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Sarah Josepha Hale,  American writer and the first female editor of a magazine.

Sarah Josepha Hale was a prominent American writer and magazine editor who is often credited with being the "Mother of Thanksgiving." Hale believed that a national day of Thanksgiving would promote unity and patriotism, and she lobbied for it tirelessly for many years. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln urging him to establish a national day of Thanksgiving. Her letter, which was published in several newspapers, caught Lincoln's attention, and he proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving.


Many Americans know “Mary Had A Little Lamb”, but they do not know that is was written by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) an American writer and the first female editor of a magazine. Hale believed in educating girls, having obtained her education second-hand, from her brother who taught her what he was learning at Dartmouth. Many of her female characters obtain their education from their brothers or future husbands. Her novel, “Northwood; a Tale of New England”, was the first American novel to approach the issue of slavery. She sustained education for women and opportunities for women to teach, although she always remained apart from formal feminist movements. While she didn't feel that women should be involved in politics, she promoted her life-long belief that females should be granted the same educational opportunities as males. She also supported a women's right to become a physician.


Hale’s most repeated theme is the differentiation of the sexes: men have physical strength, while women have greater moral and religious strength. The two sexes are divinely designated as separate, and Hale underlines this in her “Sketches of American Character”, of which several stories are discussed below.


Hale’s stories are based on the relationships of young couples. James Murray, the male hero of “A Wedding and a Funeral,” is a very gifted young man with a liberal education. In college, knowing that his diploma would be just an “ornamental appendage to a rich man’s son”, he passes his time in gayety and pleasure and he returns home with a “fatal relish for liquors”. However, he meets the angelic Lucy Marsh and swears to his father that if he is permitted to marry her, he will never taste alcohol in his life ever again. Lucy Marsh has a tolerably good education, though she comes from a very poor family and she has never had her taste improved by mingling among fashionable society. Nevertheless, she has learnt to work; this may not be a high accomplishment, but it is an indispensable one for any American lady. She does not lack ambition or the desire to improve. Mr. Murray, Lucy’s father-in-law, takes care of her education before her son marries her, “in such a manner as shall qualify her to become a member of my family” — i.e., men are also interested in living their lives among women who are educated and familiar with their rich life style.


Unfortunately, Lucy Marsh, though a tender and confiding young lady, lacks the mental ability to face sudden changes. “Bare misfortunes” says Mr. Colvin in the beginning of the story, anticipating the adversity that was about to happen. And he is right. When her husband’s heavy drinking leads to his family’s to ruin, she can only cry, not for the lost property, as she confesses she doesn’t need wealth to be happy, but for her husband’s moral degradation: “I could joyfully share poverty with him — I could work to support him — I would willingly be a slave or lay down my own life, if he might be persuaded to return to virtue…” It is not Lucy’s weak character that Hale intends to reveal here, but her sacrifice, her resigning to her fate as a miserable woman who is incapable of saving her husband. She almost seems to take the blame on herself, as the above quotation proves. “A Wedding and a Funeral,” is the sad story of a female victim whose sacrifice is not enough to save her children and husband — the very purpose of her life, of any woman’s life, according to S.J. Hale’s standpoint.


In many stories, Sara Josepha Hale introduces characters who are not always connected to the main idea; but are witnesses who talk about the heroes. Such are Mr. and Mrs. Colvin and Miss Lucretia Crane (there is always a Miss Someone, most likely a spinster). In “A Wedding and a Funeral,” these characters gossip, but they actually narrate the past life of the marrying couple and criticise the bridegroom’s abominable habit of drinking. It is interesting to note that, should he start drinking again, Mrs. Colvin and Miss Crane would pity his mother, his wife, respectively, while the man, Mr. Colvin, would pity him. The two women side with a wife and mother who might become a victim of her alcoholic husband, thus failing to accomplish what God had decided would be a woman’s fate on Earth, to educate children and take good care of their family and household.


S.J. Hale chooses mottoes that clearly anticipate her protagonists’ fate.  In “A Wedding and a Funeral,” the motto is taken from Shakespeare’s tragedy “Othello” and changed to fit the purpose of her tragic story: “O thou invisible spirit of brandy, if thou hast no name to be known by, let us call thee — murderer!” James Murray is an alcoholic, and his son and wife are all indirect victims of his alcohol-induced aberrant behaviour. In “Ann Ellsworth,” the motto “happy-end story” is taken from the Merry Wives of Windsor, one of Shakespeare’s comedies:

“Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value/

Than stamps in gold or sums in sealed bags; /

And ‘tis the very riches of thyself /

That now I aim at.”

The village schoolmistress opens with a quotation from Samuel Johnson: “Life, like every other blessing, derives its value from its use alone.  Not for itself, but for a nobler end the eternal gave it; and that end is virtue.” William Forbes:

“… nor once inquire/Where is the sanction of eternal Truth/

Or where the seal of undeceitful Good/

To save your search from folly! Wanting these/

Lo, Beauty withers in your void embrace.” Mark Akenside.


“A Wedding and a Funeral” and “Ann Ellsworth” are two complementary stories. The former is tragic, but the latter has a happy ending for the heroine. She is an educated young girl who chooses to give up her inherited fortune and marry the man she likes instead of accepting a willful and disobedient young man, whose only concerns are fishing, hunting, skating and playing checkers. He ends up selling his parents’ estate and moving to another city where he becomes a victim of moral degradation. The happy couple of the story, Ann Ellsworth and Charles Grant, are the symbolic American family that S.J. Hale so much admired. Their minds are alike and they enjoy each other’s company.


