Sunday, July 18, 2010

What Happened to Rolvin?

“It is only when a woman has become utterly commonplace- mechanical and passive, that she loses the spirit of hope. Health, strength, beauty, all are the offspring of Hope.” -Elizabeth Oakes Smith (1-207)

Since I read about Rolvin, the second of the two children of Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Seba Smith who died in childhood, I have been trying to discover what happened to him. At first I looked in Oakes Smith’s dime novels for clues, and found quite a bit alluding to a mother’s feelings on the death of a child in Riches Without Wings; or The Cleveland Family, The Newsboy, and even her poem The Sinless Child. Then I stumbled upon a copy of her incomplete autobiography printed within the pages of a doctoral dissertation written in 1994 by Leigh Kirkland for Georgia State University. Kirkland analyzes and retypes the whole autobiographical manuscript, (quite a feat since the whole thing is torturously handwritten and preserved at the New York Public Library in Manhattan.) In it EOS writes about her feelings pertaining to the event, but does not chronicle the details of what happened to Rolvin.

“He was hardly seven years old when a painful accident took him from us. Years on years passed away but no time no occupation could or can efface his pure loving face from my mind.” (1- 201)

Here's some background on the manuscript. Throughout the 1860's Oakes Smith was encouraged to write an autobiography, and she started this project in 1867 with several installments of "Autobiographical Notes" published in Beadle's Monthly. In 1881 Elizabeth Oakes Smith, then an old woman, finally began writing her autobiography and submitted excerpts to The Phrenological Journal of Science and Health in 1881 and 1882 and 1890. (3)

Around 1885 she stopped with a manuscript of about 600 handwritten pages. The manuscript is unfinished and hard to follow because she doesn’t include dates. In her dissertation titled “A Human Life: Being the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith”: A Critical Edition and Introduction, Leigh Kirkland asserts the idea that the abrupt stops in the flow of the autobiography, (where EOS leave a half a page blank or replaces her own thoughts with a magazine clipping), reveal much about how the process of writing an autobiography affected the author. It seems that painful memories, or a sense of failure connected with past events halts her pen. Here we can observe a very complex and brilliant woman trying to make sense of her life, and I think that’s pretty fascinating. There is so much to learn from what EOS did write in her attempted autobiography. Although she never pursued the publication of this manuscript, she was unable to destroy it, so it must have been something she wanted to leave behind. In the autobiography, I was interested in the part where Oakes Smith tells about keeping a motherhood journal, and another book listing all the quaint sayings and stories of Rolvin.

"I wrote a biography of the child with all his pretty sayings- his tender affection- never at a loss for words- wishing to describe something about his ankle he called it the wrist of his foot.(1- 201)

That was the intended purpose of my blog, "Dude, Where Am I?” when I started it in 2008. It was my 21st century motherhood journal, and instantly public, which was simultaneously scary and thrilling. Oakes Smith later regrets having destroyed the book about Rolvin during her depression following his death. Her motherhood journal was reprinted in a book she published called Kitty Howard’s Journal. (1-181) I’m currently looking for that rare/out-of-print book.

Getting back to what happened to Rolvin, Elizabeth’s second son who was born in 1824 and died in 1832:

While I was very excited to stumble upon a typed version of EOS’s autobiography that reveals so much about the author’s emotional constitution, the researcher in me was disappointed. I still needed to know: What was the “accident”? I think one reason for my curiosity has to do with the age of my oldest son who is seven now, and the horrifying idea of losing him. My heart breaks for parents who have lost children, and since the birth of my first, this is my biggest fear.

It seems that when I begin looking for a specific detail in relation to Elizabeth Oakes Smith and I write down in one concrete sentence what I’m searching for, it turns up. Two days before my presentation for the Greater Patchogue Historical Society, I came across the question I had scribbled on my notepad: “What happened to Rolvin?”

Now, I promise you that I do not mess with Ouija boards and would not dare go near one even for fun. I do, however, believe in Google, and that’s what I did. For about the tenth time, I Googled Rolvin’s name and date of birth/death. Suddenly, something came up.

