Sarah Josepha Hale Had a Little Lamb

Sarah Josepha HaleBefore getting to the birthday, on this day in 1947, Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Disney ratted on Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance. But maybe “ratted” is the wrong word, because he didn’t actually disclose any information. He just figured they were commies. And how did he know? They were part of the 1941 animators’ strike. Like most conservatives then and now, any liberal cause from workers’ rights to civil rights to environmental regulation must be a communist plot. There are many reasons why people generally have a bad opinion of Walt Disney today. This is one of them. But I mostly only care that his cartoon shorts sucked. Thank God for Warner Bros!

On this day in 1788, a truly remarkable woman was born: Sarah Josepha Hale. She was a prominent writer and editor, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Let’s start with the fact that she was born just after the US Constitution was ratified, and she lived until well after the Civil War and shortly before the Progressive Era. As Mr Rochester would have said, she was tenacious of life.

Her parents were very liberal and so they educated her the way that they would have educated a boy. Of course, she could not go off to college, so she was largely self-taught. She became a school teacher in her early twenties but married two years later. Over the next nine year, she had five children. And then her husband died. According to Wikipedia, she worn black the rest of her long life “as a sign of perpetual mourning.” I mention it only because I love stuff like that.

A year after her husband’s death, she published her first book of poetry, The Genius of Oblivion. And then, four years later she published her first novel, Northwood: Life North and South. Her politics were fairly conservative by modern standards, but for their time, she probably was as liberal as most Democrats — maybe even me. She was against slavery, but for sending the slaves to Liberia. That was in 1827, which probably made her more liberal than Lincoln some years later. But even though she lived to 1879, she never believed in women’s suffrage.

She is considered the most important person for making Thanksgiving a holiday. I’m not at all interested in that. But I am interested in a book she wrote in 1830, Poems for Our Children. It contained perhaps the most famous poem in America:

Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow;
And everywhere that Mary went
The lamb was sure to go.

It followed her to school one day,
Which was against the rule;
It made the children laugh and play
To see a lamb at school.

And so the teacher turned it out,
But still it lingered near,
And waited patiently about
Till Mary did appear.

Why does the lamb love Mary so?
The eager children cry;
Why, Mary loves the lamb, you know,
The teacher did reply.

Perhaps Hale’s greatest legacy is that she pushed early American publishing away from English writers. At the time, most American magazines contained mostly reprinted work from our recent captors. And you can easily see why. American artists of all kinds were generally of an inferior quality. We just hadn’t set up the kind of institutions that are necessary to help young artists to maximize their potential. But obviously, the only way to do that was to encourage the publication of American writers as Hale did.

In addition to her work with magazines, she managed to publish almost fifty books in her lifetime. She lived a remarkable life.

Happy birthday Sarah Josepha Hale!

3 thoughts on “Sarah Josepha Hale Had a Little Lamb

  1. Sarah Josepha Hale, eh? Figure you’ve performed your Public Service for the day (or even the month, I’m feeling generous). I just always assumed that was something Americans got from the British before the Revolutionary War, like “Jack and Jill”, “Three Blind Mice”, “The Owl and the Pussycat”, and “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”.

    Not so, ‘eh? All that, plus Turkey Day. I’m properly amazed.

Leave a Reply