The Life of Sarah Alden Bradford Ripley
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A well-meaning biography, mired in detail. Goodwin, an independent scholar formerly with with the Unitarian Universalist Association, may win the prize for laboring longest on a biography: 40-plus years. Ironically, the book might have been more readable had she not been quite so meticulous. The subject, absorbing and worthy of study: Sarah Ripley, a Boston teacher, mother, pastor’s wife, and one of the most learned women of the 19th century. Scioness of both the Bradford and Alden families of colonial Massachusetts, Ripley was the eldest daughter of a prosperous sea captain. Her mother’s lingering illness and eventual death forced Sarah to take responsibility for several of her younger siblings, setting a pattern of domestic constancy that would enable her to raise her own children (seven of them), take in an orphaned niece, and serve as teacher and den mother to the countless boys enrolled in her husband’s boarding school. What sets Ripley apart from other women of her era is her own astonishing erudition. A true intellectual, she would parse Greek and Latin verbs by candlelight and read the great philosophers while stirring the sauce. The Emersons were her neighbors and friends (Ralph Waldo wrote her obituary, which Goodwin uses as a fitting prologue for the book). Unfortunately, the biographer focuses so intimately on the daily dramas of Ripley’s domestic life that we only rarely can glean where her story fits into the larger context of 19th-century American womanhood. In part, this is because Ripley left no published works, only letters, and eschewed public participation in such issues as abolition and women’s rights. (Her staid husband also may have curtailed her activism and public voice; he once threatened to burn her writings when she quoted Virgil.) Goodwin should resist her tendency to lose sight of the forest for the trees. (11 b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Oct. 30th, 1998
ISBN: 1-55553-368-X
Page count: 288pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1998