Pike, Mary (Hayden) Green

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PIKE, Mary (Hayden) Green

Born 30 November 1824, Eastport, Maine; died 15 January 1908, Baltimore, Maryland

Wrote under: Mary Langdon, Sydney A. Story

Daughter of Elijah and Hannah Hayden Green; married Frederick A. Pike, 1845; one child

A writer of sentimental antislavery novels, Mary Green Pike was descended from old New England Puritan stock; her father was a Baptist deacon, bank director, and militia officer in Calais, Maine. Pike attended public schools and the Charleston, Massachusetts, Female Seminary. In 1845, she married Frederick A. Pike, a lawyer, who served in the U.S. Congress between 1861 and 1869 as a radical Republican. An adopted daughter was their only child.

The religious enthusiasm evident in Pike's early life was soon mingled with the cause of abolition. Her husband and his brother were also ardent abolitionists, yet both were dubious about allowing full citizenship to freed blacks. Pike was more egalitarian; she believed that, given adequate education, blacks could be fully integrated, both politically and socially.

Pike's three acknowledged novels were published between 1854 and 1858 under the names "Mary Langdon" and "Sydney A. Story." She also made anonymous or pseudonymous contributions to newspapers and periodicals. In about 1860 she turned from literature to landscape painting. Her last years were devoted to charitable and religious work.

Ida May (1854) was one of the more popular novels to follow in the wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Instead of requiring their readers to identify with black protagonists, most second-generation abolition novelists depended on the figure of the beautiful quadroon or octaroon. Pike went one step further—Ida May is wholly white, kidnapped as a child, taken South, and sold into slavery. Pike was probably attempting to make Northern readers feel personally endangered. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise had made the expansion of slave territory a topical issue. In passages of authorial comment, Pike notes the number of children, both black and white, who inexplicably disappear every year, and claims poor whites have been known to sell their children as mulattoes. The chief evil of slavery in Ida May is how it destroys the family.

Caste (1856) was less popular, perhaps because the indictment was closer to home. Charles and Helen Dupré, a brother and sister, are discovered to have black blood. Helen immediately suffers a broken engagement and a bout of brain fever, but the effects are even more disastrous for Charles. His business associate dissolves their partnership, his father-in-law vows to have his marriage annulled, and his wife dies of distress in childbirth. The sudden alteration of attitudes toward Charles demonstrates the depth of prejudice; northerners cannot point to the black's brutishness, ignorance, and slavery-induced childishness to excuse their discrimination, since Charles' manners, morals, education, and tastes remain the same. Pike explicitly argues that Northern prejudice is more entrenched and will be harder to overcome than the institutionalized slave system of the South.

Agnes (1858) attempts to show Native Americans as human beings with thoughts, emotions, and desires which are neither noble nor savage, but simply like those of other members of the human race. This subject matter, however, occupies a secondary place in the novel. The main plot is a sentimental melodrama laid during the Revolutionary War and using nearly all the conventional figures and situations of the genre.

All three of Pike's novels are based on the staple element of 18th-and 19th-century popular fiction: an innocent and unprotected woman is placed undeservedly—and repeatedly—in threatening situations. The melodrama is given social meaning by introducing race as an element increasing the threat. Pike also made the analogy between race and sex as handicaps. Her characters sometimes verbalize feminine independence and aspirations but never realize them; the conventional plot situations require help-lessness, victimization, and male rescue.

Despite the stereotyped plots, Pike's writing is vigorous and touched by moments of fine dramatic irony. She is able to make moral points clearly without sermonizing and she is remembered as a committed woman who used the weapons of sentiment in the service of a cause she believed in.


Reference works:

NAW (1971).

Other references:

Journal of Popular Culture (1969).