Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Seeing the World Through the Lens of a 19th Century American









The best part about reading a rare, out-of-print book is that it gives a raw snapshot of everyday life, the kind that sends you researching customs and antiquated vernacular. Recently, I read Riches Without Wings; or The Cleveland Family by Elizabeth Oakes Smith. Published in New York in 1838, it was Smith’s first novel and was very popular at the time. Several editions were released under the name Ernest Helfenstein or Mrs. Seba Smith. It was originally described as a moralist novel, which is a YA novel for 19th century teens, and sold for about a dollar a copy.

Even more fascinating are the events that occurred in the author’s life that led to the penning of this story. She and her husband, Seba, were victims of The Panic of 1837. Seba Smith lost a fortune in land speculation, and the family, which included four children at the time, had to relocate from Maine to New York City, boarding in the home of Elizabeth’s cousin.

The Panic of 1837, one of the first economic crisis in the United States, resulted from the decisions of President Andrew Jackson and his administration. However, since Martin Van Buren took office just as the Panic hit, he was blamed and the crisis cost him re-election. The main reason for the Panic was the inflation of land prices and the overproduction of paper money by the banks, according to Jacksonian Democrats at the time. An executive order blocking the use of paper money for property payment added to the panic. Banks all across the country closed. According to Wikipedia.com, bank failures in New York alone added up to 100 million dollars. It took about six years for the economy to recover and interestingly, the publishing industry, Seba Smith’s livelihood, was hit very hard.

The economic downturn presented an opportunity for a 32 year old Elizabeth Oakes Smith to step out of the shadows as a writer, where formerly she was editing and contributing to Seba's magazines under pseudonyms. She started marketing her writing to help support the family and Seba was in no position to disagree. The following excerpt is from a biographical article about EOS written by editor Rufus Wilmot Griswold in 1873.

“The embarrassed affairs of Mr. Smith (who, himself a poet, partook with a poet's sanguineness of temper in that noted attempt to settle the wild lands of Maine, which proved so disastrous a speculation to some of the wealthiest families of the state) first impelled Mrs. Oakes-Smith to take up her pen to aid in the support of her children. She had before that period, indeed, given utterance to her poetic sensibilities in several anonymous pieces, which are still much admired. But a shrinking and sensitive modesty forbade her appearing as an author; and though, in her altered circumstances, when she found that her talents might be made available, she did not hesitate, like a true woman, to sacrifice feeling to duty, yet some of her most beautiful prose writings still continue to appear under nommes de plumes, with which her truly feminine spirit avoids identification.”

Riches Without Wings; or The Cleveland Family explores the meaning of wealth. EOS seems to attempt to deal with her family’s financial struggles in the fleshing out of the story. The novel provokes discussion of the question: What is real wealth? The author paints an interesting, detailed picture of a working class Victorian American family. Essentially, the novel suggests that the loss of wealth, or lack thereof, can be perceived as a blessing in that it forces one to focus on true riches, which are spiritual, not material, in nature.

“Conscience was stifled by the noisy clamor of pride and vanity; and it was not till they were hushed, that you could hear its still, small voice.” (57)

According to the author, spiritual wealth is comprised of:

-an awareness of the beauty of nature
-a cultivation of relationships – even the difficult ones
-the ability and a willingness to help others in need
-a healthy intellect
-simplicity of living which leads to true freedom
-faith in God

Elizabeth Oakes Smith's aim in writing this book is to “teach these children to love, not the things that are seen and temporal, but the things that are unseen and eternal.” (33)

In this novel, the author points out the abundant riches that nature provides to those who take the time to notice. To the Cleveland family, flowers are as valuable as currency. I really enjoyed the details of a courtship involving the Victorian meaning of flowers in this story. Today we call 1-800-flowers, but back then people gave hand-picked wild flower bouquets as presents, and each blossom carried a pointed message. Man, I love that. We need to bring that custom back.

The description of the Cleveland family cottage is so quaint and specific. It is not an elaborate floor plan, but the home is very comfortable and warm. It is a one story cottage with lush gardens in a rural setting. One large room serves as a parlor, sitting room and dining room. The kitchen is located on a porch, and two small bedrooms are off the main room. One bedroom is the master, and the other is for grandfather Cleveland who is so darn cute. The children sleep in the attic room with eaves. The children are two teens, George and Mary, and baby Edward, who is a toddler. Later in the story another brother is born. The family builds a small extension for a library room. All the neighbors visit to read there. The protagonist is Mary Cleveland, a 16 year old who is learning about the true meaning of wealth through her interaction with other girls in town. The reader follows Mary into adulthood. Although the Cleveland house is very simple, Mrs. Cleveland has a knack for bringing the beauty of nature indoors. Therefore, the reader gets the sense that the modest home is a beautiful oasis nonetheless.

