Plagiarized Poetry: A Literary Dispute Between Elizabeth Oakes Smith and Estelle Anna Lewis
by Ann Neilson
Note: this will most likely be updated, as I am still ardently searching and checking sources to find more information regarding this event.
Nineteenth century poet and women’s rights activist Elizabeth Oakes Smith once found herself in a nasty back-and-forth dispute with poet Sarah Anna Lewis (also known commonly as Estelle, or Stella), for the alleged theft of her poem by Lewis. The newspaper articles that follow explain the situation in greater detail, but I will provide brief background information to supplement the articles. In the first article, Charles Fenno Hoffman is mentioned. Hoffman, whose poetry has appeared numerous times on this blog, was a nineteenth century poet and editor, who was very close friends with Mrs. Smith; therefore, the comment made on Lewis’s part is extremely underhanded. Just a few years before the release of the article, Hoffman was institutionalized for what is known today as bipolar disorder. He and Smith (also known as “Oaksmith,” which is how I will refer to her hereafter) had a falling out due to Hoffman’s disorder; Oaksmith felt very badly about losing her friendship with Hoffman (this is evinced in letters from Oaksmith to editor and anthologizer Rufus Griswold). At the time of the release of this attack made by Lewis on Oaksmith in 1855, Hoffman would have, therefore, still been a tender subject for Oaksmith, thus making Lewis’s accusation that more objectionable.
Secondly, the Hiram Powers mentioned in the last few newspaper articles is this gentleman (if you’re interested in reading more about him). The statue of which the poem is based is also mentioned, and shown, in the linked article.
From the Cleveland Leader
Saturday, November 24, 1855, Pg. 2
Mrs. E. Oakes Smith and Mrs. Estella A. Lewis, both strong-minded woman [sic] as well as literary notabilities, are pulling hair metaphorically with an earnestness that is peculiarly masculine. Mrs. S. accuses Mrs. L. of having stolen a sonnet of her’s; Mrs. L. retorts that the sonnet was not worth stealing at all, and if it was, that Mrs. S. first stole it from Charles Fenno Hoffman, spicing her allusions to the crazy poet with such embellishing insinuations as would be likely to arouse the gentlest of the sex. Mrs. Smith rejoins with indignant warmth and so on.
The New York Times, pg. 218
Rights of Literary Ladies.
Whatever question there may be as to the abstract rights of woman, there can be none whatever, we presume, that they have no right to commit literary larcenies upon each other. In the notice which we published yesterday, of Graham’s Magazine, our extract was given of a sonnet to the Greek Slave, from an article contributed by Mrs. Lewis, of Brooklyn. But we are informed by competent authority that the sonnet was written by Mrs. E. Oakes Smith, and was published by her some years ago, when Powers’ famous statue was first exhibited in this City. It requires no Solomon to pronounce a judgement in the case of this literary [?], and, we presume, that Mrs. Lewis will admit the mistake.
The New York Times, pg. 239
Reply of Mrs. E. Oakes Smith to Mrs. Estelle A. Lewis.
To the Editor of the New-York Daily Times:
I was very greatly surprised this morning to read a letter in your paper, in which allusion is made to myself, so gross and indecent in character, that, like touching pitch, I shrink from coming in contact with it. The article, however, I regret to say, is signed by a woman.
When Mrs. Estelle A. Lewis took possession of my Sonnet to the Greek Slave, thereby indorsing her sense of its merits, I had hoped it was done by accident or mistake. Her very lady-like article is an admission of petit larceny. I am sorry for it. A man who should be guilty of an act of the kind, would be excluded from our houses,—we should be likely to feel that the “spoons” would be hardly safe.
I am at a total loss to comprehend the force of application of her allusion to Charles F. Hoffman, of whom any one with a spark of human sensibility would not fail to speak with respect and tenderness, in his present unfortunate and melancholy state of mind. Were he able to speak in the premises, he would not only disclaim all knowledge whatever of the article in question, but, as a high-toned gentleman and an honorable man, would blush that a woman could be willing to use his name in so gross and unjustifiable a manner. Men are too wise to insult each other. Women are not yet, it seems, in some cases, entirely beyond the vocabulary elegantly denominated Billingsgate.
I inclose[sic] a letter from Mr. Powers, which you will see by the date was sent me many years ago. I am aware it is neither proper or delicate to publish a private letter, but I am sure Mr. Powers will pardon the informality because of the necessities of the case.
E. Oakes Smith.
No. 46 Stuyvesant-street, New-York, Nov. 2.
To Mrs. E. Oakes Smith:
Dear Madam—I had the satisfaction, some weeks ago, to receive, by the hand of a friend, the very touching sonnet you composed upon my statue of the “Slave,” also the little volume of your charming poems, and perhaps I ought to apologize for delaying to acknowledge these testimonials of regard from so gifted a source.
The only drawback to the pleasure I felt in reading the sonnet and the accompanying few lines, so complimentary to me, and so honorable to the kind hear that composed and sent them here, was the consciousness that your warm imagination had clothed any work with grace and sentiment not justly its own, and its author with unmerited honors.
Permit me, nevertheless, to thank you with all my heart for the delicate and beautiful compliment I have received; and allow me, my dear Madam, the honor to add my humble name to the list of your admirers and friends. (Signed.)
Florence, May 21, 1848