Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s Lyrical Activism

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The following excerpt is taken from Lyrical Strains: Liberalism and Women’s Poetry in Nineteenth-Century America by Elissa Zellinger

In the opening chapter of Elizabeth Oakes Smith’s unpublished autobiography, “A Human Life,” written while she was in her eighties, the poet describes visiting her childhood home as a forty-year-old woman. At the time of Oakes Smith’s return, a young mother and her three children live there, and the mother informs Oakes Smith that “this house has an interest of itself, a Poet was born here in this very room.” “I was pleased by this,” recalls Oakes Smith, who then hands the woman her card. When she learned that the very Poet was standing before her, the mother, according to Oakes Smith, “grasped” her hand and exclaimed, “I must know exactly how you look.” The mother then “studied [Oakes Smith’s] face with pleasant scrutiny.” At first glance, it is tempting to read this event as a testament to Oakes Smith’s lasting name as a literary figure. But the contents of “A Human Life” speak more to the anxieties Oakes Smith sought to resolve than to the life she wanted to celebrate. We can see this opening as a defensive move on her part, meant to put off what she saw as a disconcerting fate: the inevitable erasure of women writers from the public record by virtue of women’s illiberal status.

The mention of this incident is also notable for its placement in Oakes Smith’s autobiography, and not only because it appears in its first chapter. Just a page earlier, Oakes Smith had discussed the fragmentary, forgettable nature of a woman’s existence: “We live in fragments—daughter, wife, mother, friend—no woman’s life is rounded unless she fills these relations.” After “child-bearing,” she writes with some rancor, “the books are closed and [a woman] sinks into nothingness.” In sum, Oakes Smith recognized in her autobiography that self-possessed autonomy was impossible for women. Even the likelihood of living a “rounded” or full life is prohibited, since women’s lives were broken into prescribed “relations.” And such a splintered existence, she laments, is not likely to make it on “the books,” much less be celebrated. Women’s lives are therefore forgotten because they lack the self-sovereignty to socially or politically establish themselves as anything beyond “daughter, wife, mother, friend.” As a way to counter such expectations, Oakes Smith encouraged writing: “Women ought to write out their experiences, as by doing so the sex will be better understood.” This very autobiography serves as an opportunity for Oakes Smith to assert her autonomy. Indeed, she proclaims, “I have not lived in fragments. I am sure my identity has been built up fit for the ^resurrection.^ … I see how piece by piece has been linked together to make an entire whole.” No passive endeavor, the declaration of such self-possession required effort; she would have to hold herself together in order to be remembered: “Such as I am I must take hold of eternal life, and not be scattered by the elements.”

Coming on the heels of these musings, Oakes Smith’s use of capital-P “Poet” in the subsequent anecdote about her old home is no accident. Despite her work as a lecturer, journalist, novelist, and pioneering advocate for American women’s rights in the nineteenth century, the young mother knows of Oakes Smith as a “Poet.” Nor had the mother heard that a “Poetess” or “authoress” was born in her home. The story serves to prove Oakes Smith’s status as a celebrity “Poet,” or a woman who has not been forgotten. Poets, unlike women, do not sink “into nothingness”; their lives fit together to form an “entire whole.” For Oakes Smith, her status as Poet signifies her possession of autonomous personhood; her autobiography, which prominently features her poetic achievements, demonstrates the sovereignty that a Poet exerts over her life and works. Oakes Smith therefore wants readers to know that she was born in this little cottage in 1806, that she returned nearly forty years later as a famous author, and that another forty years after that she “linked together” all the parts “to make an entire whole.” In other words, “A Human Life” is the proof for Oakes Smith that her life was hers to control.

If “A Human Life” was meant to parry concerns about her legacy, it is unfortunate that it was never published. As Leigh Kirkland argues, “Much of the poignancy of this text lies in her implicit struggle against the possibility that she will be forgotten. If she does not write, no memory of her or of the times she both was shaped by and helped shape will last.” Indeed, as her opening page declares, “I will now write a book in which I will figure as the principal personage. I will speak soundly of myself. I belong now to a past period, the memory of which it may be well to retain.” To “speak soundly” and place herself in the autobiographical spotlight situated Oakes Smith as a public female figure, and in order to be this “principal personage,” she must assert her self-possession, not fragmentation. These individual concerns in fact register the problems attending the reception of women writers in the literary public sphere, a reception that had roots in the larger political conditions for women in the nineteenth-century United States. As I discussed in the introduction and chapter 1, the laws and legacy of coverture prevented women from possessing full legal rights in this era. Considered the property of their husbands, women were confined to the domestic sphere and thought to lack the ability to function as autonomous individuals in public. Women poets “write without a name,” as Eliza Richards argues, because the laws of coverture “disable” the “legal force” of her signature. With no control over the conditions of their reception, most women poets were effectively erased from public memory; their names were consumed and forgotten. Oakes Smith was constantly confronted with the possibility that she could be entirely dissolved into an indistinct generic figure in the public imagination. For that reason, it is perhaps unsurprising that Oakes Smith sought to establish herself as a name in a number of ways. To distinguish herself from her husband, the popular author and humorist Seba Smith, she changed her published name from “Mrs. Seba Smith” to “Oakes Smith.” She even named her children after herself; her son Appleton signified that the “apple” does not fall far from the tree. Oakes Smith might attempt to establish herself as a “principal personage” with these names, but publication would nevertheless threaten to dissolve her individuality.

The problem of the female poet’s fleeting fame likewise concerned Oakes Smith’s audiences. For example, included among the press clippings that Oakes Smith selected for her scrapbook is Susan E. Dickinson’s 1855 article “Women Writers: A Chapter on Their Ephemeral Reputations.” The subtitle, “Hopes and Ambitions That Have Faded in Sad Disappointments,” reinforces the ephemerality of women writers’ literary legacies. Dickinson muses, “I wonder to how many of my readers the name even, of Mrs. Elizabeth Oakes Smith is familiar, although she was one of America’s most popular writers for a generation.” Perhaps this article was included in her scrapbook because it pleased Oakes Smith—or perhaps it filled her with anxiety about her literary legacy. Indeed, Dickinson’s concluding words, “let us hope that her setting sun, and those of the few others of that illustrious coterie who are still among us, may linger in its going down and be beautiful and radiant to the last,” could be interpreted by Oakes Smith as appropriate praise or a death sentence. According to Dickinson, Oakes Smith cannot escape a reception that would make her a “setting sun.” Oakes Smith may be a name among “American women writers” and a member of their “illustrious coterie,” yet this is not enough to secure lasting fame for her. She may have enjoyed recognition, but comments like Dickinson’s tell her that this recognition will not last.

Elissa Zellinger is assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University.