Child, Lydia Maria (1802–1880)
Child, Lydia Maria (1802–1880)
American author who used her writings to attack slavery and advance the cause of women's rights. Born Lydia Maria Francis on February 11, 1802, in Medford, Massachusetts; died in Wayland, Massachusetts, on October 20, 1880; daughter of David Convers Francis (a baker) and Susannah (Rand) Francis; sister of Convers Francis (1795–1863, a Unitarian minister); educated in Norridgewock, Maine; married David Lee Child (1794–1874, a Boston lawyer and journalist); children: none.
Taught school in Watertown, Massachusetts; published her first novel (1824); became an abolitionist (1833); wrote numerous volumes of fiction, light verse, children's stories, as well as serious works on abolition, women's history, and comparative religion.
Hobomok (1824); The Frugal Housewife (1830); An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833); History of the Condition of Women (2 vols., 1835); The Family Nurse (1837); Flowers For Children (1844); Letters from New York (1843, Vol. 1, 1845, Vol. 2); Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child, Governor Wise and Mrs. Mason (1860); (editor) Incidents in a Life of a Slave Girl (1861); Looking Toward Sunset (1864).
By the time she was 30, Lydia Maria Child had enjoyed as much literary acclaim as any young writer could hope for. At age 22, she had dashed off her first novel in only six weeks and had become an overnight celebrity in Boston. Her second novel also sold well, and she had then written two popular nonfiction works, both providing household hints to American women. At the same time, she had founded her own children's magazine, the first of its kind in America, which enjoyed praise from literary critics and financial support from subscribing parents. Surprised by her own success, Child told a friend, "It seems as if the public was resolved to give me a flourish of trumpets, let me write what I will."
Yet Lydia Child knew that this was not quite true. There was one topic, close to her heart, that the American public did not want her to write about—the evils of slavery. But in 1833, she decided to obey the dictates of her conscience, no matter what the consequences might be for her career as a writer. "I am fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken," she boldly announced in the preface to her book, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. Even the title was shocking at the time—few other whites thought of the slaves as fellow Americans. "Though I expect ridicule and censure," the young author wrote, "I do not fear them. Should [the Appeal] be the means of advancing even one single hour of the inevitable progress of truth and justice, I would not exchange the consciousness for all Rothschild's wealth or Sir Walter's fame."
Just as Child had predicted, the publication of her radical ideas about slavery proved to be a devastating setback to her literary career. Editors shunned her, parents canceled their subscriptions to her magazine, and she was ostracized by many Bostonians who had, up to that point, praised her as a rare talent. While Child suffered in the short-term, her act of courage and self-sacrifice have since earned her a special place in American history, as one of the earliest and most steadfast opponents of slavery. Her Appeal was a spark that helped ignite the abolition movement.
When Lydia was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis. Her father, a successful baker and real-estate speculator, had little time to care for his daughter. So Child turned for guidance to her older brother Convers Francis, a serious young divinity student at Harvard. Their relationship nurtured a love of learning in Lydia that would stay with her the rest of her life. At a time when young women were not encouraged to be interested in such things, she spent many hours poring over her brother's library of classical literature, science, and theology. More concerned about philosophy than fashion, she was perceived by her relatives as eccentric. Her father decided that his daughter needed a feminine role model, so he sent her at the age of 14 to live with her married sister in Norridgewock, a village in central Maine.
Lydia attended the local school there, although she often knew as much as her teachers. She learned more from her visits to a band of Abenaki Indians who had settled nearby. One of the few white settlers to befriend the tribe, she enjoyed hearing their traditional stories and learning some of their skills. The experience gave her a respect for other cultures, and a perspective on racism that would echo throughout her career as a reformer.
At age 18, Child returned to the Boston area, living with her brother and his wife in Watertown. Convers had become a leading Unitarian minister, and his home became a gathering place for restless young intellectuals, such as transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, the radical Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker, and the Quaker poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. Child thoroughly enjoyed these evenings of intellectual stimulation and developed lifelong friendships with Parker and Whittier.
