To Isabella following success at the Battle of Stony Point in July of 1779, Herbert writes, “do not imagine I am going to send you a regular report of the battle. With all due deference to your superior mental faculties, my dear, you are but a woman and these concernments of ‘vile guns’ must for ever remain mysteries to you” (101–2). He proceeds, nonetheless, to share “the romance of the affair,” in which the fictional characters are implanted in the well-known assault led by General “Mad Anthony” Wayne on the British forces north of Manhattan.
Since the 1970s, scholars have resituated Sedgwick as the leading woman among the small cadre of antebellum authors who were most influential in establishing a distinctively American literature. Part of this ongoing scholarly reappraisal of her work has considered Sedgwick’s critical engagement with colonial historical sources and antebellum historiography, namely through her 1827 Hope Leslie. As various scholars have observed, her first historical romance delivers an “alternative” or “revisionary” history of warfare between New England colonists and Indigenous peoples, which she does by challenging the conventional antebellum readings of several major Puritan accounts.
The critical tendency to not consider The Linwoods as a historiographical intervention or see Sedgwick as a student and writer of history is surprising given that the best analyses on her other historical novel, Hope Leslie, examine her use of 17th-century accounts of the Pequot War to challenge prevailing notions of it—if not the very premises of history as a discipline in the antebellum period. If, as Lloyd Pratt discusses, Sedgwick’s treatment of the colonial period in Hope Leslie seems to “undercut any easy sense that she was certain about the inevitability of ‘progress’ in America,” the historical content of The Linwoods may have disinterested recent scholars; Sedgwick is confident about American progress and does not use the novel to contest the triumphalist historical narratives of the Revolution that were mainstream when she published it.
In contrast to these readings of Hope Leslie, historicist scholarship about The Linwoods has highlighted Sedgwick’s engagement with an array of contemporary issues, but not with historical materials or antebellum historiography. These recent readers tend to treat Sedgwick’s historical novel as a lens on antebellum culture, society, and politics, rather than as a work that intervenes in antebellum Americans’ understanding of national history. The revolutionary backdrop exists only to help stage the interventions she wished to make into contemporary issues. “Sedgwick performs a presentist treatment of the historical past, its characters, and its objects, and treats each as pliable, interpretive material,” Marissa Carrere explains. “History becomes instead a workable medium transported into the contemporary moment, interpreted and reshaped to address the circumstances at present.” Jeffrey Insko offers another perspective, arguing that “the novel seeks not so much to represent the history of the Revolution as simply to function as the medium for the transmission of its spirit to readers in the present and the future.” This latter comment demarcates how antebellum historians might approach the topic (“to represent the history of the Revolution”) and how Sedgwick’s book engages with it (“as the medium for the transmission of its spirit”). Several of these readings also anchor The Linwoods in the context of the 1832 Nullification Crisis, in which South Carolina contended that a state could nullify the application of a federal law and, potentially, secede. Maria Karafilis argues in the introduction to the major recent reprint of The Linwoods that amid renewed anxiety about the legacy of the Revolution and national unity, “Sedgwick’s novel allowed her readers to ‘intervene in’ and reimagine the pending Nullification Crisis, to retell a story of profound discord that eventually results in reconciliation.”
These and other authors make distinctive arguments about Sedgwick’s use of history, but they all stress her presentism: Sedgwick leveraged the context of the Revolution and its rhetorical force in order to perform some other cultural work in her moment. This essay does not deny that Sedgwick was engaged in important cultural work, namely by participating in the antebellum culture of historical preservation and fascination with manuscripts. But these accounts miss that history is not simply a tool for doing something else in The Linwoods. Rather, history and its archive are the object for Sedgwick: throughout the novel, she creates historical documents and puts them to use to make arguments about history; by manipulating fictional versions of the same manuscripts that Sparks held in his hands, she fashions a history in harmony with his Writings of Washington. Along the way, she uses her fiction to intervene in antebellum historiography and influence her readers’ perception of both the Revolution and its historical record.
By placing Sedgwick in conversation with Jared Sparks’ contemporaneous work collecting, editing, and publishing Washington’s writings, the second half of this essay argues that we should perceive the cultural work of The Linwoods within the context of antebellum historiography and the preservation and interpretation of archival sources. Whereas most antebellum women could only contribute to the nation’s burgeoning archives by donating materials or making their household a site of remembrance, Sedgwick drew the archive into the realm of her novel and, in the process, depicted Washington and his writing in a way that aligned with Sparks’ work as an editor and historian.
