Catharine Maria Sedgwick was one of the first American novelists to gain prominence. She was born in 1789 in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to Theodore Sedgwick and his second wife Pamela, as one of the youngest of the family's seven surviving children. Her father was a prominent lawyer and politician, first locally and then statewide, and eventually was elected to the first House of Representatives under the new U.S. Constitution. He was a strong supporter of the Federalist Party, though, and so lost the 1801 election at the same time that voters abandoned Federalist President John Adams for Republican Thomas Jefferson. After this he took a place on the Massachusetts roving Judicial Court, whose justices went around the state (including the territory that is now the state of Maine) presiding over cases. Even his children called him "The Judge."
Catharine's mother Pamela was not a stable woman mentally, and having her husband away from home most of the time in Congress or hearing cases throughout the state did not help her. (Particularly during such events as Shays' Rebellion, where her husband was a target of the rebels.) She was sent to several private institutions run by doctors who each had their own methods for treating mental problems. She always came home, but the improvement was never more than temporary. Catharine and her siblings were essentially raised by the former slave Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, who Theodore had represented in court in a 1781 suit to gain her freedom from her former owner (and, as it turned out, end slavery in Massachusetts). In fact, mumbet.com says she was the first black woman to be set free in the United States. The nickname "Mumbet" is the children's contraction of "Mammy Bet." Catharine would later write about Mumbet's history in her anti-slavery writings, calling her "a guardian to the childhood, a friend to the maturity, a staff to the old age of those she served," and arranged for Mumbet to be buried in the Sedgwick family cemetery, the only person there not related by blood or marriage to the family. Her spot is next to Catharine's.
It is also no surprise, growing up with two frequently absent parents, that Catharine was very close to her brothers and sisters. They and Mumbet banded together against the woman, Penelope Russell, who Theodore Sedgwick married after Pamela died (quite likely suicide by poison) in 1806. Theodore's health declined in the following years, and he died in 1813; the children fought with their stepmother about his estate, particularly a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Theodore. About this same time Catherine started to be interested in the teachings of William Ellery Channing, the founder of Unitarianism, rather than the harsher Calvinist teachings of her childhood church, though she did not formally convert until 1821. In 1813, she also took over the management of a Stockbridge private school for young women, a sort of "day job" for her for the next fifty years.
Her family encouraged her to write and then to publish; in fact, her brother Harry arranged the publication of her works for the first six years of her fiction career. Her first novel, A New England Tale is now considered the first American novel, but she published it and her second novel Redwood anonymously. However, they were popular enough to be reprinted in England and translated into other languages, so her future works would largely be credited to "The Author of Redwood." It was just not ladylike for a woman's name to be on all these books, even though it was soon no secret who she was. By the 1830s, she and Martha Washington were the only two women included in the National Portrait Gallery of Distinguished Americans, which only had three other writers listed.
Catharine never married, possibly because of the example of her older sisters Eliza (who essentially became a fragile wraith after giving birth to twelve children) and Frances (whose husband beat her). Her letters to her brothers border on creepy: "I do love you, with a love surpassing at least the ordinary love of woman," she said to her brother Robert. It was emotionally difficult for her when they married (she was the only sibling not to attend Robert's wedding). Her last novel, written when she was 67, was even called Married or Single?, which argued that women should refuse to marry if they believed they would lose their self-respect, not a widely held belief in the 19th century. She also portrayed independent women in her other works, as well as arguing against slavery and in favor of religious tolerance.
However, family problems slowed down Catharine's writing after her first decade of work. Her brother Harry spent time in an insane asylum and then died in 1827; her nephew Charles committed suicide by poison; first her sister Eliza and then her brother Robert died of strokes. She published mostly short stories, essays, and travelogues in the later part of her career. (One of her earlier short stories, for a Christmas annual in 1835, mentions a Christmas tree, quite a new idea for Americans, and probably was one of the major factors in spreading Christmas trees beyond German immigrants.) She continued being closely involved with family members, ending her life living with her married niece Kate, whose daughter Alice is the person her autobiography is addressed to. Catharine died in 1867 at the age of 77, having helped establish an American kind of literature.
Sedgwick, John. In My Blood: Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family.. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.