Sarah Kemble Knight: Early Gossip Columnist

Sarah Kemble Knight was a unique woman who wrote a humorous journal of her journey from Boston to New York in the early eighteenth century. Unlike other women at this time, Knight was not afraid to travel by herself along an unknown trail. She also was one of the rare women who traveled for business matters instead of personal leisure. Instead of commenting on her surroundings or some spiritual journey that she experienced, like many other early American writers would have done, Knight spoke of her lodgings and the country bumpkins she encountered along the way. Knight’s Journal was meant for a small and personable group of friends and family back home in Boston, therefore she made jokes about herself and related stories she knew would be entertaining to her audience. Madam Knight gave details about her lodgings, commenting on how hard the bed was and what she was fed for dinner. In this manner, Madam Knight was one of the first entertainment travel writers. If she were alive today, one could assume she would have a television show wherein she travels around the world and discusses the best places to eat and stay. Madam Knight discussed details that promoted entertainment rather than instruction, therefore making Knight’s Journal one of the first entertainment logs built on gossip.

In order to understand Knight, one must know more about her. Spengemann relates that “Sarah was an educated, urbane woman, and like many Bostonians, then and now, she considered life outside Boston a diversion at best, and at worst a trial to be endured” (40). She was a middle-class woman whose husband was away on business. Therefore, she became a business woman and undertook many professions not open to women at this time. She became a teacher and rumor is she taught Benjamin Franklin. Through her work as a law writer she picked up on the law. Her interest in this field could explain why she undertook her journey in the first place. She went to Connecticut for an estate reading. She was a great travel writer as well as a great early American writer. “She wrote her journal from notes set down while she was traveling by land from Boston to New Haven and New York, rather than in retrospect from home” (Spengemann 40). Even in the simplest manner of writing a journal, Madam Knight differed from the average woman of the time. Madam Knight lived life robustly and was known for her independence.

Knight went off on her own from Boston to New York in order to declare independence. She set off to settle her own business while her husband was away on his business affairs. She traveled alone, unusual for a woman in this time period, and wrote her memories in a fresh and comical way. Knight left her fifteen year old daughter with her elderly mother and went off on a journey of self-satisfaction. Unlike the housewives of the times, Knight knew what she wanted and went after it. Bush says in the introduction to Knight’s Journal, “No other account like Madam Knight’s Journal, by man or woman, survives” (69). By taking this slightly selfish step, Knight created an entertaining Journal unlike any other known today. The road she took was uncharted at this time and known to be dangerous, however Knight went off on her own relying on guides at every stop to get her safely to her destination. Madam Knight was headstrong and independent, two traits typically not shown in early American writing. Knight also wrote her Journal as entertainment, another uncommon trait for the eighteenth century.

Madam Knight wrote her Journal in order to entertain her friends and family. She wrote it specifically for loved ones commenting on social behavior along the way instead of danger or exploration. Whenever she came across a life-threatening situation, she would describe the terror in small terms then immediately move on with her entertainment log. One example would be when Knight was crossing a river with her horse and it stumbled and almost fell. She says the situation “extreemly frightened mee. But through God’s Goodness I met with no harm, and mounting agen, in about half a miles Rideing, came to an ordinary, were well entertained by a woman of about seventy and vantage, but of Sound Intellectuals as one of seventeen” (102). Although she was in a dangerous situation, she did not dwell on it in her Journal. Instead she jumped ahead to the next spot of rest where she was well entertained. Written for amusement of a private circle of friends and family, she wrote herself in as a victim to her environment. Dealing with ignorant fools and “the menu of the day at every inn,” Knight made herself the humorous protagonist (Bush 70). “Such treatment of self would have appealed to an intimate circle of friends who already knew the bumptious good humor and superior physical stamina as well as mental readiness for the unforeseen which Madam Knight clearly possessed. It seems very likely that her anticipation of such an appreciative audience of listeners or readers prompted her to write her lively narrative (74-75).” Knight knew that she was writing her experience down for those who knew her well, therefore she did not need to write formally in order to instruct anyone. Instead she was allowed the freedom to talk about her lodgings and the people she met along the way. Any instructions Knight may have written down in her Journal would have been for entertainment purposes only, to stay away from the bad lodgings and gravitate towards the good.