Sparks was an important advocate of Sedgwick’s work, even before she began The Linwoods. They were acquainted as early as 1830, and in early 1832 they had the chance to dine together in Manhattan. She was then planning to translate into English the 15 existing volumes of the Swiss political economist and historian Jean-Charles Léonard Simonde de Sismondi’s Histoire des Français (1821–1844). Reflecting on the evening, Sparks found “Mrs Sedgwick” brilliant and hoped to dissuade her from that laborious project, which in the end she did not pursue. “She should be engaged in something,” he recorded in his journal, “that will afford a wider sphere for her own powers.” Sparks admired Sedgwick’s writing in its own right as an outstanding contribution to American literature. The following month, in a gesture of transatlantic literary fraternity and self-promotion, he sent a copy of Hope Leslie alongside American linguist John Pickering’s Indian Vocabulary (1816) and his own Life of Gouverneur Morris (1832) to Johann Gottfried Flügel, a professor, lexicographer, and later American consular officer in Leipzig. This showed his esteem for Sedgwick’s novel as an intellectual companion to Pickering’s lexicon and his own biography of Morris—worthy, moreover, of an international audience.
Around that time, Sedgwick began to conceive a second historical novel about the Revolution. It was, by her own account, an arduous process of composition. Journaling in early 1833, she wrote that “if I had spirit to enter on a new career—I would—History—biography any thing seems now to me more attractive than this ‘heavy work.’” Though she clearly understood her new project outside the genre of history and biography, which she imagined as less daunting, she sought to inform herself about the relevant historiography as she undertook it. To do so, she reached out to Sparks, her fan, for guidance. Sedgwick’s letter to Sparks is not preserved, but based on his detailed response in 1833, it seems that she asked Sparks for his insights on both the historiography of the Revolution in New York, which would be the fulcrum of the story’s drama, and on Washington’s life. Concerning the former, Sparks bluntly admitted in his long response that autumn, “the truth is there is no such thing as a history of New York during the Revolution, nor any account of the military operations in that state.” Sparks complained that “the indolence of the literati of New York is incorrigible” for failing to examine their revolutionary history. “Neither patriotism, ambition, the love of doing good, nor the shame of insignificance,” he went on, “will kindle the spirit, prompt the resolution, or move the will. The Atlas is left to rest on the shoulders of posterity.”
Sparks nonetheless laid out a hefty, annotated reading list of 16 secondary and primary sources for Sedgwick, from which she could glean information from multiple perspectives about wartime events in New York. The first two items included Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall’s Life of Washington (1804–7), which remained the preeminent biography of Washington, and the history of the Revolution published by William Gordon in 1788, a “gossiping book,” in Sparks’ opinion. Third was Major General William Heath’s Memoirs of the war, “a book of dates as dry as a stick,” Sparks carped, but which he recommended for Heath’s wartime experience on the Hudson River. Sparks added his own forthcoming volumes of Washington’s correspondence and biography of the New Yorker, Morris, as well as English journalist John Almon’s The Remembrancer, “a repository of official papers, and other documents” that were compiled and published during the Revolution. He suggested a memoir by a Pennsylvanian soldier of wartime New York, including the American army’s evacuation and the imprisonment of Americans there, and a biography of Israel Putnam by the Connecticut soldier and noted author David Humphreys, who had served under Putnam. From the British vantage point, Sparks advised British officer Charles Stedman’s 1794 account of the war and British army Commander-in-Chief William Howe’s 1780 narrative of his conduct. He disparaged many of these suggestions, but he also presented them carefully to Sedgwick. Finally, he suggested several journals from the period, including Rivington’s Gazette, and New York’s laws during the Revolution. “Tell your brothers not to laugh at me,” Sparks joked, “for recommending to a lady to read old laws.” Still, he urged her to look at the statutes at large from the period, the “very ones most valuable to the Historian.”
Although he tried to direct her to the most reliable and readily available printed sources, Sparks omitted manuscripts in his 1833 historiographical missive to Sedgwick. He assumed that she did not “intend to make pilgrimages or to turn antiquarian”—that is, visit physical archives or rustle up original documents herself. He, rightly, understood that she meant to write “a work of fiction founded on facts,” as he put it. But he also distinguished between what “factual” meant in her writing compared with his own. Her project was “in short a historical novel, for which you desire to obtain correct impressions of the conditions, manners and feelings of the people, rather than an accurate statement of incidents.” His notion that an “accurate statement of incidents” as they existed in historical works would become “correct impressions” in Sedgwick’s book suggested an unequal dynamic between the two genres. He reflected on this in more depth later that decade, in one of his regular lectures as a professor of history at Harvard. Musing about the connection between history and fiction, he explained,
History furnishes the pillars that uphold the fabric of knowledge, while works of fiction and fancy contribute only the ornaments by which the beauty of its proportions is exhibited with the greater effect. They are both essential to a perfect whole; however, remove the ornaments, and the structure will still stand in its original strength and grandeur, but take away the pillars, and it will fall.
Sparks perceived fiction as a subordinate “ornament” to the solid edifice of history. Fictional works might rest upon this structure, but did not constitute or alter it. At the same time, Sparks shared his contemporary historians’ belief in the importance of capturing the reader’s attention through artful historical writing. “Though [the historian] is not allowed to fabricate,” he elaborated in another lecture on “Historical Composition,” “he is required to embellish. His ornaments by being the genuine, though the best uses of his materials, must fix the reader’s attention, without misleading his judgment.” Sparks perceived a reciprocal connection between the work of the novelist and that of the historian, but he also designated fiction as an auxiliary use of historical materials.
