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Lydia Sigourney Had A Genuine Lyrical Gift
In "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Huck takes shelter with a family after the raft he and Jim are riding is destroyed by a steamboat. The grim cemetery paintings of a deceased daughter, Emmeline, are displayed around the house, and in a scrapbook is one of her poems:
And did young Stephen sicken,
And did young Stephen die?
And did the sad hearts thicken,
And did the mourners cry?
"She warn't particular, she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful," the family tells Huck. "Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her `tribute' before he was cold."
Mark Twain was parodying the work of his Hartford predecessor Lydia Huntley Sigourney, so famous in her time that she published 64 books, all the city church bells rang for an hour for her funeral and two streets were named after her - Huntley Place and Sigourney Street.
Lydia Huntley was born in Norwich, daughter of a gardener on an estate, and at 13 she wrote her first poem to honor its mistress when she died. In 1814, Daniel Wadsworth invited her to Hartford to start a school for the daughters of his friends, and her first book, "Moral Pieces in Prose and Verse," was published in the city a year later. Through the Wadsworths, she met Charles Sigourney, a wealthy businessman whom she married in 1819. During her lifetime, The Courant published nearly 200 of her verses.
Her output was prodigious. In 1846, she wrote 91 published poems, carefully recorded on a chart, including "Epitaph on a Young Lady" and "Epitaph on an Inmate of the Retreat." (The Retreat for the Insane was the predecessor of the Institute of Living.)
Sigourney died in 1865. When a collection of her papers was given to the Hartford Public Library in 1985, scholar Alice DeLana of Miss Porter's School acknowledged that "her muse of inspiration bore more resemblance to the grim reaper than to an ethereal will-o'-the-wisp."
In recent years, scholars have acknowledged her real lyrical gifts. At a time when women writers wrote much of American literature, jokes like Twain's at their expense were cheap, they say.