American Literature Sarah Kemble Knight
Susan Imbarrato
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0080


Travel writings document exploration and journeys for various audiences and different reasons. For the explorer, writing to a benefactor or investor with details about climate, people, and resources was central for assessing trade and colonization potential. In colonial America, travel writings were not usually intended for publication but were instead shared with family, friends, and colleagues for their entertainment and information about their journeys. In each instance, travel literatures were written mostly by men whose professions required travel, such as explorers, merchants, doctors, ministers, and lawyers. Unless relocating or visiting family, women were less likely to venture out beyond their own towns. One significant exception is Sarah Kemble Knight, who traveled on horseback from Boston to New Haven “being about two Hundred Mile,” as she notes, to attend the settling of her cousin Caleb Trowbridge’s estate on behalf of his widow. Knight departed Boston around three o’clock in the afternoon on Monday, 2 October 1704, for a five-month, roundtrip journey. She was thirty-eight-years old. Her mother and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, remained in Boston, and her husband Richard Knight, a shipmaster, was abroad. Along the way, Knight chronicled her observations about road and weather conditions, food and accommodations, and people and customs. She followed a route from Boston to New Haven that was later named the Boston Post Road. Knight’s relative Captain Robert Luist accompanied her on the first dozen miles to Dedham. In a two-week break in the negotiations, she visited New York accompanied by Thomas Trowbridge, Caleb’s father. Otherwise, Knight either hired male guides along the way or traveled alone. With Boston as her cultural center, Knight often employed the comparative mode, another characteristic of travel writing, whereby she evaluated her surroundings and the people she met against her Bostonian standards. Knight’s descriptions were at times comical, if not outright caricatures, and her remarks could be caustic and demeaning. There are also moments of self-reflection as when she met an impoverished family and recorded her observations in prose and poetry. The journal remained in manuscript until 1825 when Theodore Dwight Jr. transcribed Knight’s manuscript and published it in The Journals of Madam Knight, and Rev. Mr. Buckingham, from the Original Manuscripts, written in 1704 and 1710. The address of “Madam Knight” has been attributed to her social class and stature, as well as to her position as a schoolteacher, one of her many occupations, including shopkeeper, innkeeper, and copyist of legal documents. Sarah Kemble Knight returned home on 3 March 1705 to an enthusiastic group of family and friends.

General Overviews

Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal of Madam Knight is acknowledged as an important historical account of colonial America and one that has drawn interest from a diverse and an interdisciplinary audience and invited various critical responses and analysis. Historians and literary scholars, for example, have discussed Knight’s descriptions about roads, towns, people, accommodations, manners, and customs for how they portray colonial American life and for what they reveal about gender identity and social class, as discussed in Imbarrato 2006, Laffrado 2009, Margolies 1964, Martin 1994 (cited under Primary Texts), and Michaelsen 1994. Studies of the Journal as a travel narrative are also the focus in Imbarrato 2006, Laffrado 2009, Martin 1994, and Spengemann 1977. Citing references to the heroic tradition, Knight’s Journal as adventurer’s account is addressed in Harris 1996, Martin 1994, and Spengemann 1977. Shortly after Knight’s Journal was published in 1825, it was included in compilations and anthologies of colonial American history and writings and even promoted as a specific example of “American Literature” as discussed in Derounian-Stodola 2016. Laffrado 2009 subsequently discusses the impact of Knight’s text on 19th-century women writers as an example for engaging with and interacting in the public sphere. Knight’s commentary on religion, race relations, laws, and social classes are often biting and satirical, as addressed in Imbarrato 2006, Martin 1994, and Michaelsen 1994. In addition to scholarly approaches, the general reading public also finds Knight’s commentary about taverns and public houses as places to socialize and conduct business particularly lively, especially when she is describing innkeepers, meals, and sleeping accommodations as noted in Imbarrato 2006, Laffrado 2009, and Salinger 2002. Knight’s comical anecdotes and humorous observations are also addressed in Harris 1996, Imbarrato 2006, Laffrado 2009, Martin 1994, and Michaelsen 1994. With particular regard to gender perspectives and to the larger project of the recovery of women’s voices in early American writings, Knight’s Journal is discussed in Derounian-Stodola 2016, Harris 1996, Imbarrato 2006, Laffrado 2009, and Martin 1994. These various approaches reinforce the significance of Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal of Madam Knight to American literary, historical, and cultural studies.

