Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert

In recent scholarship, two nineteenth-century women writers with similar names-Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert and M. (Mollie) E. Lambert-have been confused with each other, with the result that Mary Eliza's two books of poetry, Loew's Bridge and Poems, have been mistakenly classified as African American literature. Reprints of these two books can be found in Volume 1 of Collected Black Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) and The Database of African-American Poetry (Alexandria, VA: Chadwyck-Healy, 1995). Notices of the error appear in Ann Allen Shockley's introduction to Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933 (1988) and in the introduction to The Pen Is Ours: A Listing of Writings By and About African-American Women before 1910 (1991), compiled by Jean Fagan Yellin and Cynthia D. Bond.

Very little is known about MARY ELIZA TUCKER LAMBERT (1838-?), except that at some point after the Civil War she lived in Philadelphia and edited St. Matthew's Lyceum Journal. Her Poems (dedicated to the governor of Georgia and his wife) and Loew's Bridge: A Broadway Idyl were both published in New York in 1867; she also appeared in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review in 1885. The content of her poetry suggests she lived in the South before the Civil War and spent some time in New York City. She may have been of mixed African American and caucasian ancestry, according to the few available biographical sources.

Following are selections from her Poems. While Loew's Bridge [forthcoming on the 19cwww site, ed], a single long poem, is more ambitious and poetically interesting than her shorter works, the short poems include much wit and some examples of simple, song-like lyrics. What I find most intriguing about the shorter poems is that, put together, they sketch out a kind of autobiography. We cannot assume that this "autobiography" tells us facts about Lambert's life, since poets (including Lambert) often assume the voice of someone unlike themselves and imaginatively describe their situation. However, there is a cumulative story in these poems; through relatively conventional poetic language, Lambert tells us about a complex female identity. Nowhere in the poems does the speaker identify herself as a woman of color; nearly all of the references to physical markers of "race" are about such stereotypically caucasian features as fair hair and blue eyes. and she apparently was not a slave, although many of her poems which begin rather conventionally depart into language that may refer to the disruptions of slavery. Further, in these poems dedicated to two prominent white Southerners, she consistently empathizes with the South's side in the Civil War. The fictive woman whose story emerges from these poems is sophisticated, worldly, well read and acquainted with high society, but there is sadness, tragedy, and betrayal in her past, and pious phrases are often added to her grieving-as if to tack on comfort where it does not otherwise readily come.

The speculations that this quasi-autobiography raises about Lambert's own life cannot be confirmed or refuted without further research into her life. But it seems that she may have been accepted by antebellum southern white society, either by passing as white or by fitting into a particular social niche for light-complected mulattas. She likely had a rocky personal life; she was probably married more than once, and she may have been a kind of courtesan for a time. (Some of her poems use language associated with "fallen women.") Clearly a woman of imagination, intelligence, and critical insight, she may have arrived at a sense of solidarity with African Americans.