Sparks was still quite enthusiastic about Sedgwick’s intended topic of New York during the Revolution, and his response to her assumed that in addition to being informed by the best historical sources, she should consider the most interesting events and actors. Although critical about the dearth of historical scholarship on Revolutionary New York, he told Sedgwick that “the theme is a very fertile one.” He gestured at what he deemed important events, including the 1776 capture of Fort Washington by General William Howe, “the storming of Stoney point,” and Benedict Arnold’s plan to surrender West Point to the British army. Sparks also pointed out “a constellation of characters” who figured in New York’s revolutionary history, including American officers Israel Putnam, Anthony Wayne, and Henry Knox, foreign allies the Marquis de Lafayette and Tadeusz Kosciusko, and Arnold’s British accomplice, John André.
Sparks encouraged Sedgwick to include events and figures with the most potential to excite readers, but he also prompted her to situate her book in relationship to important and poorly examined historiographical questions, as he saw them. In his opinion, the first major lacuna was the history of New York during the Revolution itself, which the author of the most recent major history of the state had described—along with the whole provincial period—as “emphatically the dark era of our history,” a “terra incognita” to the living. Second, Sparks emphasized the history of the Tories in New York as “one of the most striking features of the war,” and a population that he found deserving of more analysis. As Eileen Kay-Me Cheng has explained, an American interest the Tories as meaningful historical sources and topic for historical analysis first emerged in the 1820s. Rather than undermine historical narratives of American exceptionalism, this small cohort of “Loyalist revisionists” instead sought to “rehabilitate Loyalists as members of the nation” against the American historiographical tradition of erasing them from the national story, which dated to the early national period. Given that various descendants of these New York Tory families remained in “the first ranks in the community,” Sparks told Sedgwick that it was “too early to descend to particulars” about their opposition to the American cause; he added, however, that he personally “would treat their names very tenderly, where there is no wicked act, or malicious design connected with them.” This belief that writing history should not offend the sensibilities of the living—whether those be families or nations—pervaded Sparks’ work over the following decades, and would indeed inspire criticism of how he edited Washington’s papers. In the context of Sedgwick’s project, however, Sparks implied that the Tories’ neglected history might be best-suited to fiction for the time being.
When The Linwoods appeared two years later, Sedgwick indeed depicted several, though not all, of the historical figures whom Sparks mentioned. Throughout the book, she cues celebrated revolutionary leaders many antebellum readers would be delighted to see: Washington, Wayne, and the folksy general Israel Putnam (or “Old Put”). Writing home, Elliot Lee waxes to his mother that “the gallant spirits of France and Poland are crossing the ocean to volunteer in our cause” (72). These included Lafayette and the romantic Polish officer Tadeusz Kosciusko, the two most famous foreign officers in the American cause. They traipse across the narrative, adjacent to the course of the war; if not always advancing the plot, they at least testify to it, while providing poignant cameos for antebellum readers. Lounging along the Hudson River near West Point, Kosciuszko, “the philanthropist of all,” observes Elliot and Herbert attempt to intercept the latter’s love interest, Helen Ruthven, before she can hatch a plot to capture General Washington (90–2). Later, Lafayette helps Bessie in her foolhardy passage to Manhattan. In 1833 as Sedgwick composed the romance, two boatloads of Polish political exiles, jettisoned after the failed 1830 November Uprising against Russian rule, landed in New York and excited republican fervor throughout the country. In 1834 Lafayette died, and upon the publication of The Linwoods, Americans were still hearing eulogies to their favorite transatlantic patriot. Sedgwick was well-acquainted with these contemporary events and the memory of Polish and French contributions to the American Revolution that reverberated through them and moved many antebellum Americans.
In addition to animating these historical figures, Sedgwick engaged with the absences that Sparks had criticized in the historiography of provincial and Revolutionary New York. One way she did this was by portraying provincial New York on the eve of the Revolution as a site of superstition, dark memories, and haunting. In the opening chapter, when the protagonists are still adolescents, the Linwood siblings wander with Meredith and their guest Bessie away from their wealthy neighborhood through the city streets. They are attended by one of their family’s slaves, Jupe, as they sneak to the dwelling of the “pythoness Effie,” a fortune-teller descended from a Dutch family. Along the way, Isabella indulges in a display of vicious racist mockery against Jupe. Referring to the Negro Plot of 1741, which led to the execution of numerous slaves alleged to have set fires in the city, including Jupe’s family members, Isabella prods him, “is it true, Jupe, that their ghosts walk about here, and have been seen many a time when it was so dark you could not see your hand before your face?” Jupe’s anxiety mounts as Isabella continues: “And, dear me! I think I see a faint shadow of a man with a rope round his neck, and his head on one side—do you see, Jupe?” Jupe literally flees in fright. As the group’s hilarity subsides, they arrive at Effie’s, “which admitted them, not to any dark laboratory of magic, but to a snug little Dutch parlour,” featuring “this plump personage, with a round, good-humoured face, looking far more like the good vrow of a Dutch picture” (9–11). Effie tells their fortunes, but she embodies a caricature of the city’s Dutch colonial past, which had been widely popularized over the preceding quarter-century by Washington Irving’s burlesque history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland.