This symbolic family becomes a pattern for S.J. Hale; it is the perfect family who follows the perfect path from the day of their wedding to the day when they want to retire from the “bustle” of the world. As she writes: “there is but one earthly flower that blooms unfading in our earthly path — it is the true love of virtuous hearts”. Ann Ellsworth and Charles Grant are virtuous hearts. After thirty years of marriage, Ann still listens to his words with a smile on her face, and her smile is “just as dear to him as when he first called her his bride”. This sounds idealistic rather than realistic, but this is what S.J. Hale chose to think and support not only in her writings, but also in her activities as a journalist and supporter of woman’s intellectual evolution through education.


When reading S.J. Hale’s Sketches of American Character, a comparison with Thomas Hardy’s novels like with Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented comes to mind. Tess is the counterpart of  “A Wedding and a Funeral,” while The Mayor of Casterbridge pairs with Ann Ellsworth. Hale’s American women have to choose between two men, as do Hardy’s English heroines. Some of them marry the right man from the very beginning (Ann Ellsworth), some marry the wrong one (Lucy Marsh and Tess D’Urberville), but it is not a matter of choice in either writers’ works. They seem to take the wrong decision that will affect their whole life usually at the wrong time. But it also seems that in their case it is always the wrong time to take such a decision. Lucy still wants to marry James though he comes to her drunk before their wedding and she could have changed her mind about him. Sometimes they are constrained to do so. Abandoned by the man she loves, Tess marries the one she has rejected all her life and her release lies only in her death, after she kills the man who has tortured her youth.


Unlike Hardy, S.J. Hale does not create memorable characters. It was never her intention to do that. She creates female models. Her stories do not have a real plot, since very little happens to them. They are just a pretext for the writer to promote her ideas about women and their mission on earth. S.J. Hale will be remembered not for her skills as a writer, but for her moralising “sketches”. She considered her role was to determine woman’s precise role in society and promote it in all her activities. A woman had to be educated only in order to be able to educate her children and take care of her family’s spiritual evolution. She should try to be man’s equal only in education. For Hale, the woman is God’s instrument to make man happy and she should be pleased with this and never ask for more, never think of herself as a being who might pursue her own happiness or intellectual achievement outside the constraining environment of the family to whom she is tied by moral duty. God designated woman “the helpmate of man” and she could not “break her bonds even if she would” (A Village Schoolmistress).  In other words, the woman should happily sacrifice herself for her family, while the man must do everything in his power to provide for his wife and children, to gather riches that would allow for their prosperity and thus help them all to live happily ever after.


Hale believes that women can take only one path to happiness and distinction and their success in life depends strictly on their family establishment. She declares this in A Village Schoolmistress, a story which is just a pretext for a long presentation of women’s purpose on earth. The final aim of their education “is to qualify them to become wives and mothers”. Furthermore, teaching should be a typical female occupation, as women are patient and fond of children and… “are accustomed to seclusion”. The schoolmistress Elizabeth Brooks is abandoned by her fiancé, William Forbes, a brilliant student and a man of mental superiority.


He leaves her to marry Clarinda Curtis, a merchant’s daughter who was rich and beautiful, but also an “accomplished dunce”. When Clarinda Dies, William wants to marry Elizabeth again and is waiting for her answer. This is all we find out in A Village Schoolmistress. Elizabeth gives him an answer in William Forbes, which actually tells us the story of William’s marriage with Clarinda. William discovers that “— to sing, to dance, / To dress, and troll the tongue, and roll the eye” is not all that is required to make young ladies agreeable or likely to be sought by the gentlemen.” Young ladies need to know how to make pleasant conversation, to “be intelligent without the appellation of a blue; in short, that they are expected to be rational, and required to be useful, and they will not disappoint public expectation”. 


Unfortunately this is everything his wife is not. Despite her efforts to make conversation in society, all she manages to do is to ask stupid questions and embarrass her husband. Hale chose Clarinda to make the portrait of the anti-female model, a dull woman who is slow to comprehend, who “could not have told whether Mexico was in north or south America; nor have subtracted 7 from 15; nor wrote a letter of a dozen lines without misspelling as many words; nor read a paragraph in a newspaper intelligibly.” William does not notice this in time and marries her because he is impressed with her beauty and discovers she is in love with him. So he finds himself married to the opposite of Elizabeth, his first love who has “a fair complexion, and a kind, benignant expression of countenance that assured the beholder of the gentleness of her heart”, and with whom he once delighted in fascinating conversations about his favourite poets.  When Clarinda dies, he does not feel relieved, but sad, for he knows she loved him. Still, he wants to return to Elizabeth, who accepts him not because she is desperately in love with him, but because his two little daughters “so much needed her care and instructions”. Once again Hale underlines woman’s unique role as educator, her duty to sacrifice herself for the education of others. A role which Elizabeth accepts, as she is the symbol of the perfect teacher.


S.J. Hale was more a social promoter than a writer. Her writings as well as her activities had a great influence on many attitudes and thoughts of women of her period who felt encouraged by her points of view. Her belief is still topical: “In this age of innovation, perhaps no experiment will have an influence more important on the character and happiness of our society than the granting to females the advantages of a systematic and thorough education”.

Editor: Kyenila Taylor

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