[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

Scenes in My Native Land,
by Lydia H. Sigourney (1844)

Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865) was an enormously popular nineteenth-century writer, the author of around 60 books. Her prose and sentimental poetry appeared in many periodicals for children and for adults; she also published at least one piece in every volume of the Token from 1828 to 1840.

Sigourney’s importance for nineteenth-century writers and critics is difficult to understand today, when her poems seem lackluster and overly concerned with rhyme scheme. Sentiment is her genre, and death is one of her favorite subjects, but even in her sentimental poems the focus is less on emotion than on nailing the rhythm and the rhyme. Earlier readers and publishers saw something not evident today: Carl Bode (Antebellum Culture) points to her ability to promote her work; Samuel Goodrich—who knew Sigourney in Hartford, Connecticut, when both were beginning their careers—describes a woman able to inspire those around her: “Mingling in the gayeties of our social gatherings, … she led us all toward intellectual pursuits and amusements. … It could not but be beneficial thus to mingle in intercourse with one who has the angelic faculty of seeing poetry in all things, and good everywhere.” (Recollections of a Lifetime, II: 125)

Scenes in My Native Land is a mixture of poems and essays on American subjects: Connecticut’s Charter Oak, John G. C. Brainard, the Newport Tower, the Wyoming Valley. To some extent, the book is a companion to her earlier travel book, Pleasant Memories of Pleasant Lands. But Scenes is Sigourney’s ode to the landscape around her and to a mainstream vision of American history and culture. In the book, Native Americans are uniformly savage; “dark-browed” and “red-browed” are used to describe them with numbing consistency. (An epic paper could be written on Sigourney’s use of the word “brow.”) Landscapes are uniformly grand.

The most interesting aspect of the book for modern readers is the subject matter. Magnificent trees (the Charter Oak, the Geneseo Oak, the Washington Elm) that no longer exist, landscapes undiluted by strip malls; the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb at Hartford and the Moravian colonies in Pennsylvania. Sigourney presents a chronology of New England snowstorms in autumn 1843 and a description of travel up the Connecticut River. She is eloquent on the Niagara-obsessed Francis Abbot; characteristically, as long as (if not longer than) her section on his life is the section after his drowning, complete with a description of his corpse caught in the whirlpool and of his cabin, where cat, dog, supper, and books still wait, captured in maudlin detail.

The book reprints at least two works that already had appeared elsewhere: “Montpelier” was published in the Token for 1828; the “Monody to Brainard” appeared in the Token for 1830.

The book is presented here with scans of its frontispiece, engraved title page, and the four pages of advertisements at the front of my copy of the volume. Each page’s header appears next to the page number: ex., p. 3 | NIAGARA |

Notices and reviews are on a separate page.

The text is also available as an ebook.

Scenes in My Native Land | notices and reviews of the book

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