In this brief introductory episode to The Linwoods, New York’s past has at first a haunting quality, whether in the murdered ghosts of enslaved New Yorkers or the anachronistic appearance of a seventeenth-century Dutch woman. It appears not a site of meaningful historical change. In part, Sedgwick was able to depict pre-revolutionary New York in this fashion because the state’s colonial past remained a site subjected more to the whimsy of Irving than the emerging methodology of antebellum historians. However, the first chapter concludes with two children mock battling as an American Whig against a British Tory. This foreshadowing of the pivotal historical contest interrupts the ahistorical atmosphere that the young characters wander through. This opening scene reflects both Sedgwick’s understanding of contemporary literary depictions of colonial New York and her intention to depict the city as a crucial site for the history of the Revolution.
Over the course of the book, Sedgwick attributes to revolutionary New York—and New York history as a whole—the significance that historians, collectors, and civic boosters in New York had for decades claimed. In particular, in The Linwoods she channels the historical consciousness being promoted by the New York Historical Society, the major institution for preserving and interpreting the state’s historical materials. On the 200th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s 1609 visit to his eponymous river, the Presbyterian pastor and NYHS regular Samuel Miller addressed the many celebrants gathered at the city’s courthouse. He spoke to his audience of the greater purpose of their undertaking, which was to chart the history of their state
from small beginnings, to wealth, power and universal improvement—To mark the circumstances which attended its commencement and progress, and thence to deduce the causes of any peculiar features which may appear in our national character...To contemplate a River, whose waters, before the ascent of Hudson, had never borne on their majestic surface any other vessels than the canoes of savages, now annually wafting many thousand rich cargoes, and pouring into our Capital the wealth of kingdoms...
The purpose of their institution was to authenticate a progressive history of New York from the state of savagery that preceded colonization to its current “wealth, power and universal improvement.” Such depictions echoed often from the New York Historical Society, which might well have reached Sedgwick during stays in Manhattan or through the society’s published Collections. Toward the end of The Linwoods from her vantage point in the present, Sedgwick interposes her voice into the narrative to speak of New York’s progress from settlement to independence:
Where nature sat, like a hermit, amid the magnificence of her solitary domain, are now bustling cities, fortified islands, wharves and warehouses, manufactories, stately mansions, ornamented pleasure-grounds, and citizen’s [sic] cottages, and the parent city extending up and branching out in every direction, from the narrow space it then occupied, covering with its thronged streets the wooded heights and bosky dells, no, alas! reduced from the aristocracy of nature to one uniform level. Then the city’s tributary waters bore on their surface a few fishing-skiffs, and some two or three British men-of-war. Now see the signals of population, enterprise, and commercial prosperity: schooners from our own eastern and southern ports...and rich freighted argosies from all parts of each quarter of the globe. (284–5)
Strikingly similar to the discourse emerging from the New York Historical Society, here she applies a perspective, narrative, and tone to her depiction of New York’s revolutionary history that intentionally places it within the historical arc that New York’s historians and archives were then promoting. Rather than use New York as simply a stage for the Linwood family drama, Sedgwick aligned her depiction of New York with contemporary historiographical arguments about its importance during and beyond the Revolution.
While she sought to elevate the historical significance of New York during the Revolution, it is important to note that Sedgwick was immersed in the dominant historical narrative about New England’s exceptionalism that historical societies, presses, and men like Sparks had earnestly promoted over preceding years. Introducing Elliot, for instance, she notes that “he was a lineal descendant from one of the renowned pilgrim fathers, whose nobility, stamped in the principles that are regenerating mankind, will be transmitted by their sons on the Missouri and the Oregon, when the stars and garters of Europe have perished and are forgotten” (25). In this brief rhapsody, Sedgwick reveals her kinship with Sparks: both possessed a historical consciousness that emerged from a New England, Unitarian worldview, which saw a progressive arc linking their region’s founding with the upward trajectory of the independent and expanding nation.
