More Archive Adventures: More Context for “The Black Fortune-Teller”

Elizabeth Oakes Smith is my longest-running research interest and my most recent foray into her work is a study of her first piece of fiction, a short story titled “The Black Fortune-Teller” (1831). I first encountered this story back in 2013 when I was working my way through the Maine Historical Society’s archives of 1820-30s newspapers. I remember being puzzled by its departure from her usual style but brushed it aside at the time as a project for another day. I would not return to it in earnest until earlier this year, when I was asked to join a panel Tim Scherman organized for the ALA conference last spring.

“Fortune-Teller” does not lose its intrigue upon closer scrutiny. Although numbering little more than a thousand words, it packs a punch. To briefly summarize, the titular fortune teller is an escaped slave named Cleopatra who makes her living in the north who is visited one night by a mysterious woman in a cloak. In a not-unexpected twist, we discover that the woman is Cleopatra’s old mistress, now fallen upon hard times. Ultimately, Oakes Smith capitulates to popular narratives of the time and closes her tale with Cleopatra returning to a life of service, but not without Cleopatra’s insistence that she be paid for her labor.

There are several things I find fascinating about this story: a black female subject, said subject’s demand to be paid for her labor, and the inclusion of a flashback to Cleopatra’s kidnapping by slavers that is blatantly sympathetic to the captured rather than their white captors. The common thread weaving through these points of interest is the opportunity to analyze not just Oakes Smith’s attitudes towards race, but those of 19th century Portland as well.

As part of my efforts to contextualize “Fortune-Teller,” I needed to understand its immediate context in the newspapers of the time. I submitted a request to the Maine Historical Society (MHS) for any newspaper articles on the subject of abolition for the period of 1829-1831. The abolition movement was still very much a fringe movement at this point in time, but It was my hope that their findings would shed some light on what the people of Portland were publishing. Their findings did not arrive in time for the conference, but they were worth the wait.

The MHS archive did not contain any newspapers dating earlier than March 31, 1831, but they were able to find three articles from that year on the subject of black Americans: “African Ideals of Beauty,” “Ethiopian Variety,” and “A Noble Action.” As their titles suggest, they represent different genres, which I expected, but I was surprised to find that their contents were also in sharp contrast.

“African Ideals of Beauty” is a throwaway snippet maybe an inch high about how white skin and upturned noses are considered unattractive to African women, and seems to have been inserted purely to use up empty space. “Ethiopian Variety,” on the other hand, is the lengthiest of the three and sprawls over several columns. Clearly written by a person under the influence of phrenology, it implies that Africans are a different species altogether and at one point references how a monkey can be mistaken for an Inuit. The tone of the piece is vaguely amused and certainly dismissive, and seems to exist to catalogue perceived differences between African people and Europeans in order to reinforce a sense of Euro-supremacy. In short, it was what I was expecting to find.

Occupying the other end of the spectrum is a sentimental story titled “A Noble Action,” which proves to be a likely source of inspiration for “Fortune-Teller.” It describes a wealthy woman who rewards her slave’s years of labor by emancipating him and gifting him a large sum of money, which he uses to start a new life. Later, when she loses her fortune and place in high society, he insists that she live with him and his family, where she is treated with “respect” and waited on hand and foot. American literary history of full of tales of loyal slaves and kind masters, a narrative that runs directly counter to the actual lived horrors of the time. Nowhere in this story is there any hint of the peculiar institution’s inhumanity. Instead, it paints a sappy picture of the virtue of servility and reinforces the myth that slavery is a natural state of affairs. Its message is clear: emancipation is a nice gesture, but it cannot change the fact that there are those who were born to serve.  

