September 20, 2012

Birth of Rebecca Harrington Smith

Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) as Rebecca Harrington Smith on September 20, 1831, she often published under the name Kate Harrington. Her life and career brought her to Ohio and Kentucky before settling in Iowa. There, she published her most well-known book, a novel titled Emma Bartlett (1856), which one critic called "the first [book] of a purely literary character" published in Iowa.

Subtitled "Prejudice and Fanaticism," the book was meant as a response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin published a few years earlier. Credited "by an American Lady" and copyrighted to R. H. Smith, the book was dedicated to "the True Upholders of the Constitution." Smith argued in her preface that "there is neither reason, religion nor justice in crushing the white man, in order to liberate the blacks" from a situation that could not have been prevented.  In nearly 500 pages, Smith complicates the "prejudice" against blacks as well as the "fanaticism" of abolitionists. In one scene, for example, the title character Emma Bartlett asks her father what he thinks of slavery:

"It would take more time than I can spare, to-night, to tell you, dear. I have always looked upon it as a great necessary evil; one that cannot be swept from our land at once, and never will, while compulsory means are resorted to. I have seen too much of Southern life to believe my brethren there will be forced to submit."

One scene features a character denying that there were many cruel slaveholders like Stowe's character Simon Legree ("But are such individuals confined to the South?"). Smith intended the work to expose the hypocrisy of Know-Nothingism (an anti-intellectual, radically patriotic group which expressed a stance against foreigners and certain religious groups) and abolitionism. Smith lived until 1917. Throughout her long life, she published several other books, collections of short stories and poems, and even textbooks.

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