Throughout The Linwoods, Sedgwick also compensates for the contemporary deficit of historiography about revolutionary New York by engaging with the history of Tories in the city, which, Sparks imagined, had “probably affected the state of society more than any thing else.” Sedgwick places the divisive political allegiances of the Linwood family—torn between Herbert’s sympathy for the American cause and the father’s stalwart commitment to the crown—at the center of the drama. As scholars of The Linwoods and the broader antebellum genre of historical romance have observed, the disruption and reconciliation of the family functions as an analogy for the national community. But the Linwood family members can also be read not as analogies, but as plausible, if highly embellished, historical actors within revolutionary New York, whose political allegiances were complex and shifting. Sedgwick depicts Mr. Linwood in particular as a fully-fledged and sympathetic, if ill-fated, counterpart to the American revolutionaries. Mr. Linwood deeply feels his loyalism, and though he risks the estrangement of his children and the loss of his property, his political conviction becomes a pathway to his family’s reconciliation. His own commitment to Britain enables him to appreciate his son, Herbert’s, devotion to Washington’s cause, and as the Revolution triumphs it makes possible Mr. Linwood’s absorption within the new national family.
While recent scholarship on The Linwoods emphasizes the theme of domestic division and reconciliation as an analogy for the antebellum nation’s sectional crisis, Sedgwick does not demonize Mr. Linwood’s enduring opposition to the American nation. Rather, the book most condemns the wavering Meredith, and less for his complacent support of the British than for his lack of conviction to any cause greater than his own ego. To Herbert, he implores early on, “take my advice—be quiet, prudent, neutral” (32–3). Meredith’s position irks Mr. Linwood. Outraged by Meredith’s attempt to “not commit himself,” he explodes, “I would rather he should jump the wrong way than sit squat like a toad under a hedge, till he was sure which side it was most prudent to jump” (37). Later, Elliot shares his mistrust of Meredith with Bessie. “Let a man run the risk of hanging for it either way; but if he have a spark of generosity, he will be either a whole-souled whig or a loyal tory” (65). But Meredith maintains, Sedgwick writes, “an instinctive dislike of definitions, as they in Scripture, who loved darkness, had to light” (186). By situating Tory characters throughout The Linwoods—and, more important, by adding depth and pathos to the dilemma of loyalty to the British or American cause—Sedgwick highlights a social group that had been marginalized in historiography to that point. She does not employ primary sources regarding New York’s large Tory population, but she finds a place for Mr. Linwood in the nation’s history in a way that only reaffirms the outcome of the Revolution, and she does so in harmony with the historical studies that in the second half of the antebellum were reconsidering the loyalists more broadly.
Sedgwick wrote into the historiographical questions that Sparks raised, but in a more intricate way she engaged in the archival and commemorative work that Sparks was performing with his Writings of Washington. Sedgwick only quotes directly from Washington’s correspondence at one point, which appears to be a misquotation and misleading contextualization of a letter from Washington to Joseph Reed in 1780, which Sparks had reproduced in the seventh volume of his Writings of Washington, published in 1835. While this shows her willingness to fiddle with Washington’s words—which Sparks notoriously did himself—it also indicates her engagement with his published correspondence as a source for fiction. Over the course of the novel, her use of Washington’s writings—and of Washington writing—is much more pervasive than one quotation.
As mentioned above, Poe found that “the heart of woman” was the book’s central concern, a reading that reflects Mary Kelley’s depiction of how nineteenth-century “literary domestics” such as Sedgwick were perceived by, and presented themselves to, readers. “The heart’s record was the woman’s revealed record of her life of domesticity,” Kelley writes, “the only life she could have.” In The Linwoods, however, the record from which Sedgwick drew was also Sparks’ record of Washington’s writings. Washington as a writer is a motif throughout the book, and his letter-writing plays a crucial role in advancing the plot. Both by his hand and others’, such as Lafayette’s and Sir Henry Clinton’s, fictionalized historical documents are produced and permeate The Linwoods. Sedgwick manipulates these papers to make a similar argument as Sparks’ about their significance, the character of the general himself, and the nation he was forging.
Formally, letters serve to advance the plot and connect the far-flung and often mobile characters. Letters from Washington to the colonial governors in 1778 set the central plot line into motion, inspiring Elliot’s widowed mother to bless his enlistment in the Continental Army. “On my knees,” she exclaims upon hearing about it, “I have given you to my country” (49–50). The Lees then gather letters of support on Elliot’s behalf “from the best sources,” which he bears to Washington, entwining the general’s martial realm and the family’s domestic realm in an epistolary exchange. Elliot presents his letters of introduction from Massachusetts Governor John Hancock and John Adams; soon, he receives a lieutenant’s commission from Washington. This first relation to Washington—for both the characters and the reader—is epistolary, leaving a written trace, which accumulates with others, making The Linwoods letter by letter its own archival space.
