BEACON HILL: A LOCAL POEM, HISTORIC AND DESCRIPTIVE. BOOK I. [all published]

Boston: Printed by Manning & Loring for the Author, 1797. First and only edition. 4to, ix, (10)-56pp; unprinted bluish-gray laid wrappers (sewn). Wrappers detached, lacking spine and with minor chipping; small tear to rear cover taped. At the title page is written in a contemporary hand, "By / Mrs. Sarah W. Morton." Generally fresh and sound.
Sarah Wentworth Apthorp Morton (1759-1848), poet and author, was born into an affluent, established New England family. Though little is known of her education, her writings attest to her learning. She grew up in Braintree near where John and Abigail Adams lived as did John Hancock and his family. It was a lively intellectual milieu and Sarah and Abigail Adams became lifelong friends. As a young woman, she started writing poetry and circulating it in manuscript among friends. With marriage in 1781 to Perez Morton, a Harvard graduate and a figure in Boston politics, Sarah focused her energies on her family and her five children who appeared in rapid succession. The couple occupied the Apthorp House, her ancestral home in Boston where they became leading lights in Boston society. Assured, intelligent and attractive, husband and wife seemed charmed. This charmed life was shattered in 1788 when it became public that Sarah's sister Frances had borne Perez' child. Frances committed suicide. (A neighbor, William Hill Brown, used the scandal as the basis of his 1789 novel, THE POWER OF SYMPATHY, generally considered the first American novel, and ironically, attributed to Mrs. Morton for many years.) Sarah refused to allow this tragedy to destroy her family. She began to submit poetry to the MASSACHUSETTS MAGAZINE using the pen name "Constantia" and later "Philenia." The elegant, elegiac tone of the verse attracted praise from colleagues who dubbed her the 'Sappho of America.' She published her first major poem, OUABI: or the Virtues of Nature in 1790, an Indian tale that forecast her focus on American themes. Jacqueline Hornstein, in AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS, emphasizes the poet "wrote verse about the new nation's ideological issues. Her best works in this vein [in which she includes BEACON HILL] demonstrate a well-developed social and moral conscience, independent thought, and notable poetic scope".
The ambitious BEACON HILL followed seven years later. The work was the first and only published part of Morton's projected verse history of the American Revolution, dedicated to "the Citizen-Soldiers who fought, conquered, and retired, under the banners of Washington and Freedom." In it she gives an epic aura to Boston's role in the Revolutionary War and then enlarges her vista to the thirteen colonies: "…from the snowy District of the Maine / To where reed Georgia spreads her parching plain / In one fix'd union, with one soul inspired." The poem declares "Assert your right, which self-supported rise, / Free as the air, and boundless as the skies." She envisions the American example of "Equal Freedom" gradually "like the sun this genial globe entwine." An early abolitionist, Morton also points to the evils of slavery in her description of Georgia where "Afric feel thee on her ravaged plain, / And stay they step, and stop thy hand in vain." She further notes "Georgia for a long time after its first settlement opposed the importation of African slaves; but finally, influenced by the bad example of the neighboring colonies, she fell into the pernicious traffic, and the lands are now generally cultivated by that unhappy people."
BEACON HILL sounds these of individual liberty and responsibility, of patriotic ardor and social protest, and portrays a new nation and a new national identity. AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS, Vol. 3, pp. 230-232. CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE, Vol. 1, pp. 596, 607 and 627. NAW, Volume II, pp. 586-587. Item #63689

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