A Charleston Poet in a Calico Gown


Happy 216th birthday to Penina Moise (1797-1880): poet, Southerner, and Sunday school superintendent. Moise’s life could have been a Victorian melodrama: One of 9 children born to French immigrants in Charleston, South Carolina, a fatherless Penina left school at age 12 to care for her asthmatic brother and her sick mother.

Despite her responsibilities, she found time to write, and in 1833, the genteelly-titled Fancy’s Sketch Book made her the first Jewish woman poet to be published in America. Devout and prolific, her poems memorialized the plight of Jews worldwide, and she also wrote patriotic verse and hymns.

She never married, buried most of her family, and by the 1860s was completely blind and living in poverty. But according to Charlotte Adams’s gushing report, quoted in the introduction to Moise’s Secular and Religious Works, the elderly “Miss Penina” was nonetheless known for her kindness and wit in Charleston’s Jewish community. Seated in her rocking chair and wearing a “plain calico gown,” Moise was an “incarnation of intellectual and social splendor—a queen of Charleston literary society” as well.

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