The Female Prose Writers of America: With Portraits, Biographical Notices, and Specimens of their Writings/E. Oakes Smith
E. OAKES SMITH.
About twelve miles from the city of Portland, in Maine, a pretty cottage just on the edge of a thick wood is pointed out by the neighbours with a feeling of pride, as the birth-place of Mrs. E. Oakes Smith. Her maiden name was Elizabeth Oakes Prince. One of the earliest of the settlers of Maine was an ancestor of hers by the name of Prince, and there is a tract of land in Maine, called “Prince’s Point,” where her ancestors settled in 1630, having gone there from Massachusetts. Her grandfather died in the year 1849, at the age of ninety-seven. He is described as having been a tall, handsome, patriarchal man, in appearance. Her mother, too, is described as an imperious, intellectual woman, with strong characteristics, and exceedingly beautiful. Her name was Blanchard, and she is of Huguenot descent. On the father’s side Mrs. Smith is of a puritan family.
She gave early indications of genius. The only circumstance of her childhood, however, that seems particularly noticeable, is her habit while a mere girl, of dramatizing little extempore plays, when as yet she had never seen or heard of such a thing, and in a family where Shakspeare was regarded as an abomination, and his readers as——no better than they should be!
She was married at the early age of sixteen to Mr. Seba Smith, so widely known as the original “Jack Downing.” Mr. Smith at the time of his marriage was the editor of the leading political journal of Maine. They are at present living in New York.
Mrs. Smith’s poems have never been fully collected. One small volume has been published, and has run through seven or eight editions. “The Sinless Child” has been greatly admired, as also have been her “Sonnets,” and many other small occasional pieces. Her largest work in verse is a tragedy, called “The Roman Tribute,” which was acted in New York, but I believe has never been printed.
As a prose writer, Mrs. Smith has been for several years a frequent contributor to the leading Magazines. Her contributions of this sort, chiefly stories and sketches, would make several volumes. Her magazine stories are chiefly of a legendary character, and many of them are connected with the history of her native State. She purposes collecting and publishing them under the title of “Legends of Maine.”
Her largest story, “The Salamander,” was published in a volume in 1848. She has chosen for the scene of this story the romantic valley of the Ramapo, in the State of New York, and dated it about two centuries back. It is, however, purely an imaginative, not an historical work. There may be facts embodied in the narrative, of which types are to be found in the early history of the Dutch colony, as there may be descriptions of scenery corresponding to what actually exists in the Ramapo valley. But the ideas which form the staple of the book, and which give it all its significance, are no more American, than the ideas of the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” are English. The work, in other words, is purely of an imaginative character. It is founded on those dark mysterious legends—half Christian, half pagan—which prevailed in central Germany during the middle ages. Out of these wild myths, Mrs. Smith has produced a fiction, somewhat over-bold in speculation, occasionally careless in execution, but full of significance, brilliant—almost dazzling—in some of its conceptions, and everywhere teeming with grace and beauty.
“Riches Without Wings,” “Western Captive,” “Moss Cup,” and “Dandelion,” are the titles of some of her smaller volumes.
At present, Mrs. Smith is engaged upon a series of papers for the New York Tribune, called “Woman and her Needs.”
The extracts which follow are taken from the “Salamander.” The full significance of these passages does not appear, when they are thus sundered from their connexion. But the extraordinary beauty of the descriptions must be obvious to every reader.