Mrs. Perez Morton (Sarah Wentworth Apthorp). about 1802 by Gilbert Stuart, MFA Boston
In 1791, Massachusetts Magazine called Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846) “the American Sappho,” and she was a well-known Boston voice in the early literature of the new nation. Baptized at King’s Chapel on August 29, 1759, she was a member for much of her life. Her parents were Sarah Wentworth and James Apthorp, one of the eighteen children of Charles and Grizzel Apthorp, a prominent couple in the early years of this chapel building. Her husband Perez Morton, a lawyer who had many political roles in his career, wrote and delivered a dramatic eulogy for patriot Dr. Joseph Warren at King’s Chapel. They owned Pew 4. Proud of her mother’s family, she used the name Sarah Wentworth Morton.
Her family gave her an excellent education at a time when not all women, no matter their social status, could claim that. Many people felt education and an active intellect rendered a woman repulsive and a bad marriage prospect. Very well-read, she began writing poetry as a child. Her adult work covered topics including freedom, the new nation, women’s roles in American society, the relations among races and classes, and her own painful emotions from a troubled marriage and family tragedies.
The print industry, which brought out numerous copies of writing, including newspapers and magazines, for wide distribution, was only an 18 th -century development. Women were not always encouraged to participate in this new public sphere, so it’s not surprising that there were other avenues for sharing written work in her time. Sarah Morton and many other writers, especially women, circulated their manuscripts privately among friends, social groups, and wide networks of like-minded writers and readers. These networks encouraged commitment, gave writers an audience, and let them, especially women, support and mentor one another. The Morton home was also a popular salon and social meeting place for Boston writers of all genders. There her work was appreciated and encouraged as she welcomed and encouraged others.
She wrote most of her poetry, both short lyrics and book-length narrative poems, under the name Philenia. One-word, classical-sounding pen names were common in the 18th -century, whether one was a poet or just writing a letter to the editor! Within her network, readers would have known who she was. When she first published her poetry in 1789, the pen name may have hidden her identity, but probably not for long. She published until 1807 and then stopped.
She produced a final book in 1823, published under her own name, called My Mind and Its Thoughts, a collection of poems and short philosophical pieces. By the 1800s, the idea of the individual author as a single, inspired talent had replaced the sense of the writing community she had worked in before, and her last book seems to reflect that shift.
She died on May 14, 1846. Her will requested burial in the Apthorp family tomb beneath King’s Chapel, and requested that her children Frances and Charles be moved from their graves to lie on either side. There is no reason to assume these instructions were not followed. Although not well-known today, because later poetry trends devalued her type of classical writing, Sarah Wentworth Morton was talented, prolific, and worthy of rediscovery.
Read Sarah Wentworth Morton's poem "The African Chief"