Sarah Kemble Knight

9 Sep

Here’s a little more from the essay I was talking about today. Bibliographic information follows at the end of the excerpt. I found the copy I read on the University databases, using Literary Reference Center.

“The strange silence that haunts the interpretation of Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal (c. 1704) is doubly odd, given the continued prominence of the text in an American literature canon. Not published until 1825, the Journal has been deployed in anthologies of American literature since the 1930s usually as an isolated (perhaps token) text about women’s experiences in the early eighteenth century. Since the time of its republication in 1920, under the editorship of George Parker Winship, it began appearing in edited form in important college collections such as Robert E. Spiller’s The Roots of National Culture: American Literature to 1830 (first published in 1933) and Norman Foerster’s American Poetry and Prose (1934).[ 1] It also was printed in full in Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson’s influential “sourcebook,” The Puritans (1938; 1963). A shortened version of Knight’s text is part of each of the first five editions of The American Tradition in Literature (1956-81); it has always been in The Norton Anthology of American Literature (1979-present); and the complete text of the Journal appears in The Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990).[ 2]

Knight’s Journal, then, has been placed before survey course students and teachers for at least the last sixty years, and yet no one ever says very much about it. For example, no piece on the Journal ever has appeared in the major journals devoted to American literature. As Sargent Bush, Jr. noted recently, in an introduction to the text’s reprinting as part of the Wisconsin series of American autobiographies, the most significant piece of research on the Journal is a bit of detective work on its authenticity written in 1964.[ 3] Compared to Mary Rowlandson’s account of her captivity, which has produced a significant and ever-increasing number of scholarly readings, Knight’s text is astonishingly unstudied.

In the case of the Journal, the various anthology introductions to the text constitute the main interpretive tradition. A reading of these introductions demonstrates that Knight’s claim to our attention depends upon situating her as a typical American humorist, and as a non-normative, partially “masculinized” colonial woman.[ 4] The introduction to the text in Sculley Bradley’s first American Tradition volume of 1956 nearly sums up the whole of the scholarship: the Journal concerns a woman’s “courageous journey” and evidences a “keen sense of humor” and “unusual tolerance” for life on the road (108). The anthologies wish merely to celebrate Knight’s experience–her journey from Boston to New York and back–as a “healthy antidote” to images of sober and submissive Puritan women (Baym 253). The text, then, concerns the triumph of a funny, early modern woman (a business-woman–a shop owner, trader, and expert on estates) exceeding the religious, pietistic, and gender boundaries that ensnared many other Puritan women. And so, in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology, edited by Nina Baym, the introduction to the text praises the evident joy Knight takes in life, her “earthiness and ready wit, an appetite for living, and a frankness not often found in colonial literature.” She was a “keen observer of provincial America and a woman who did not suffer fools gladly” (Baym 253,254).

The article is called “Narrative and class in a culture of consumption: The significance of stories in Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal,” written by Scott Michaelsen and published in College Literature, Jun94.

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