Throughout the book, Washington’s steady hand casts lines that pull together the imagined national community that the Revolution was fighting into existence. Sedgwick illuminates Washington’s capacity to do this at various points in the book. Arguing against the impression that Washington is a cold individual, one of his subordinate officers asks Elliot, “where the deuse, then, has the heat come from that has cemented our army together, and kept their spirits up when their fingers and toes were freezing?” (75). Sedgwick shared this vision of Washington’s skill as a mover and unifier of men with Sparks, who captured this at the very time that Sedgwick was writing The Linwoods in his 1834 lecture on “Washington as a man of business,” preserved by Houghton Library. Sparks explained that Washington’s greatness “consisted in his power of acting on men, and bringing to pass extraordinary results by inducing them to think and act in conformity with his own designs. Unlimited confidence in him was the principle that guided those, who yielded to his influence, and this confidence was acquired by those traits of character, which constituted his greatness.” Sedgwick shows Washington exert this very influence through his writing in the novel.
In doing so, she authors fictional historical documents penned by Washington that align with the actual archive of Washington correspondence that Sparks was then publishing. Sparks’ Writings of Washington documented a vast national network of correspondents that the general and then president acted upon during the Revolution, which he organized into several classes: from Washington to Congress and American diplomats; to provincial governments and citizens; to officers in the Continental Army; to foreign ministers and nationals; to British officers, and to sundry private individuals. In his words, these were “the highest and purest fountains of history.” In the course of the novel, Sedgwick shows the production of or alludes to letters from each of these classes. For instance, following his performance at the Battle of Stony Point, Herbert proudly relates to Isabella that Elliot was promoted to captain and “received the thanks of General Washington, and got my name blazoned in the report to Congress” (103). In the recently published sixth volume of the Writings of Washington, a reader could indeed survey Sparks’ reproduction of numerous letters from Washington during the preparation for and success at Stony Point. In his July 20, 1779 report to Congress, Washington wrote “it is probable Congress will be pleased to bestow some marks of consideration upon those officers, who distinguished themselves upon this occasion. Every officer and man of the corps deserves great credit; but there were particular ones, whose situation placed them foremost in danger, and made their conduct most conspicuous.” One could imagine—like Sedgwick—that the fictional names of Lee and Linwood were “emblazoned” alongside the factual names that followed in Sparks’ printed version of Washington’s report.
In moving Washington’s hand and dispatching these letters among the characters, Sedgwick dramatizes the production and insists on the influence of the same historical materials that Sparks was carefully arranging and editing. Although she could not gather, edit, and publish historical documents in the same manner that men like Sparks did, Sedgwick’s novel brings readers closer to a dramatized form of those documents and to the historical moment in which they were produced. In doing so, she uses her novel to show vividly the significance of both Washington as a writer and of his archival legacy in a way that Sparks could not.
Well before Sparks or Sedgwick made use of Washington’s writings, Washington himself perceived that his character would be preserved in his archive, and that this archive would be crucial to the nation’s historical record. From the Revolution, Washington’s writings were promoted not just as meaningful historical records for posterity to evaluate, but as relics that would benefit the nation on a deeper level. In his own lifetime, Washington’s persistent concern for his papers foreshadowed Sparks’ and Sedgwick’s work decades later: he was convinced of their worth for the nation, anxious about their vulnerability, and certain that they should be curated before reaching the public. Washington had them carefully transported throughout his military campaigns until 1781, acting as a mobile archive that had both substantial military and, he perceived, historical value. The Continental Congress approved his request for a team of editors to transcribe and arrange his Revolutionary-era papers, which were subsequently stored at Mount Vernon. Washington worried not just about preserving his papers, but the manner in which they—and the appearance of his acts and character—would be preserved. He called for “a similarity and Beauty in the whole execution, all the writing is to be upon black lines equidistant. All the Books to have the same Margin, and to be indexed in so Clear and intelligent a manner, that there may be no difficulty in the references.” We know that Washington—and Sparks decades later—emended his original correspondence, omitting and polishing as each saw fit. Washington died before he could construct the building he had envisioned as an archive for these materials, “which are voluminous and may be interesting,” he wrote, but others would quickly take up the task of mediating between his personal papers and a broader public, including Sparks and Sedgwick.
In addition to showing how Washington’s writings helped to forge a national community amid the Revolution, Sedgwick employs Washington’s fictional letters to reflect the character of the general, which becomes crucial to the plot and the outcome of the war. Throughout the book, honesty and commitment to one’s principles are elevated as the general’s supreme qualities, and Sedgwick depicts the defense of Washington’s reputation—especially through writing—as essential to the American cause. “No man that ever lived more jealously guarded against the appearance of evil than Washington,” she explains, in that “he was aware that his reputation belonged to his country, that it was identified with the cause he had espoused, the cause of liberty and popular government; and how has that glorious cause profited by it?” She continues, “heralded by his spotless name, [his reputation] has gone forth to restore the order of God’s providence,” advancing freedom in America and beyond (204–5). As the entire American cause—if not world history—seems to hang on Washington’s virtue, maintaining its positive appearance is vital in The Linwoods, and those papers he signs his name to are the strongest proof or disproof of his virtue. Sedgwick’s Washington indeed stresses the significance of the link between writer and document. Upon receiving an anonymous letter written by Herbert, Washington burns it without reading by the very candle where he is writing his own letters, explaining to Elliot, “they are the resort of the cowardly or the malignant. An honest man will sustain by his name what he thinks proper to communicate” (94).