On the surface, “Fortune-Teller” seems to follow the same logic. Cleopatra was also a self-sufficient person of color in antebellum America who decides to return to a life of service with her old mistress after years of freedom. However, there are some key differences. Firstly, Cleopatra was not emancipated; she escaped from slavery on her own strength. Second, she does not provide her labor pro bono but demands what every working person deserves: payment for services rendered. The third and most compelling difference is the sympathies of its author. Rather than glide over how people are made into slaves or presenting it as an eternal, natural state of affairs, Oakes Smith describes how Cleopatra and her sister were stolen from their home and forcibly brought to America. There is nothing natural about this process, and Cleopatra’s reluctance to leave her independence shows that no person in their right mind would brush aside their freedom to return to service, regardless of whatever kindnesses their old master showed. 

These widely diverging texts, published over the course of a year in Portland’s newspapers, serve as evidence that there are no straightforward answers or simple binaries in the history of race and America. It is easy to see white Americans of the 19th century as clearly on the side of abolition or slavery, to ascribe to them the clear thinking that hindsight provides, but those positions were not yet defined as we know them today. It is important to create distance between what we know today and the history of our ideals, to preserve complexity rather than washing it away. This short story was published in the year of Nat Turner’s rebellion, a time of tremendous tension and great anger on the part of whites against black Americans, and yet Oakes Smith gives her heroine the name of a famous queen and showed her readers that it is a struggle to choose between freedom and service. In “Fortune-Teller,” unlike its cousin in the pages of the Courier, “Ethiopian Variety,” there is no natural order tied to the color of one’s skin.  

Abigail Harris-Culver

Early 19th century "Emoticons?"

I recently presented a paper at the recently renovated Yarmouth History Center at the invitation of its (then) Interim Director Amy Aldredge.   I had come, I told the audience, to ask their help, for my thesis was that too much of what we know about her--really the whole orientation of our understanding of Oakes Smith's work--is probably weighted much too far toward her late reflections on her career available in her autobiography.  We need to locate material evidence to fill in the details of Oakes Smith's early life if, for nothing else, to counterbalance the autobiography's tone, which is at best wistful, at worst cloyingly self-pitying.   Who better to help us with this task but folks who live in the place, and who have taken an interest in its history? 

With the help of two graduate students, Rebecca Wiltberger and Abigail Harris, I had begun to do this work the previous summer, trying to get a sense of Oakes Smith's earliest apprenticeship as a writer and editor in the 1820s and 30s, when she was first married to Seba Smith.  During a three-day stint at the Maine Historical Society Library in Portland, Abigail chased down the larger part of her earliest writings in Seba's Courier and Family Reader, while Rebecca worked on contextualizing what Portlandians like Oakes Smith were reading in newspapers about Native American affairs (later in her years in Portland, she'd be writing The Western Captive, or at least thinking about it).  

Only in this recent context did I realize I'd actually begun to fill out Oakes Smith's early life some years ago in the archives at the University of Virginia, even if the earliest letters document only about a month's time.  These few weeks were the first Oakes Smith and her husband had ever been separated for more than a day, when Seba Smith checked into a Boston hotel to see his first volume of Jack Downing letters through the press.  Of course, since "marriage" as a patriarchal institution would be the target of an enormous amount of Oakes Smith's writing, these letters, which tell us quite a bit about her relationship with her own husband, seem especially important.  

So I spent some time, in my paper, detailing these letters, demonstrating how the dismissive tone regarding her marriage and her husband that characterize her later reminiscence in the autobiography does not square at all with this private correspondence.  And lest we see the letters as tinged by the "honeymoon" phase of the relationship, we should acknowledge that they were written some months after the couple's tenth anniversary, in late October and early November 1833.  

The letters are amazingly...well, the only word that suffices might be "fond"--not just comfortable, but devoted, loving, and sort of silly.  And that goes for both letter writers.  To get to my title, I'll only include here my favorite example of this tone, with which Oakes Smith closes her letter of November 11, 1833. Unable to send Seba a kiss, she puts her lips to paper, draws a circle at the spot (this is, indeed, better than an emoticon) and asks him to kiss the same.  

We can't avoid at least thinking it, right?    


  "The Steam boat bell rings, and I can only say kiss     this place because I have kissed it for you"


"The Steam boat bell rings, and I can only say kiss     this place because I have kissed it for you"

On a recent visit to the archive...