Knight may not have written her Journal in order to seriously instruct society, however she did write a travel tale that was extremely satirical and full of humor. Her Journal is “an important contribution to the tradition of American humor, the first known substantial contribution to that tradition by a woman” (Bush 70). Journals usually dealt with some spiritual growth or tragic experience, Knight’s on the other hand, dealt with entertainment. She did not intend to instruct anyone on how to live a better life, however she did intend to remember where she slept in the worst bed. Bush continues to talk of Knight’s humor by saying, “Confident of her own middling economic and social standing, she is condescending in her comical descriptions of country people encountered on her route, from the hostesses at various inns who give themselves airs to illiterate bumpkins, Indians, and blacks, for whom she shows even less respect (70). Throughout Knight’s Journal she makes social commentary on the country folk she has met. Every time she became acquainted with another person on the road, she distanced herself from them. By doing this she stated that she was from Boston and, therefore, of a higher status than those who live in the country. Spengemann says, “When she is observing backwoods America from a moral and aesthetic distance, she assumes an identity that is not contingent on her experiences. Speaking in this voice, she regards with lofty and comic disdain the government and manners of the Connecticut settlement, the mean habitations where she is forced to lodge, or the rude antics of the backwoodsmen she meets” (41). Knight had a dry humor that some would describe as sarcasm. Her humor, as Spengemann reveals through a mixture of his thoughts and Knight’s words, “is established early on, her first guide after leaving the comforts of Dedham being an uncouth bumpkin ‘resembling a globe on a gatepost’ as he rides on before her in the gloom, a Hudibrastic ‘shade’ and the presiding genius of her voyage out: “He entertained me with the adventures he had passed by late riding, and the imminent dangers he had escaped, so that, remembering the heroes in Parismus and the Knight of the Oracle, I didn’t know but I had met with a prince disguised” (303). Although she has just begun her trip, she has already noted a fault in the man helping her and, without delay, makes whispering comments about him in her Journal. Knight criticized everyone she met from Boston to New York. Even the settlers who treated her with respect and gave her the best they could were rewarded a snide comment or satirical remark in her Journal.

Although she criticized the small people who tried to help her, she praised the Reverend Gurdon Saltonstall who later became the Governor of Connecticut. She stayed with him a day longer then she had planned and said only nice things about him. One could look at this as a way for her to sweet talk her way into a better social position. However, since her Journal was not written for society, it is hard to believe this was her intent. Another possibility could be that Madam Knight was doing an old fashioned “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” take on the Governor-to-be. Perhaps Knight was fascinated with higher society and this was why she took great pains to describe her visits into it in detail. On her stay with Mr. Saltonstall, Knight says, “I stayed a day here Longer than I intended by the Commands of the Honorable Govenor Winthrop to stay and take a supper with him whose wonderful civility I may not omitt” (113-116). Her Journal was meant as a fun distraction to herself and her loved ones. Therefore, the Knight the reader perceived in the Journal is her in bitter truth.

Knight continues her humor by telling stories throughout her Journal of people she encountered or stories that were related to her along the way. She related a story about a country town who put too much belief in their “justice system.” Knight commented on their justice system by saying, “Whipping being a frequent and counted an easy Punishment, about which as other Crimes, the Judges were absolute in their Sentences. They told mee a pleasant story about a pair of Justices in those parts, which I may not omit the relation of ” (103). She gossiped about another town’s weak justice system by telling her friends and family the troubles this country town had with official business. “Thereupon the Heathen was Seized, and carried to the Justices House to be Examined. But his worship (it seems) was gone into the feild, with a Brother in office, to gather in his Pompions” (103). She told other randomly funny stories because she knew her audience would appreciate them. She recognized a good story and told a good story in return. “Her awareness of social difference between herself and the many local people she encountered along her way does create a humorous satirical dimension in the work. Much of the time the language in her narrative is earthy, partaking of the dust of the road itself, humorous for the closeness with which she sticks to colloquial models of expression common to the people with whom she interacts (Bush 77). Her humor satirizes life and entertains loved ones. She used words and phrases close friends would understand and find funny.