For several years, she supported herself by running a school for girls. But she found her true calling when she read an article in a literary magazine by the Unitarian intellectual John Palfrey. Like many of America's cultural elite, Palfrey regretted that his young nation had not yet distinguished itself in the arts, that its writers had produced nothing more than second-rate copies of British literature. He called on American writers to declare their cultural independence by producing a native literature, and he suggested that the rich and romantic past of New England could provide the themes. That very night Child wrote the first chapter of Hobomok, a novel she finished six weeks later. Drawing on her knowledge of Indian culture, she spun the tale of an ill-fated marriage between a young white woman and an Indian chief. Through a strange twist of fate, the heroine discovers that her first husband, a white man she had presumed lost at sea, is actually still alive. His return to New England puts all three characters into an awkward dilemma, until the noble savage Hobomok graciously agrees to disappear silently into the wilderness.
Modern critics do not feel that Hobomok truly answered Palfrey's call for a new American literature; the plot is standard melodrama, the characters wooden, and the depictions of native life are more romantic than real. But, according to biographer Helene Baer , the moral of the book was one that Child would make the centerpiece of her life's work—that the nobility of a human soul "rests in the conscience, not in the color of the skin."
Whatever its literary failings, Hobomok was a commercial success. Since it was not considered proper for women to write books, Child had published it under the patriotic but unrevealing name, "An American." Before long, her true identity was discovered and, at 24, she began to enjoy some of the privileges of literary celebrity, including an open invitation to use the Athenaeum, an exclusive lending library that rarely extended borrowing privileges to women.
John Greenleaf Whittier">
No man or woman of that period rendered more substantial service to the cause of freedom, or made such a "great renunciation" in doing it.
—John Greenleaf Whittier
Child next published The Rebels, a novel about the Revolution, which was the first American book to use actual people and events from New England history. Like her first novel, this work enjoyed commercial success at the time but does not hold much interest for the modern reader. At the same time, she founded and wrote most of the Juvenile Miscellany, a bi-monthly children's magazine that was the nation's first. The prestigious North American Review praised her as a national treasure. "In all her works nothing can be found which does not commend itself, by its tone of healthy morality and good sense. Few female writers if any have done more or better things for our literature."
In the midst of these early years of literary success, Lydia met a young lawyer named David Child, a scholar who could speak six different languages, and an idealist with a reputation for providing free legal services for the poor. Lydia's family warned her about the pitfalls of joining her fate with an impractical reformer, but they underestimated her own deep streak of romantic idealism. She married him in 1828, when she was 26.
Just as her family had warned, David turned out to be a better philanthropist than a provider. He gave away much of his income to various causes and spent more time promoting the Whig Party than his own career. For the time being, Child's writing brought in enough income to keep them afloat, but they often hovered on the edge of debt. Marriage to David inspired household economy, and Lydia set aside novel writing to produce The Frugal Housewife, a bestselling book of cost-saving tips for women.
In 1832, David joined William Lloyd Garrison in the formation of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. When Lydia was introduced to Garrison, she was also won to the cause. Years later, she wrote, "I little thought then that the whole pattern of my life-web would be changed by that introduction." While others had criticized slavery before, none did so with Garrison's uncompromising courage. In his mind, the institution was a sin against God that demanded an immediate end. Though he rejected the use of violence himself, he fearlessly exposed himself to mob attack in order to make his convictions heard. Garrison's example made Child a lifelong abolitionist. "He got hold of the strings of my conscience," she wrote, "and pulled me into reform."