The link between Washington’s writings, his character, and the course of the war appears again when the British assert that Washington has broken the law of war by dispatching a spy under a false passport. Secretly accompanied by Herbert, Elliot crosses enemy lines into New York with a passport and official documents produced by Washington for “important business to be transacted” with Sir Henry Clinton (104). When Herbert is apprehended by British forces for disguising himself to fit one of these passports, Washington sees his own character under threat, for Clinton hopes “to seize every occasion to abate the country’s confidence in Washington’s integrity” (190). Washington defends himself through further correspondence with Clinton, “disclaiming all part and lot in Herbert’s return,” which Meredith then reads to the imprisoned Herbert “a la lettre” in an attempt to urge Herbert to renounce the American cause (187–189). Like Clinton, Washington realizes the risk to his own reputation and, by extension, the American cause that this misuse of his name produces. Speaking to Isabella, Clinton elaborates, “we are bound, by the policy of war, to avail ourselves of the accident, if it be one, that enables us plausibly to impute to Washington an act held dishonourable in all civilized warfare” (240). Sedgwick’s Washington has not used his correspondence to deceive anyone, but by making the authenticity of Washington’s writing a key to the plot and the outcome of the war, Sedgwick argues both that Washington’s character was legible in his letters and that this analogy between the man and his writing was historically significant. She shared this understanding of the linkage between Washington’s character and writing with Sparks, who in his edited volumes believed that, “the pervading influence of one master-mind” was evident in all of Washington’s letters.
Moreover, the fictionalized Washington letters that Sedgwick produces in this scene were tethered to actual letters reproduced in Sparks’ volumes. Sedgwick writes the drama of Herbert’s capture into the historical context of Patriot soldiers captured and held by the British in occupied New York; she also writes Washington’s correspondence with Clinton into a set of texts that Sparks was publishing for the first time when The Linwoods appeared. Washington’s 1779 letters to Clinton were reproduced in Sparks’ sixth volume of Washington’s Writings, along with an appendix of Clinton’s letters, concerning an agreement on the exchange of prisoners-of-war.
Beyond the fictionalized production of such letters themselves, Sedgwick also stages performances of Washington writing, which could only reinforce popular interest in Washington’s archive and the appeal of Sparks’ multi-volume endeavor to collect and publish his neglected papers. By placing readers in the very room and at arm’s length from Washington as he composes, dispatches, and receives original letters, Sedgwick invites readers into a historical recreation of the war’s administrative conduct. She also accentuates the sacred quality that many antebellum Americans found in Washington’s legacy, whether in his home, mortal remains, manuscripts, or mere name. Prefacing The Linwoods, Sedgwick confesses to the reader that “whenever the writer has mentioned Washington, she has felt a sentiment resembling the awe of the pious Israelite when he approached the ark of the Lord” (5–6). He, and the very paper he writes upon, functions in a similar fashion in the book. The reader’s first visual encounter with Washington interrupts the general in the act of writing, which Elliot eagerly recounts to his mother in another letter. Glimpsing Washington writing within his tent, Elliot is escorted by a colonel into the room, where Washington bids him to sit while he finishes making copies of his outgoing letters: “The copies were before him, all in his own hand. ‘Every t is crossed, and every i dotted,’ whispered the colonel, pointing to the papers. ‘He’s godlike in that; he finishes off little things as completely as great’” (73). Introducing his second volume of Washington’s correspondence, Sparks explained Washington’s authorial process, which closely resembles what Sedgwick renders in this scene. “Indeed he seldom suffered a paper of any sort to go out of his hands,” Sparks writes, “even an ordinary letter of friendship or business, without first composing and correcting it with studious care, and then transcribing a fair copy.”
Sedgwick’s fictional depiction of an act that Washington performed many thousands of times throughout the war produces both a proof of his extraordinary personal qualities and a relic, which Elliot and the reader can marvel at. Writing, Sedgwick’s Washington literally impresses his moral qualities into the page: diligence, devotion, self-mastery. This makes the aesthetic qualities of Washington’s writings a proof of his personal virtues, which she emphasizes elsewhere in the book. Later, in a scene where Elliot is once again delivering dispatches to Washington, Sedgwick interjects, “it is well known that Washington’s moderation and equanimity were the effects of the highest principle, not the gift of nature. He was constitutionally subject to gusts of passion, but he had acquired a power, almost divine (and doubtless from a divine source), by which he could direct the whirlwind and subdue the storm” (203–4). While this portrayal of Washington’s passion might humanize him for American readers, Sedgwick also emphasizes his superhuman qualities to those who admired him.
