Book Notes: Newport event a reminder of Sarah Josepha Hale’s role in early American thought

  • James Reid Lambdin's painting of Sarah Josepha Hale, on display in the Richards Free Library in Newport, N.H.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/26/2021 9:17:41 PM
Modified: 8/26/2021 9:22:58 PM

Melanie Kirkpatrick hadn’t heard of Sarah Josepha Hale until several years ago, when she wrote a book about the origins of the national Thanksgiving holiday.

Hale was a leading proponent of a national day of Thanksgiving, to supplant the many state holidays. Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the national holiday in 1863, but Hale, who grew up in Newport and became an influential magazine editor, was perhaps the most vocal advocate for a common day of gratitude.

In Hale, a person Newport residents have long been aware of, Kirkpatrick found a complex figure worthy of a fresh look. As much as anyone, Hale had helped women advance during the nation’s first century, laying a foundation on which subsequent movements for women’s rights were built.

“I just really wanted to tell the story of this interesting woman,” Kirkpatrick said in a phone interview from her home in Connecticut.

Lady Editor: Sarah Josepha Hale and the Making of the Modern American Woman came out earlier this month and Kirkpatrick will talk about her book at 2 p.m. Saturday at Newport’s Richards Free Library.

Kirkpatrick’s book reveals a woman who rose from humble circumstances to become one of her young nation’s most important literary figures. Hale published work by American writers on American subjects to try to knit the country’s identity together. And she was a tireless advocate for women, arguing in editorials that they had a right to education and to careers.

Hale was born in 1788, the year before George Washington took office, and was well-educated, first by her mother, Martha Buell, then by her brother, Horatio, who taught her what he learned as a student at Dartmouth College. She married a lawyer, David Hale, who set up his practice in Newport.

Her husband’s death, of pneumonia, in 1822, while Sarah was pregnant with their fifth child, set her on the path toward literary influence. Without any other suitable means of support, she determined to make her living as a writer. Her first novel, Northwood: Life North and South, one of the first books to address slavery, came out in 1827.

Not long after, at the end of 1827, she received an invitation to edit the Ladies’ Magazine, in Boston. She farmed out all but her youngest child to relatives, moved to Boston and began her long run influencing the nation.

The first issue came out in January 1828. (She edited the first four issues from her home in Newport.) Where other women had tried to run magazines, none had succeeded. Hale showed immediately that she was playing for keeps.

Kirkpatrick writes: “From the inaugural issue, it was clear that it was something different from the women’s fare that had preceded it. It was a serious intellectual journal with an editor who was intent on exploring the potentially explosive topic of the role of the American woman in modern society.”

Then nearly 40, Hale worked as an editor for the next 50 years. From that first issue, her interests were apparent: She advocated for the education of women and girls and published American writers on American subjects.

Among the authors she published were Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Cullen Bryant.

“She set out to help develop an American literary culture,” Kirkpatrick said.

But her influence extended far beyond writing. Articles Hale published shaped how Americans, particularly women, dressed, cooked and acted.

In time, the net she cast reached the whole country. Godey’s Lady’s Book, which Hale edited from 1837 until her retirement in 1877, had a circulation of 150,000 in 1860, making it the most influential magazine in the country. It was widely known as “Mrs. Hale’s Magazine.”

“In the two decades before the Civil War began in 1861, no woman was better known or more influential,” Kirkpatrick writes.

Nowhere was she more influential than in her championing of women’s rights. In 1828, only half of American women could read and write, Kirkpatrick writes. In every issue of the magazines she edited, at least one piece of writing extolled the virtues of educating women and girls.

“The change in attitudes about educating women was one of the most rapid shifts in public opinion in American history,” Kirkpatrick writes. By the time Hale retired, more girls than boys attended high school, 30% of colleges were co-educational and several women’s colleges had opened.

Today, despite her achievements, Hale is not well-known, and if she is, she is often knocked for what she didn’t do. She believed that there were “separate spheres” for men and women, though she thought that there were roles to which women were uniquely suited, such as teaching and medicine.

“She had the idea that female doctors should treat women and children exclusively,” Kirkpatrick said.

Hale also opposed voting rights for women, arguing that they were too morally superior to men to endure the corruptions of politics and the ballot box.

But the suffrage movement was built on her efforts. The women who were educated thanks to her led the fight for the 19th Amendment.

“You judge her based on her accomplishments,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick worked at the Wall Street Journal for 30 years, first as a copy editor and later as deputy editorial page editor. The Journal’s op-ed page is one of the world’s most powerful outlets of conservative thought. Retired from the Journal, Kirkpatrick now writes independently and is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank.

Lady Editor also comes from a conservative publishing house, but the writing is largely free of politics.

“It’s an approach to history that was deliberate on my part,” Kirkpatrick said. Hale deserves to be assessed in the context of her own time, she added.

Hale wrote millions of words, but not all of her writing survives, including journals and personal letters.

“What’s lost is a sense of her daily life,” Kirkpatrick said — her social circle, her unvarnished thoughts about public figures.

But Hale herself cared little for such things, preferring instead to talk about her work. At one point she put off a Newport historian who wanted biographical information. He wisely let her write the entry about her own life.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3207.

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