The result was the aforementioned An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans. Though notorious, it was her most important work. In it, she marshalled fact and feeling in an all-out war on slavery. She recounted the history of slavery, reprinted statistics about its spread, but also used her artistic powers to touch her readers' sympathetic emotions. Thirty years before slavery brought the Union to war, most Bostonians preferred to ignore the issue, particularly since many shared in the profits from slave labor, a fact Child was quick to point out. Bostonians were stung by her attack and scandalized that a woman would dare to express herself on a controversial political issue. Not only did the book sell poorly, but Child lost her market for her other writings, and even had her borrowing privileges at the Athenaeum withdrawn. "Her praises were suddenly silenced," her friend Whittier later recalled, adding that "no woman in this country … sacrificed so much for principles as Mrs. Child."
Though most readers hated the book, a few were ready to respond to Child's appeal. The great Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing, had always opposed slavery but had hesitated to carry the controversy into his pulpit. Child's courageous decision to speak out inspired him to do the same. Wendell Phillips read the Appeal while a young man in law school; the book, he later said, "obliged" him to become an abolitionist. For the next 30 years, he served as the movement's most powerful orator.
Concern for the slave led many abolitionist women to think about the limits on their own liberties. Inspired by her friendship with transcendentalist philosopher Margaret Fuller , Child began to research women's history. "From the beginning of time," she found, women had been "perpetually insulted by literature, law and custom." She set down her findings in a series of works she called "The Ladies' Library." Biographer Baer describes the work as a "long, humorless dose," but at the dawn of the women's rights movement in America many early leaders found the work inspiring.
Because of the backlash against her Appeal, Lydia lost most of her writing opportunities, and the Childs' plummeting financial situation was made worse by one of David's new reform schemes. Convinced that Northerners would never unite against slavery as long as they needed Southern products, he decided to help free the slaves by learning how to grow sugar beets. The Dutch already knew how to turn beets into sugar, and David hoped to convince New England farmers to try this as an alternative to cane sugar raised by slaves on the Southern delta. He left his wife behind, dependent on her family, for more than a year, while he studied beet technology in Holland. Returning to New England, he sank a large sum of money, borrowed from Lydia's father, into a lonely farm in Western Massachusetts. The two shared a shack at the edge of their beet field and sank deeper into debt. "If this won't drive poetry out of a mortal," she complained to a friend, "I know not what will."
On the verge of bankruptcy, Child agreed to rescue the family's finances by leaving David and his farm and taking a job in New York as editor of an important abolitionist journal, the National Anti-Slavery Standard. The transition from a lonely beet farm in rural New England to America's largest city revived her literary inspiration, particularly as Margaret Fuller had also moved to New York and the two were able to renew their studies together. In addition to editing the Standard, Child produced a series of sketches about life in the city, describing both the beauty and the squalor of the growing metropolis. Giving free reign to her inclinations as a sentimental novelist, she sometimes described the city's glamorous social life, rhapsodizing about "the sad music of the moon, the birth and death of flowers, and above all, the rose-colored dreams of youthful love." In other pieces, she returned to her job as reformer, reporting about wretched slum conditions, the threat of prostitution to young country girls, and the state of New York's prison system. Gathered into a book called Letters from New York, these essays revived Child's literary career, and still stand as some of her best writing.
In 1844, after several years as editor, Child quit her post at the Standard. By the mid-1840s, the abolitionist movement was divided. Some wanted to pursue their goals gradually, through political compromise, while others still held to Garrison's view that no compromise was acceptable short of an immediate end to slavery. As an independent-minded editor, Child had not done enough to please either group. Feeling overworked and unappreciated, she was glad to jump off what she called the "anti-slavery treadmill."
At the same time, she faced a crisis in her marriage. After years of effort, David's sugar beet experiment collapsed in bankruptcy. Frustrated with her husband's financial incompetence, she decided to separate her own finances from his. "Water pumped into a sieve for fourteen years is enough to break the most energetic spirit," is the way she summed up her decision to stop subsidizing her husband's grand schemes. Yet, in spite of this act of independence, she longed to resume a more conventional life with David. For years, she had stretched the bounds of proper middle-class behavior, living apart and placing her literary career ahead of her role as David's wife and caregiver. In 1850, the two reunited under the same roof, to care for her aging father in his home in Wayland, Massachusetts. They lived there for the next 26 years, until David's death, enjoying an intimate and stable relationship.