The search led me to a link to the diary of 19th century Buckfield, Maine resident Zadoc Long, archived on the internet by a Maine historical society. Long was a shopkeeper; perhaps he had a general store and so he was privy to all the news coming in and out of Buckfield. In one entry dated May 7th, 1832, Long writes about a coach driver telling him,

“Seba Smith’s oldest child died last night of a scald.” (2)

And suddenly I found another piece of the EOS puzzle. This detail fit together with pieces of Oakes Smith's autobiography where she explains the origin of Rolvin's epitaph. (I’ve copied it just as it was written in Kirkland’s dissertation purposely leaving in the stream-of-consciousness style of prose because it tells so much about this emotionally charged memory.)

“Walking with me a few days before his death, he commented on the loveliness of the day and the prospects of spring- and presenting me a few shears of grass he quoted, perhaps.

See the tender grass is springing
And the flowers will soon appear.

Perceiving that he must go (I think now it was cruel and unwise in me) I said to him, “My dear, if God thinks it best to take you to Heaven, are you willing to go?”

The darling gave a quick, startled look, never to be forgotten, and replied “I rather stay with you, dear Mama,” and kissed me tenderly.

“But I will come, darling, I will come” I added, and then with a sweet, wistful questioning he said, “And I have done some good, hav n’t I?”

“You have done nothing but good, my blessed Child.” at which an unearthly smile spread over his pale face, and he continued thoughtfully,

“Mama, do you think there are flowers and birds in heaven?”

“Yes, indeed, darling, and more beautiful things than we have here.”

“Then,” pausing, “I will go, dear Mama, and you must come.” This with a sign and a little dying kiss. The last he could give- and thus beguiled, he went past knowingly, a simple Child, into the great Unknown… On his little memorial stone in the old Cemetery of Portland, his father placed his simple query, “I have done some good, havn’t I?” (1-202)

Who knows how Rolvin was scalded. Perhaps he got too close to a cooking pot; back then the stove was virtually an open fireplace. And I thought my gas stove was dangerous.

After this horrible accident Elizabeth Oakes Smith suffered from a depression. It was her other boys, Sydney and Appleton who helped pull her back up to a functioning mode. The death of Rolvin had a jarring effect on EOS. It seemed to haunt her throughout her life, but she did not remain "mechanical and passive" and Oakes Smith's strength of character is evident in her explanation of the feelings associated with Rolvin's passing. She writes,

“I was not mad as some have been from such grief but so utterly crying out of the depths that the world and all its interests receded and were lost to me. I could do nothing but weep…I could only be repeating his lovely sayings- day and night saw me not at his grave I could not go there but striving in vain to bring myself into the position assigned to me…" (1- 201)

Coming across this piece of the EOS puzzle was so amazing. What are the chances of finding an obscure diary entry with 180 + year old gossip that fits with EOS’s incomplete autobiographical manuscript? Maybe it wasn’t chance at all.

Pictured is the 1820's kitchen of the Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House in Illinois. (Just to give the reader an idea of the look of a typical kitchen when Elizabeth Oakes Smith's was a young mother.)

1. Kirkland, Leigh. A Human Life: Being the Autobiography of Elizabeth Oakes Smith": A Critical Edition and Introduction. A dissertation for Georgia State University completed in 1994. pgs. 181, 212, 202, 207.

2. Diary of Zadoc Long. May 7th, 1832. Buckfield Maine.
Old Sturbridge Village Website.

3. Elizabeth Oakes Smith website maintained by Tim Scherman.


Tim Scherman said...


That is a pretty amazing research find! Do you have the link to that shopkeeper's diary? I will credit you on the site for this new information, and you can bet I'll tell my students who have just set out on an archival project.

Tim Scherman

Loren Christie said...

Hello Tim! It was unbelievable how that popped up on the Internet. I created footnotes at the bottom of the post with a link to the website that reprinted the diary. I will try to send the reference to you via email. Take care, Loren

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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