Travel Letters of Elizabeth Akers Allen

Allen Flint
University of Maine, Farmington

As "FLORENCE PERCY," Elizabeth Akers Allen (1832-1912) published two series of travel writings in the Portland Transcript, letters from Italy in 1860 and reminiscences of Rome in 1862. She was the author of five volumes of poetry between 1856 and 1891. Her most famous poem, "Rock Me to Sleep, Mother," was set to music in several versions and was a popular song and poem during the Civil War. She was also a pioneer woman journalist in Maine, serving at Assistant Editor of the Transcript before the war and Associate and Literary Editor of the Portland Advertiser after the war. Thrice married and the mother of three children, she was financially self-sufficient from age fourteen, and was probably the primary breadwinner in her several families.

Her travel letters reveal a remarkable ability to respond to the needs and interests of her readers, almost all of whom lived in and around Portland, Maine. Contrasts in culture or customs always stress Maine's advantages. The essential character of many of the earlier letters is their focus on the mishaps of a first-time traveller. She is easily professional enough and clever enough to extract humor out of the supposedly comic problems of a woman traveller. (Before her first trek outside New England, she had at least twice gone from Maine to Vermont, including a frightening experience alone at age fourteen. Later in life she made several trips to Europe.)

"Reminiscences of Rome" were written a year after returning to the United States, hence have the advantages and disadvantages of being recollected in tranquility. As the companion of the sculptor Benjamin Paul Akers (whom she later married), she was shown the Rome which Akers had earlier shared with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Paulina Wright Davis was a member of the party; hence Elizabeth was exposed to a leading exponent of feminism. Additional perspective on her travel writings is gained from "History of One Woman's Experience," a bitter and not invariably accurate memoir written late in life when she was in poor health. As might be expected, the tone and substance of the travel columns sometimes complements and other times is in counterpoint to her poetry and her other writings at the time. While her poetry tends to be sentimental, her travel writings comment somewhat more wryly on the world.

Contrasting the first series of travel letters with her later reminiscences of Rome, her Civil War column in the Transcript from Washington, her poetry, and her memoirs provides insight into journalistic practices, the role of women, and the quality of life in Maine and America in the 1850s and 1860s.

Allen Flint, Professor Emeritus
University of Maine, Farmington

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