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Antislavery Poetry from San Francisco

Running man image from workshop poster

The Pacific Appeal was the leading African American newspaper on the West Coast during the early 1860s.  A newly-published set of eight antislavery poems from the journal's inaugural 1862 volume captures the sense of expectancy within the African American community for the imminent end of US slavery.  These poems include the work of James Madison Bell, a San Francisco plasterer, brickmason, and poet.  Read more... 
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Ida May

Major antislavery novel by Mary Hayden Green Pike (Boston: Phillips, Sampson and Co., 1854). Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.


After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ida May was one of the best-known and best-selling antislavery novels. Its author was Mary Hayden Green Pike (1824-1898), a novelist from Eastport, Maine, who used the pseudonym Mary Langdon for this novel. She notes in the novel’s preface that descriptions of Southern society were based on a period of residence in the South, but very little is known of Pike’s life. There have been no identifiable substantive treatments of Pike’s writing and only rare critical references to Ida May.   See Andrea K. Newlyn, “Undergoing Racial ‘Reassignment’: The Politics of Transraacial Crossing in Sinclair Lewis’s Kingsblood Royal,” Modern Fiction Studies 48 (2002) 4:1041-1074, at 1053; and David Levy, “Racial Stereotypes in Antislavery Fiction,” Phylon 31 (1970) 3:265-279, at 267. 

Mary Pike subsequently published two further novels, Caste, A Story of Republican Equality (1856, under the pseudonym Sidney A. Story, Jr.) and Agnes (1858). The former dealt with racial prejudices in the North; the latter was a romance novel of a woman betrayed, set during the Revolutionary War. These were less successful than Ida May. 

She was married to Frederick Augustus Pike, a Maine attorney who served in the Maine state legislature for eight terms, became its speaker in 1860 and then a US congressional representative from 1861-69. Mary Pike published no further novels after Agnes, and became a landscape painter. Her brother-in-law, James Sheperd Pike, who was an influential antislavery journalist during the 1850s at the New York Tribune and then appointed US minister to the Netherlands during 1861-66, gained national attention for A Prostrate State: South Carolina Under Negro Government  (1874), an historically influential anti-Reconstruction book arguing that white Southerners suffered oppression and emancipated blacks were incapable of participating in government. 

Ida May is the story of a young white girl from a Pennsylvania farm kidnapped and, aided by some initial blackening from her captors, sold into slavery. Langdon relies on what was antebellum public knowledge concerning the kidnapping of black children in southern Pennsylvania; she depicts this as only one instance of a regular trade.   Filled with sentimental melodrama, this is a novel about the enslavement of an attractive white girl, the dangers she faces resolutely, and her eventual triumph. Andrea Newlyn argues that Ida May constitutes part of a transracial literary tradition as it is a novel where “characters may be symbolically white, but they are socially, psychically, and juridically black—that is, legally slaves—for significant portions of their lives.” Further, “Transraciality, or the transracial movement and embodiment in the narratives…is not something that one "puts on" consciously or deliberately, either through surgeries, cosmetics, or other applications or mechanisms that alter one's physicality…[For] a character such as Ida May, who is a slave, there is no ‘mystery’ around, or an appropriative investment in, the racial Other.” (ibid) Alternately, this text can be read as a racial fantasy whose antislavery message lies in an appeal to white readers to conceive of their own children stolen and sold. As Levy (ibid) notes, the novel employs heavy racial stereotyping for its black and mulatto characters.  

Ida May, the protagonist who provides an heroic center to the novel’s lengthy plot, loses her memory of her family due to her mistreatment. After being raised on a plantation, she is traded southwards as a young teenager together with her substitute black mother, Venus.   Through fortuitous circumstance, she is recognized for a white woman and purchased by a benevolent slave-owner who has her raised and educated on the plantation of his relatives, the Wynn family. Ida May undergoes various trials, including a lynch mob, and eventually wins both freedom and the affections of a family cousin, Walter Varian. Her long-lost father, now rich, discovers her and underwrites a plan to re-settle slaves she has inherited onto land purchased in a northern state. The novel concludes with her impending marriage. 

For further digital editions of Mary Pike’s writings, see Caste, A Story of Republican Equality(Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1856), and Agnes, A Novel (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, 1858). 


— Joe Lockard