Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Elizabeth Oakes-Smith's Legacy

Researching the life of Elizabeth Oakes Smith and her husband, Seba Smith, has brought to mind so many questions for me in regard to the impact of a person's life on the world. Although Mrs. Oakes-Smith managed a household (that included boarders who were employed at Seba's publication The Argus), raised six children, was vocal in the early feminist movement, worked as an editor, published novels and collections of poetry, at the end of her life she did not feel that she had fulfilled her potential. In her journal she writes that she is ashamed that all of her writing does not reflect her life, but rather, "the promise of childhood." (Picture and quote is from T. Scherman's website www.oakes-smith.org)

Much of what Mrs. Oakes-Smith was trying to change did not shift before her death, so she never saw the fruits of her labor, like other early feminists. Many of her poems are really wonderfully written, in terms of imagery and style, and yet, they do not enjoy the same longevity as the works of some of her contemporaries. Why?

I read the novel Bertha And Lilly; Or the Parsonage of Beech Glen with this question in mind. This book is rare and out of print, (my favorite kind). There is no doubt that Elizabeth Oakes-Smith is a skilled writer with good ideas and an interesting imagination. However, in this novel, something is lost over time. The romance is outdated and under-developed in that the feelings and actions of the characters just do not translate to the modern person. I'm not sure why this is so; some of the best love stories of all time are ancient.

In this novel the author incorporates sections of speeches on women's suffrage in a way that is a bit hard to follow and it chops up the story. I think she needs a better editor. However, her ideas are golden and very modern. While I can see this book's shortcomings, I also appreciate its obscureness. Reading an antique out-of-print "dime novel" is like traveling abroad and staying at someone's home instead of at a hotel. You learn details about the culture of the place that you would not have otherwise been exposed.

This novel reflects the full spectrum of Elizabeth Oakes-Smith's views on woman's suffrage, the roles of a husband and wife, the abuse of children and women who are marginalized by economic structure in the mid-1800's, and hypocrisy within religious institutions. The story helps me to imagine the culture of a small American rural community, like Patchogue, in the 1850's.

In the story a minister takes the advice of a woman in his congregation named Bertha, and opens a school that would educate both girls and boys in religious and academic studies. His students turn out to be orphans, and although he believes the school will fail because such children "cannot be taught," the minister learns that he is wrong on several levels, and falls in love with Bertha. The character Bertha, who embodies the views of the author, shows the minister the injustices that are embedded in his religious creed and reveals how love and true concern can set any child up for success, regardless of economic or emotional position.

There are some very poetic passages in this book that I enjoyed reading. Here is one of them:
"A warm autumnal haze lay upon the landscape, and in the distance the cold blue of the water glittered with a bright sheen, that harmonized well with the unclouded atmosphere. I felt my spirit rise under the invigorating air, and I moved with a lighter tread, and became endowed with a more courageous life." (114)

Reading this novel gave me a better sense of the author's values and belief system. One can clearly see in it Elizabeth Oakes-Smith's personal struggle with religious ideas, and her longing for equality of citizenship. The minister's character states:

"I think Miss Bertha has scruples as to the present form...She believes in a one entire brotherhood - a universal church. The symbolic bread and wine, she believes, should be proffered to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ, without distinction of age, sex, or condition. It is the type of fraternity, not the privilege of the few." (133)

Elizabeth Oakes Smith was raised on Puritan ideas, living on the farm of her grandfather Esquire Blanchard Prince, a French Huguenot descended from five brothers who traveled to the new world on The Mayflower. (Her father was lost at sea when she was very young. She calls her father's family "free thinkers.") Oakes-Smith describes her Puritan grandfather in her autobiography:

"Grandfather Blanchard was a tall, handsome man, a trifle fond of showing his person to advantage; he always wore ruffles and white topped boots with dangling tassels." (15)

Bertha and Lilly; or The Parsonage of Beech Glen was written at the height of the author's mental struggle with religious matters, in the early 1850's. Although one of her sons, Edward, converted to Catholicism, Mrs. Oakes-Smith contemplated and admired the Catholic faith, but "could not quite accept its creed." The idea expressed by the character Bertha does not reflect the Catholic belief that the Eucharist and wine(blood of Christ) are not symbols, but rather, Jesus present in this moment.

Oakes-Smith made the welfare of others her business, taking a special interest in the disadvantaged children of her community, as is reflected in this novel and her book published in the same decade, The Newsboy. She visited women in prisons and lectured against Capital Punishment.

She was a feminist in the purest sense of the word, pro-family, pro-life, and speaking up for economic equality for all Americans, especially women.

Perhaps Mrs. Oakes-Smith felt that her work was incomplete at the end of her life, because it was. The feminist movement shifted its focus at the turn of the century, and while some strides were made by the 1970's, other aspects of the movement were distorted and unfulfilled. Mrs. Oakes-Smith did make a difference however, and her conversation will live on at least on this blog, if not through her novels.

The idea of economic equality for women has not been fully realized to this day, and that will be the subject of my next post on Elizabeth Oakes-Smith titled:

Our Founding Mothers Are Rolling in Their Graves

Right now I have to go adjust a potty seat. See you then.


Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller said...

She truly is a great role model for us modern but traditional feminists to look up to. I look forward to reading more about her from you!

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Loren Christie said...

Hi Jack, Sure. Please send me the link as well. I'd like to read your work on this topic. -Loren

Anonymous said...


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Loren Christie said...

Hi Daniel, Sure, and please send me a link to your work. Loren

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Loren Christie said...

I am happy to share this information, however, I would appreciate a backlink or blog credit as I always try to do the same for sources that I use here. Also, some of what I have written about EOS has not been discussed anywhere online before because I am digging into microfilm and archived newspapers. Please respect the time and effort I put into this research by citing this blog as a source. Thanks,

Anonymous said...

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Dear Internet Traveler,

Welcome to my writer's blog, started about six years ago for fun. Over time, the writing I have posted has ranged from personal reflection, to Long Island history research, to tall tales for my own amusement, to feature articles for local newspapers. As you can see from topics listed here, I travel in many mental directions in regard to interests. Click on the tabs and labels to explore my strange mind which senses that you may be having a criss-cross day. If so, perhaps this blog will distract you. However, please note that if you tell me my blog is beautiful just to get me to advertise rhinoplasty surgery and cheap drugs from Canada in your comment, I will ask the gods to give you a tail that cannot be concealed.


Loren Christie

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