Knight also used words and phrases that reflected the subject she was commenting on. Sometimes her words were short and to the point, describing people in terms such as “Indian-like animal;” at other times, when she would be describing something beautiful like a sunset, her words were long and drawn out (99). “Madam Knight’s humor does not reach these heights, yet it points the way that later American humor would go. Indeed, Knight’s journal represents in some ways the culmination of nearly all the comic themes and character types we have been considering: courtship, cultural deprivation, the American Indian, the talkative and taciturn Yankee, the shrewd Yankee trickster, the bumpkin; nearly all the stylistic techniques: mock epic language, surprising and unusual metaphors-“His shade on his Hors[e] resembled a Globe on a Gate post”-comic colloquialisms, and-an important new dimension-the interplay among sophisticated Bostonian dialect, backwoods speech, and the pidgin English of the Indian” (White 283). While relating the story mentioned above, Knight copied the dialect down precisely. She wrote, “You Indian why did You steal from this man? You sho’dn’t do so-it’s a Grandy wicked thing to steal. Hol’t Hol’t cryes Justice Junior Brother, You speak negro to him. I’le ask him. You sirrah, why did You steal this man’s Hoggshead? Hoggshead? (replys the Indian,) me no stomany. No? says his Worshipship; and pulling off his hatt, Patted his own head with his hand, sais, Tatapa-You, Tatapa-you; all one this. Hoggshead all one this. Hah! says Netop, now me stomany that” (103-104). Madam Knight’s Journal is full of humor whether it is through telling other town’s stories or relating satirical social commentaries on country folk.

Knight used words in another way that was very common in the eighteenth century, through poetry. One night when Knight could not get any rest from some drunkards nearby, she composed “Resentments, in the following manner:

I ask thy Aid, O Potent Rum!
To Charm these wrangling Topers Dum.
Thou hast their Giddy Brains possest-
The man confounded with the Beast-
And I, poor I, can get no rest.
Intoxicate them with thy fumes:
O still their Tongues till morning comes! (95).

Soon after the drunks fell asleep Knight felt she has accomplished what she had set out to do. Madam Knight did not always revert to humor in her poetry, sometimes she used poetry to describe her inner fears and thoughts as well. By speaking to “Cynthia,” Knight conjured a comforting guardian angel who would help her through the night. “Lapsing (as is her wont) into verse, Madam Knight pays homage to ‘fair Cynthia, ‘ whose ‘light can dissipate fears,’ whose ‘bright aspect rescues from despairâÂ?¦And a bright joy does through my soul diffuse,’ poetic diction again evoking an experience of grace (8)âÂ?¦The protective, transformational role of Cynthia, “the way being smooth and even, the night warm and serene,’ as in the town, Madam Knight lives on ‘Moon Street” (Seelye 305). Whenever Knight was feeling particularly vulnerable and alone she broke into verse. Knight could be perceived as a strong and independent woman throughout most of her Journal, but whenever she stops to write poetry one can see a childlike innocence in her. While looking at a city landscape, Knight was suddenly reminded of a children’s finger game. Her prose reflected this when she said, “Here stood a Lofty church-there is a steeple, And there the Grand Parade- O see the people!” (94). Spengemann viewed this flashback into childhood as “the special poignancy of the longing of the lost American, wandering through the tangled wilderness, for the symbols and splendors of civilization and culture” (284). Her poetry could be described as random, for it appears in the middle of a thought at times. However there is nothing random about her poetry. Knight used poetry to describe what she could not say in words. Her Journal was not written as a personal reflection but for entertainment for someone else. Thus whenever Knight wrote poetry she wrote for herself instead of gossiping to her friends as she did through her words and stories.