Through the 1850s, Child continued to write prolifically. She produced several volumes of children's verse, including her best known creation, a ditty that begins, "Over the river and through the woods/To Grandmother's house we go." At the other end of the literary spectrum, she labored for eight years on a meticulously researched three-volume work on comparative religion, a field of investigation begun years before with Margaret Fuller. The work, which sold poorly, was a testimony to her liberal religious convictions. No religious faith, she argued, has a monopoly on God's truth; all have something to teach us. The final authority for each individual, she insisted, was "the voice of God in the silence of our souls."
Although she had withdrawn from organized abolitionism, Child continued to promote the cause in her own way. Her Wayland farmhouse became a station on the underground railroad, and she continued to write articles for anti-slavery journals. Following the political currents that were sweeping the nation towards the Civil War, she keenly resented her inability to vote. "Why should women be politically mute?" she demanded to know.
Child returned to the public spotlight in 1859, in the aftermath of John Brown's failed attempt to incite a slave rebellion in Harper's Ferry, Virginia. Brown was badly wounded in his capture and was held in a Virginia jail, awaiting trial. Child wrote to Virginia's Governor Wise, asking for permission to come to his aid. "He needs a mother or a sister to dress his wounds and speak soothingly to him. Will you allow me to perform that mission of humanity?" Wise agreed, but Brown cordially refused her offer. Child's request outraged many Southerners, and she was publicly rebuked by a letter from a Mrs. Mason, who charged her with trying to aid a bloodthirsty murderer. Child replied with a stinging attack on slavery. Brown's noble but misguided deeds meant little, she suggested, when compared to the massive inhumanity of human bondage. The exchange was widely read in 1860 and, on the eve of the Civil War, delivered a decisive propaganda victory for the cause of abolition.
Through the war, Child continued to do her part by darning socks for soldiers and raising funds to help escaped slaves resettle. She also helped Harriet Jacobs , a young woman recently escaped from slavery, tell her life story, editing her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and sponsoring its publication. Looking forward to the time when slaves would be educated to become citizens, Child prepared the Freedman's Book, a collection of stories and poems she had written praising African-Americans and their contribution to American culture. Lacking a publisher, she raised the money for the book herself and had it distributed in the South.
Child spent her final years in relative seclusion, refusing every effort to honor her for years of selfless devotion to reform. When asked if she would cooperate in the writing of her biography, she snapped, "I detest notoriety. This mousing around after my private sentiments seems to me like surgeons politely asking me to be dissected before I am dead."
David Child died in 1874. In the last years of her life, Lydia maintained her seclusion. Her writing slowed to a trickle, as the fertile imagination that had produced more than 40 volumes and countless stories and poems at last began to slow down. She died in 1880, at the age of 78, and was buried beside her husband in Wayland. When her friends and admirers gathered to honor her at last, they looked back on a remarkable career of unswerving commitment to the principle of human equality, regardless of race, gender, or religious faith. Lydia Child had done her part to turn America's slaves into citizens. And she had spoken out against the oppression of women, adding her voice to the fledgling women's rights movement. Speaking of the vast change in the public role of women that had occurred during Child's lifetime, Wendell Phillips told the crowd gathered at her grave, "She was the kind of woman one would choose to represent woman's entrance into broader life."
Baer, Helene G. The Heart is Like Heaven: The Life of Lydia Maria Child. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964.
Clifford, Deborah Pickman. Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992.
Cowie, Alexander. The Rise of the American Novel. NY: American Book, 1948, pp. 177–84.
Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. NC: Duke University Press, 1994.
Ernest Freeberg , historian, Bath, Maine