American Literature Sarah Wentworth Morton
Tamara Harvey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0245


Sarah Wentworth Morton (b. 1759–d. 1846) was born in Boston, Massachusetts to James Apthorp and Sarah Wentworth. She was well known as a poet of the early US republic, publishing in periodicals like The Massachusetts Magazine and self-publishing three long history poems during the 1790s. Both the Apthorps and Wentworths were prominent merchants with ties to the slave trade. Morton’s family had Tory leanings during the American Revolution, while Morton had Patriot sympathies, as did her husband, Perez Morton, a Revolutionary leader who pursued a successful career in law and politics. Her marriage to Perez was marked by a notorious scandal—his affair with Sarah’s sister, Frances, who committed suicide after giving birth to their child. This scandal has shaped critical approaches to Morton’s work, most significantly when she was misidentified during the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth as the author of The Power of Sympathy, a seduction novel by William Hill Brown that treated both her family scandal and the death of Elizabeth Whitman, which later inspired Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette. Especially during the 1790s, Morton’s poetry was self-consciously that of the new republic, focusing on American topics framed by classical and world-historical exempla. Her three long poems are particularly ambitious in this regard, with Beacon Hill and The Virtues of Society focusing on battles of the American Revolution in epic terms that highlight US geography and political organization, while Ouâbi represents American vigor and virtue through the heroic sacrifice of a Native American chief. Morton’s shorter abolitionist poem, “The African Chief,” also focuses on the tragic death of a heroic leader. Morton’s contributions to an emerging American imaginary are inseparable from changing opportunities for women writers and the rise of periodical publication during this period, much of it sustained by the works of women writers, including Judith Sargent Murray and Mercy Otis Warren, whom Morton mentions in her works. In 1823, Morton published My Mind and Its Thoughts in Sketches, Fragments, and Essays, a collection of poems, aphoristic reflections, and short essays that demonstrates her ongoing literary ambitions as well as her mature reflections on a life marked by loss and personal challenges. Morton’s life and work shed light on efforts to develop a literary culture to match the political and social aspirations of a new nation as well as opportunities and limitations shaping women’s writing during the early US republic. The author wishes to thank Audrey Morales for her assistance on this project.

General Overviews

Pendleton and Ellis 1931 remains the only book-length biography of Sarah Wentworth Morton. This valuable resource includes the most complete account of Morton’s life and archive. Most other overviews situate Morton with respect to other American women poets, particularly those of the early US republic, though the entry on Morton included in Duyckinck and Duyckinck 1855 focuses on her place within early national letters. Loebel 1987 provides a brief overview of Morton’s biography and publications that includes specific information about her personal experiences, her social commitments, and her literary contributions. Including Morton in an anthology that treats the pre-revolutionary period, Cowell 1981 pays attention to coterie writers as well as late-18th-century political and social concerns. Watts 1977 and Vietto 2018 pay more attention to the specific conditions shaping women’s poetry of the 1790s, including US patriotism, periodical publication, and the conventions of public poetry in this period. Porterfield 1985 situates Morton in a longer genealogy of American women poets, looking back to Anne Bradstreet and forward to Lydia Huntley Sigourney.

  • Cowell, Pattie. Women Poets in Pre-Revolutionary America, 1650–1775: An Anthology. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1981.

    Emphasizes the coterie of writers surrounding Morton and draws our attention to other sorrows beyond the tragic suicide of her sister Frances, particularly the deaths of her children. Also pays attention to Morton’s treatment of political and social issues. The checklist of works provided at the end of the volume is useful for identifying key periodical publications for Morton and her contemporaries. On Morton, pp. 179–191, 366–368.

  • Duyckinck, Evert Augustus, and George Long Duyckinck. Cyclopaedia of American Literature. Vol. 1. Boston: Charles Scribner, 1855.

    Contains more information about Perez Morton than most treatments of Morton and attributes her fame during her lifetime to her friendship with Robert Treat Paine, Jr. Ouâbi is identified as her most significant work, though the poem quoted in the entry is a song she wrote marking the end of the War of 1812 that draws on Bishop Berkeley’s treatment of empire (translatio studii et imperii). On Morton, p. 483.

  • Loebel, Dusky. “MORTON, Sarah Wentworth (1759–1846).” In A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers. Edited by Janet Todd, 227–228. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987.

    Observes that Morton was unusually well-educated as a girl and benefited from the influence of distinguished neighbors but also suffered painful losses. The brief overview of her writings attends to the full range of her publications, noting that she was one of the earliest sonnet writers in the United States and stressing her support of abolition and religious tolerance in her poetry.

  • Pendleton, Emily, and Milton Ellis. Philenia: The Life and Works of Sarah Wentworth Morton, 1759–1846. Orono, ME: University Press, 1931.

    The only book-length literary biography of Sarah Wentworth Morton, based on Pendleton’s thesis and coauthored with her advisor, Milton Ellis, managing editor of The New England Quarterly. Motivated by an effort to determine whether Morton wrote The Power of Sympathy, and concluding definitively that she did not, this work remains a rich source for archival information and family history while treating the full span of Morton’s literary output.

  • Porterfield, Amanda. “Sarah Wentworth Morton.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 37, American Writers of the Early Republic. Edited by Emory Elliott, 237–240. Detroit: Gale, 1985.

    This short, detailed biography situates Morton’s poetry with respect to both Anne Bradstreet and Lydia Huntley Sigourney, suggesting a literary genealogy while also detailing her familial one.

  • Vietto, Angela. Gale Researcher Guide for: Sarah Wentworth Morton and Early Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Poetry. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2018.

    Situates Morton’s career with respect to both the formal aspects of late-18th-century poetry and the forms of circulation women writers used to share their poetry with readers. Vietto’s readings of “The African Chief” and “Stanzas to a Husband Recently United” treat two areas in Morton’s poetry that have most consistently engaged reader interest: Morton’s approach to race and antislavery and to her family scandal.

  • Watts, Emily Stipes. The Poetry of American Women from 1632 to 1945. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977.

    DOI: 10.7560/764354

    Groups Morton with Margaretta Bleecker Faugères as a “magazine poet.” She argues that among women poets of the late eighteenth century, Morton most successfully “competed with the men on their terms” (p. 56), and perhaps for this reason finds the poetry derivative and the representations of women “pure, noble, and passive,” though Watts singles out Ouâbi as Morton’s “one notable poem” (p. 55). On Morton, pp. 54–56.

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