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deal with works I had in the past simply passed up as too large to work with given my limited time in the library: two unpublished novels in MS, manuscript copies of three EOS plays, diaries and journals by EOS from the 1850s and 60s, and perhaps most strange, the hand-illustrated journal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.