This past October I dropped everything and took another trip to Charlottesville, where five feet of Elizabeth Oakes Smith's MSS are held in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library. My first priority was to have a closer look at the early letters between Oakes Smith and her husband, written between 1833 and 1837, which will form a section of my projected edition of her writings.  This was clean-up: a long stare at words I couldn't make out on xerox copies, a look at envelopes to glean further evidence of the context of their correspondence.  It's a fascinating chapter in Oakes Smith's life, and further, as I argued in a paper delivered at the Yarmouth History Center last June (a 75- minute marathon, much to my host's surprise), this is a series of documents that might cause us to change the way we view the assumed relationship between much of her fiction and her life.  But more on that another time.

The "news" on this trip came after I completed my examination of these few dozen letters.  It was exam time on campus, so my extended weekend trip would only mean three days in the library, and not four, but I had some time on this trip to explore the collection's holdings in ways I had not before.  Two of my previous three trips were made before the days of the iPad and the smart phone, either of which provides photographic equipment that reduces what used to be a painstakingly slow process of copying (I'd tried pencil, laptop, and dictation in the 90s) to a much more efficient physical review of documents, intellectual determination of their research value, and instant, manipulable digital reproduction with a click every ten or twelve seconds.   In this mode, I had time to deal with works I had in the past simply passed up as too large to work with given my limited time in the library: two unpublished novels in MS, manuscript copies of three EOS plays, diaries and journals by EOS from the 1850s and 60s, and perhaps most strange, the hand-illustrated journal of her youngest son Edward, who in his mid-twenties had dreams of becoming an art critic.

To lower expectations for any analysis here (and perhaps pique interest in a visit for anyone in the Southeast), I only had time to briefly skim all of these large documents as I hastily reproduced them digitally for later study, but the basics are these:  

1. The largest document, a novel called The Queen of Tramps, is mistitled in the collection's on-line index (Trumps instead of Tramps), and the difference is significant.  When the Oakes Smith family came together for about a year to publish The Great Republic Monthly in 1859 (succeeding the parents' co-editorship of Emerson's Magazine and Putnam's Monthly), the magazine included a series on the working classes of New York City ("The Rag Pickers of New York," "The Firemen of New York," etc.), and in her novel The Newsboy (1854) Oakes Smith had taken some pains to detail the conditions of the working poor in somewhat more detail than we find in, say,  Southworth's The Hidden Hand (1857).  The unpublished manuscript of The Queen of Tramps (which I had to carefully remove from some rather tightly knotted cording--so I don't think a lot of people have ever seen these pages!) runs several hundred manuscript pages, penned in a hand that seems to date from this middle period, and from what I skimmed, it seems to involve a woman of some means moving into the slums of New York.  

2) The second unpublished novel in manuscript is missing a title page.  Again it runs some hundreds of MS pages--taking up historical and regional settings Oakes Smith had already explored in published writing: colonial life in what is now the state of Maine, and the relations between Native Americans and the new colonists.   

3)  To this point the only play I've read by Oakes Smith is Old New York (1853), although I've also seen mention of one entitled The Roman Tribute.  Here, in the EOS collection, I discovered the bound manuscript (in leather, with hand-lettering on the spine) of a play entitled Destiny, along with a clippings of a novella of the same title in another folder.  Here, too, is The Roman Tribute, in a fascinating form: the players' personal editions, copied in meticulously bound and organized parts.  Notes in the margins are too detailed for this not to have been used in performance, or in preparation for a performance. 

4) Edward's journal made the most delightful reading.  Punctuated with drawings and doodles that reveal a practiced (if not formally trained) artist, the section I read in detail features Edward's professional struggles.  If he can't make a go of art criticism, he decides (in something of a sarcastic tone) to try writing a "penny dreadful" of sorts to sell.  In the end, what may have begun as a lark gets written and sent around to publishers; Edward is even kind enough to posterity to copy the crude horror story into his journal for us.  

Folks interested in these documents should contact me and/or UVa's Special Collections department for more details.