Elsewhere, Sparks celebrated the same qualities that Sedgwick attributed to Washington. Later in his 1834 lecture on Washington, Sparks praised him for, among other qualities, “the power of applying his thoughts with intenseness for a long time to a single object—a self-possession, and control over his passions, that seldom forsook him—and inherent integrity of purpose, which impelled him to discharge every duty with the most scrupulous regard for justice and truth—a strong moral sense in every transaction of life.” By exhibiting these qualities in Washington as he writes and making Elliot and the colonel venerate the act, Sedgwick models the reverence that Americans should feel toward both Washington and his written legacy. As Elliot’s first encounter suggests, Washington’s writing was the authentic expression of his extraordinary qualities. In contrast with Elliot’s veneration of Washington writing, upon receiving a letter from Washington that confounds her plan to set a trap for him, the duplicitous Helen Ruthven “tore it into fragments and dispersed it to the winds” (90). Her disregard of the general’s writing reflects her disdain for the American cause and exclusion from the national community that was in formation. Such an act of documentary destruction was antithetical to Sedgwick’s own praise of Washington as a writer and Sparks’ painstaking salvage of Washington’s writings, which both Sedgwick and Sparks hoped to impress on their readers.
Beyond Sedgwick and Sparks, the treatment of Washington’s papers as sacred was widespread in the antebellum US, where written fragments circulated widely. Sedgwick’s contemporary, James Fenimore Cooper, recounted a fictional though plausible visit to Mount Vernon by a traveling pair of bachelors in his 1828 Notions of the Americans. At Washington’s greenhouse, one of the travellers receives a bundle of flowers in a spare sheet of paper. By the 1820s and 1830s, such specimens from Washington's former garden were typical relics claimed by the teeming tourists who visited. Later that evening, however,
Scattering the flowers on every side of him, he laid the paper on the table, and read its contents with breathless eagerness. It proved to be a sheet torn from a farming journal of the modern Cincinnatus, which had been kept in his own hand.... The pages were without blot or erasure, and the precision of the language and the minuteness of the detail were rigidly exact.
They discard the flowers, astounded by the written words of Washington in their hands, which seem to have impressed his very qualities of poise and precision into the page. “The precious morsel was divided,” the narrator recollects, “and each of us took his portion, like men who were well content with the possession of some sacred relic.” The fragment of Washington’s writing functions as a relic in the sense described by Teresa Barnett: its “significance resided not in specific characteristics that had to be teased out but in a kind of invisible essence that was presumed to imbue the entire object and that could be subdivided or visually altered without impairing its essential power in the least.” Although Sedgwick did not perform the minute editorial work on specific documents that Sparks had undertaken, both Washington writing and his fictional writings function in the novel as relics for the characters and her readers to appreciate, powerful in part because the reader could encounter their mere presence, even if their “specific characteristics” are obscured.
As Sedgwick expressed in her diary after her 1835 visit to Sparks in Cambridge, Washington’s writings embodied the man himself in the eyes of many antebellum Americans. His written words were not literally reproduced in The Linwoods. The reader could not admire them as they might in Sparks’ volumes, where autographs of Washington ranging from the 1740s through the 1790s serve as a frontispiece, or as pilgrims looking for scraps of paper at Mount Vernon, like Cooper’s characters or the tens of thousands of others who visited there during Sedgwick’s lifetime. But Sedgwick recreated and dramatized the production of Washington’s writing, enabling an intimacy between reader and historical record that Sparks’ dense volumes could not—and for a much larger audience than could afford Sparks’ elaborately produced and expensive volumes. In doing so she responded to a desire felt by more and more antebellum Americans to connect on more intimate terms with Washington, which many thousands acted on by visiting Mount Vernon. Sedgwick’s depiction of Washington writing made the book, like Sparks’ volumes, a site for accessing and venerating these archival materials and through them the man who, more than any other, served as a national symbol in this period.
Although Sedgwick did not write explicitly within the genre of history or gather the primary sources that her contemporaries deemed essential to authenticating it, she did intervene in antebellum historiography and participate in its archival culture as a means to promote Washington as a national symbol and his writings as crucial links with the man. She presents an important case in which an antebellum woman contributed to the formation of historical consciousness, the development of historiography, and the preservation and use of the nation’s documentary material. She understood her contemporary historiographical landscape and emplotted The Linwoods within it, and she both generated and made generative Washington’s documentary record within this plot.
She managed this, moreover, at a moment when women’s access to the archival collections necessary to write history remained sharply constrained, dominated as they were by men such as Sparks and historical societies that largely excluded women from membership. Rereading The Linwoods in this light reveals the historical novel as a means by which some antebellum women could influence the writing of history and Americans’ relationship with the nation’s historical record. This should also encourage us not to foreclose the historical work that novels in this period could perform, in addition to their cultural work. When Sedgwick paid a visit to Sparks in 1835, she looked in at an office filled with the myriad writings of Washington, and Sparks in their midst. Rereading The Linwoods, we should imagine Sedgwick in that room with Sparks, if not like him arranging Washington’s papers page by page, likewise managing her readers’ perception of those papers and their original author.