  • Derounian-Stodola, Kathryn Zabelle. “Bodies of Work: Early American Women Writers, Empire, and Pedagogy.” In Women’s Narratives of the Early Americas and the Formation of Empire. Edited by Mary McAleer Balkun and Susan C. Imbarrato, 249–266. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

    Derounian-Stodola traces the frequency of inclusion in American literature anthologies of four early-American women writers: Anne Bradstreet, Mary Rowlandson, Sarah Kemble Knight, and Phillis Wheatley. Her study reveals how early American women writers have been perceived and valued from the mid-nineteenth into the twenty-first century. Portrays Knight as a bold, curious, and at times fearful female explorer.

  • Harris, Sharon M. American Women Writers to 1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    Harris’s foundational study of early American women writings illustrates the importance of women’s voices. Organized in three parts: “The Ages of Women”; “Emerging Feminist Voices”; “Origins, Revolutions, and Women in the Nations.” Introductory materials provide insightful historical context. Extensive list of “Notable Early American Women” and the “Selected Bibliography” documents women’s impressive literary and social contributions.

  • Imbarrato, Susan Clair. Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006.

    Examines women’s travel narratives from 1700 to 1830, including the journey of Sarah Kemble Knight. Draws on both manuscript and printed sources that record women’s journeys along the eastern seaboard and into the western territories as they traveled for relocation, business, adventure, pleasure, and family reunions. Illustrates the significance of women’s contributions to travel writings and American literature.

  • Laffrado, Laura. “‘A More Masculine Courage’: Women’s Voice and the Nineteenth-Century Publication of Sarah Kemble Knight’s Journal.” In Uncommon Women: Gender and Representation in Nineteenth-Century U.S. Women’s Writing. By Laura Laffrado, 23–53. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2009.

    In chapter 1, Laffrado examines Knight’s Journal regarding issues of social class and gender identity as a text that reflects both her time and one that speaks to a future generation. Discusses the Journal’s publication history and reception. Elaborates on Knight’s experience with legal documents and estates as related to undertaking the journey.

  • Margolies, Alan. “The Editing and Publication of ‘The Journal of Madam Knight.’” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 58.1 (1964): 25–32.

    DOI: 10.1086/pbsa.58.1.24300738

    Margolies surveys editions of Knight’s Journal beginning in 1825 with the intent to clarify and correct errors and misrepresentations. For example, he refutes claims that Knight was a fictitious person or that places she visited did not exist by citing historical records, verifications in state records, and individuals familiar with Knight and her family.

  • Michaelsen, Scott. “Narrative and Class in a Culture of Consumption: The Significance of Stories in Sarah Kemble Knight’s ‘Journal’.” College Literature 21.2 (1994): 33–46.

    Michaelsen finds that although Knight’s Journal has been consistently taught in survey courses there has been little scholarship on the text itself. He notes that while Knight is often portrayed positively as an adventurous traveler, her commentaries and stories also emphasize differences in social class with an intent to signal domination and superiority.

  • Salinger, Sharon. Taverns and Drinking in Early America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

    Salinger examines the role of the tavern, also known as a public house, as a place to socialize, conduct business, and find entertainment and accommodations. She notes that while Knight preferred to stay in private lodgings, she frequently lodged at taverns, which often resulted in humorous, sometimes satirical descriptions in the Journal.

  • Spengemann, William. The Adventurous Muse: The Poetics of American Fiction, 1789–1900. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

    Spengemann examines the influences of exploration and travel narratives on American fiction, from Columbus to Henry James. Observes that as Knight’s journal was compiled from her travel notes, it gives her narrative a sense of events unfolding as they happen which engages the reader. Discusses Dwight’s methods in publishing Knight’s journal in 1825.

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