Sarah Kemble Knight (1666-1727)

    Contributing Editor:
    Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    This journal is one of the most teachable colonial documents at the undergraduate level. Students respond positively to Knight's humorous portrait of herself and her surroundings. Through this document--and others--a teacher can counterbalance the still all-too-common stereotype of Puritans as dour, somber, unsmiling, and morbidly pious.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    1. Position of women--especially women writers--in late seventeenth-and early eighteenth-century New England.

    In theory, Puritans used the typological significance of Eve's creation from Adam's rib as a way to stress women's dependence, domesticity, and intrinsic inferiority. Ninety-nine percent of women married at least once in Puritan New England, and a wife's major purpose was to serve God and her husband. Sermons, for example, frequently stressed the ideal woman's qualities of modesty, piety, humility, patience, charity, and so on. But in practice, of course, women were often far from ideal, and in a frontier society they sometimes had to take on men's work. Thus there is evidence that women became printers, stationers, writers, and innkeepers, for example--usually on the death of their father or husband. Sarah Kemble Knight is a case in point, and students might be asked to find textual evidence of Knight's business skills.

    2. Views of the frontier/wilderness at this time.

    3. Sociological issues like views of blacks, Indians, and other settlers in different colonies.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Discuss the genres of diary, journal and autobiography and also explain how this journal fits the fictional genre of the picaresque. Compare the popular, colloquial quality of this work with more academic works to understand what the ordinary Puritan citizen might think/read vs. what the well-educated, but few, members of the intelligentsia might think/read. Such a discussion inevitably involves other colonial works in these genres and helps students understand generic interrelationships. The diary (Sewall's is a prime example) focuses on externals; is unrevised, immediate, and fragmentary; may extend for many years; and usually has no audience in mind except the writer him- or herself. A journal, however (Knight's, for instance), focuses more on internal matters; may be slightly revised; may be written shortly after the fact; may extend over a shorter time period, sometimes to deal with a specific event like a courtship or a journey; should appear relatively coherent; and is probably written with a restricted audience in mind. The autobiography and the spiritual autobiography are often considered the most "literary" of the genres because they are more carefully structured and composed.

    Original Audience

    This work was not written with publication in mind, and indeed although written during 1704-1705 was not published until 1825. Like the work of other women writers and amateur authors, this might have been circulated among family and friends by the author, but it did not have a wider readership until it was actually published.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Compare with other women writers of the time: Anne Bradstreet and Mary Rowlandson, for example. Such comparisons do not reveal a direct influence or sense of tradition among women writers; rather, each person and her work must be considered separately. Contrast with journals of male contemporaries (other travel journals, for example).

    Questions for Reading and Discussion

    1. Look at Knight as heroine/protagonist of her story/journal.

    2. Look carefully at how the wilderness is presented.

    3. Look at exactly what she chooses to record in this journal.

    4. Notice the lack of religious themes.

    5. Discuss Knight as driven by middle-class consumer values.

    6. Discuss Knight's racism.


    I attached a reading list to the headnote. Please see the suggested readings there. A provocative reading of the Journal can be found in Julia Stern, "To Relish and to Spew: Disgust and Cultural Critique in The Journal of Madam Knight." Legacy 14 (1997):1-12.