Madam Knight gossips about people in her journal. John Seelye claims in The Prophetic Waters that “Gossip lies on the far side of satire from the jeremiad, for it is based on the assumption that the confidants are themselves free of the vices, follies, and misfortunes which make up the burden of their stories, and rather than speaking in thunder, gossip denounces by means of a whisper and a smirk” (366). Knight started her comments three pages into her Journal by saying, “I told her shee treated me very Rudely” (Knight 91). At this point a woman had not treated Knight as well as she expected to be treated. Later in the paragraph, Knight wrote down a description of the horrid bed she was forced to stay in. In the next paragraph, she described what she was fed for dinner. Each place Knight stopped she commented on the bed she slept in and the food she ate. Through these actions, Knight was gossiping through words. “Women’s sense of who they wereâÂ?¦depended upon whom they defined as their female peers and what those friends, neighbors, and kin said about them. At intimate gatheringsâÂ?¦gentlewomen observed and analyzed each other’s behavior, negotiating status as they passed judgment” (Brown 285). Since Knight’s friends did not accompany her on her trip, she had to write down her judgments in her Journal. Knight still negotiated status while passing judgment, she just wrote it all down instead of speaking it aloud like one today would over a telephone or computer. Throughout the Journal, Knight passes judgment on those who let her into their place to stay. Knight commented on a horrible meal at one place by saying, “In a little time shee brot it in; but it being pickled, and my Guide said it smelt strong of head sause, we left it, and paid sixpence a piece for our Dinners, which was only smell” (102). Knight did not spare any details in her gossip or satirical humor. Not only did she talk of bad meals but also bad beds. Knight talked about one bed “which was as hard as it was high, and warmed it with a hott stone at the feet. I lay very uncomfortably, insomuch that I was so very cold and sick I was forced to call them up to give me something to warm me” (111). Knight did not feel good in this passage, yet still was wanting others to service her and make her better. Once again Knight stressed her status over those who owned the lodge, forcing a social hierarchy to occur. Social hierarchies were often times established through women’s gossip. “Gossip in eighteenth century Virginia was, therefore, not the oppositional or independent female culture; rather, it usually functioned to regulate women’s conduct in ways that preserved publicly constituted social hierarchies” (Brown 285). Knight gossips and passes judgment all throughout her Journal which helps entertain her family, her friends and herself throughout her adventure.

Madam Knight, entertainment writer extraordinaire, changes her voice toward the end of her journey. Whenever Knight reaches Connecticut she is still feisty enough to comment on the agitated nature of the people. “Madam Knight observed, by the turn of the century the inhabitants of Connecticut were not a peaceful, but restless, litigious lot, the spirit of liberty engendering more contentiousness than gratitude” (Seelye 324). Although still feisty in Connecticut, her entertainment travel writing wears her down and, as she approaches New Rochell, she has grown as a person. “Sarah Knight’s Journal tells how travel made her someone new; someone whose identity is closely tied to the scene of her transforming experiences” (Spengemann 44). After being on the road for four months, Knight began to let go of her Boston heritage and embrace the world she was occupying. She says that New Rochell “is a very pretty place well compact, and good handsome houses, Clean, good and passable Rodes, and situated on a Navigable River, abundance of land well fined and Cleerd all along as wee passed, which caused in me a Love to the place, which I could have been content to live in it (111). By the end of the journey, Madam Knight’s tough exterior and gossipy writing has wore down to a glad-to-be-home exhaustion. She states at the very end of her Journal, “I found my aged and tender mother and my Dear and only Child in good health with open arms redy to receive me, and my Kind relations and friends flocking in to welcome mee and hear the story of my transactions and travails I having this day bin five months from home and now I cannot fully express my Joy and Satisfaction” (116). Madam Knight went on a long journey, writing down sarcastic quips along the way, in order to satisfy her friends and family with tales of her strenuous experiences on the road.

Madam Knight’s Journal is an amusing account of history that can be seen as the first gossip column. She did not write her Journal in order to promote Puritanism or to tell of a captivity that happened to her, instead she wrote it to entertain her loved ones and herself. By speaking satirically of the country bumpkins along the way, Knight focused on entertainment above all else. She continued her focus on entertainment by praising Mr. Saltonstall. She wrote her praises to friends and family as a glimpse into high society, not as a stepping stool to enter into it. Knight showed her humor by telling stories she heard or experienced along her journey. Madam Knight focused her Journal on the entertainment she encountered on her trip instead of the serious subjects that one would encounter on an adventure of this size. By gossiping and writing down small entertainment quips, Knight wrote one of the first entertainment logs that survived.

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