“Think how beauty is lavished on every side of us, if we have but the power to perceive it.” (22)

Some incidents in the story shed insight into the personal life of Elizabeth Oakes Smith. The Clevelands witness wealthy neighbors go broke. Even more poignant is the death of the character baby Edward. After contracting Scarlet Fever and enduring an unbreakable fever, baby Edward falls into a peaceful, listlessness dying in the arms of Mrs. Cleveland. Oh, how I cried through this chapter just imagining the loss of a toddler, which was much more common in the 19th century. It brought back memories of my first son’s out-of-control Pneumonia and subsequent hospitalization. How blessed we are with modern medicine that can do so much to heal the human body. I think that we are so used to vaccines and medicines that we sometimes forget the fragility of human life. Nineteenth century people were much more aware of it.

“Many had been the bereavements of Mrs. Cleveland, but she was now called to feel the far more bitter grief of a mother’s sorrow. Mothers alone can tell how her heart yearned to meet once more the dove-like beaming of those eyes, now closed in death; to feel the little arms about her neck, and the soft lips pressed to hers in gentle caressing. An unnatural stillness rested upon the dwelling, for the cheerful prattle of little Edward, and the sound of his busy feet upon the floor, were hushed forever.” (104-105)

Mrs. Cleveland finds consolation for the loss of baby Edward in her faith. I think this chapter shows the author working out mentally her own experience of losing children. Elizabeth Oakes Smith had six sons:

Benjamin(1824)
Rolvin(1825-1832)
Appleton(1828-1887)
Sydney(1830-1869)
Alvin(1832-1902)
Edward(1834-1865)

Benjamin died as an infant. I have not been able as of yet to find out what happened to him, but maybe he contracted Scarlet Fever like the little boy in the Cleveland family. Rolvin died at age seven from an accident of some kind. I’m still searching for information in the microfilm about his death. At any rate, Elizabeth Oakes Smith was well acquainted with the horrific experience of losing a child. I think that she aspired to handle the tragedies in her life with the grace and faith of the character Mrs. Cleveland, but at times fell into a funk that is expressed in her poetry. This only makes her more human; I like that she steps out from behind the Victorian veil of perfection and suggests the truth, not for the sake of shocking others, but just to be herself.

“We must live by faith,” Mrs. Cleveland tells Mary, “in the hopes of a better world. The hopes of heaven are the highest riches- the only enduring riches.”

I loved this book. The lesson in this story is timeless and it is exactly what I need to hear 172 years later. Setbacks are not always negative in that they force us to re-evaluate our spiritual path. Sometimes when you are moving full speed ahead you get off track. What I also find fascinating is the idea that in every century people are struggling with the same ideas and hardships.

Picture is a US Whig Party poster showing unemployment in 1837 -(the father is saying: "I have no money and cannot get any work." The children are saying: "Father, can I have a piece of bread?", "I say father, can you spare some Specie Claws?", "I'm so hungry." The mother is saying: "My dear, cannot you contrive to get some food for the children? I do not care for myself." The men in blue are saying: "I say Sam, I wonder where we are to get our Costs?")

5 comments:

rhymeswithplague said...

A very interesting post! We are supposed to admire Jacksonian democracy to hear some people talk, but inflation of land prices and the overproduction of paper money has been replaced in our own day by deflation of land prices and the overproduction of paper money. Some things never change.

Don't mind me. I haven't had my morning coffee yet.

Putz said...

oh loren russell. aaaaaaaaaaaaaa[middle name??}it is elizabeth isn't it????????????

Loren Christie said...

I was thinking the same thing, Mr. Brague. I associate President Jackson's administration with the abuse and dehumanization of Native American people, so I don't think highly of him as a leader.

Loren Christie said...

Mr. Putz, Yes Elizabeth is my middle name. My mother chose it because of some old rule having to do with my baptism. There is no saint Loren so mom picked Elizabeth as a middle name. Interestingly, St. Elizabeth Seton died on my birth day and was canonized the year I was born.

Milk Man said...

I love the historical context that you provide.

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.

Fondly,

Loren Christie

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