Smith, Seba (1792 - 1868)

Genre: General Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry

Seba Smith was born in the log cabin his father built in Buckfield, Maine, then the frontier, on September 14, 1792. He lived in Bridgton, Boothbay Harbor and Portland before moving with his wife to New York City around 1840. Prior to the Civil War, he was a very successful and popular political satirist writing under the pen name of Major Jack Downing. Major Downing, supposedly a close friend of Andrew Jackson, satirized Washington politics, including nationalism and the concept of Manifest Destiny.

An 1818 graduate of Bowdoin College, Smith was a journalist and newspaper publisher in Portland from 1820-1838, associated with The Daily Courier (1929-), The Family Reader (1829-1832?), The Eastern Argus, and the Downing Gazette (1834-36). After relocating to New York City in 1839, Smith wrote for Emerson's United States Magazine (aka Emerson's Magazine and Putnam's Monthly, 1854, and The Great Republic, 1859).

Much of what Smith wrote was in verse, but some argue that he probably felt that his masterpiece was a mathematical work on which he spent the last days of his life. He died on July 29, 1868 in Patchogue, Long Island, NY. Gale's Dictionary of Literary Biography (Volume 243: The American Renaissance in New England, Fourth Series, 2001) has an extensive section on Smith.

Smith's wife, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, was also a writer, and sometimes used the pen name of Ernest Helfenstein.

Selected Bibliography

  • The Life and Writings of Major Jack Downing of Downingville, Away Down East in the State of Maine, by Himself (1833)
  • John Smith's Letters, with 'picters' to match. Containing Reasons Why John Smith Should Not Change His Name; Miss Debby Smith's Juvenile Spirit; Together with the Only Authentic History Extant of the Late War in Our Disputed Territory (1839)
  • Powhatan: A Metrical Romance, in Seven Cantos (1841)
  • May-Day in New York; or, House-Hunting and Moving; Illustrated and Explained in Letters to Aunt Keziah. By Major Jack Downing (1845; republished as Jack Downing's Letters by Major Jack Downing in 1859)
  • Dew-Drops of the Nineteenth Century: Gathered and Preserved in Their Brightness and Purity (1845), edited, with contributions, by Seba Smith and Elizabeth Oakes Smith
  • New Elements of Geometry (1850), 'an ingenious but paradoxical attempt to overturn the common definitions of geometry'
  • Way Down East, or, Portraitures of Yankee Life (1854/1969)
  • My Thirty Years Out of the Senate (1859)

Charles Augustus Davis was a well-known imitator of Smith, writing and publishing his own Jack Downing letters in the New York Daily Advertiser beginning in July 1833. His letters were more anti-Jackson than Smith's, and not as humourous, but were more attuned to the details of current political events. Davis published a book in 1834 titled Letters of J. Downing.