There are a couple of particularly good reasons why we should really better remember Lydia Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-a) Child better than we do (and I know I’ve said that about most everybody and everything on which I’ve focused here, but it’s even more true of Child): she produced influential and impressive work in virtually every literary genre and for virtually every major social and political movement over a more than fifty-year span (roughly 1820 to 1880), leading one of her contemporaries to call her “the first woman in the Republic”; and she is the subject of one of the most thorough and deeply researched and successful historical and cultural biographies ever written about an American figure, Carolyn Karcher’s (pronounced Car-share) appropriately named The First Woman in the Republic (in the interests of full disclosure, Karcher was one of my two grad school mentors, but the book would be what I said even if I had never met her). And yet, as Karcher acknowledges in the opening pages of her book, if Child is remembered at all by most Americans, it’s entirely unknowingly: she wrote the Thanksgiving-inspired poem “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Better than nothing, I suppose, but far from what this truly unique and monumental American voice deserves.
Ironically, one of the most inspiring aspects of Child’s career and life is also, perhaps, part of the reason why she isn’t better remembered, or more exactly why she didn’t achieve even in her lifetime the level of national fame and prominence as did (for example) Harriet Beecher Stowe. The first years of her publishing career had been hugely successful, especially given her youth: she published the Puritan and Native American focused historical novel Hobomok (1824), a text worth putting in the conversation with Sedgwick and Cooper’s novels from a couple years later, at the age of 22; two years later she created and began publishing the Juvenile Miscellany, America’s first monthly periodical for children. At 26 she was already a leading figure in two entirely different literary and publishing worlds, poised for the kind of superstardom that her Early Republic contemporaries Washington Irving and Cooper were enjoying. But in the early 1830s she became an ardent abolitionist, and in 1833 published what is considered the first book-length abolitionist work in America, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. The text, with its argument for immediate emancipation of all slaves, would likely—like Child’s ongoing arguments that women should be part of the main streams of abolitionist work, not separated into female-only organizations—have made her an instantly more divisive and less popular national figure, and Child was far too intelligent a writer and publisher not to know what she was risking.
But her beliefs and passion were far too strong not to publish. And at the heart of the book’s concluding and most significant chapter, moreover, is one of the most radical ideas about race relations I have ever encountered, at least taking into account the moment and era in which it was published (and I don’t even know if those qualifications are needed). Child argues there that miscegenation laws, which made racial intermarriage illegal, were among the most pernicious and unjust of our nation’s laws; she admits that she is “perfectly aware of the gross ridicule to which [she] may subject [herself] by alluding to this particular,” and since such laws were on the books of many states (including my native Virginia) until the late 1960s, it is a serious understatement to say that she was indeed far ahead of her time. And in one of her later works, the Reconstruction-era novel A Romance of the Republic (1867), Child took those ideas one giant step further, arguing, more implicitly but even more strikingly, that intermarriage and miscegenation themselves might be the best way to eliminate the racial divisions and prejudice that had so defined American society throughout her lifetime (and not only in the South by any means, of course). Given the fears of social and sexual equality that had already begun to spring up in this post-abolition era, Child’s 1867 argument was even more radical in its context as well as its specifics, making clear that thirty-five years had in no way lessened her willingness to speak her mind.
As I’ve written about a couple of times in this space, my own relationship to the issue of intermarriage in the late 20th and early 21st century is undeniable: born in Virginia ten years after the Supreme Court case (Loving v. Virginia) that finally knocked down the state’s miscegenation law; in an intermarriage of my own; and raising two mixed-race boys in an era when our president shares that identity and yet our census (as of the 2010 version) has no explicit option for mixed-race (a step back from the 2000 census that I have never seen explained). But it doesn’t take that kind of personal stake to see the incredible boldness, and more importantly the inspiring openmindedness, of Child’s plan. Maybe we should recite those words every Thanksgiving instead. More tomorrow, on the complex, relatively recent, and very much evolving identity of what is too often treated as one of the founding American texts.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The text of about half of Child’s Appeal: http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/abolitn/childhp.html
2) Google book of Karcher’s bio: http://books.google.com/books?id=qmg6HbOCmsIC&printsec=frontcover&dq=karcher+first+woman+in+the+republic&source=bl&ots=utgU8TUYwK&sig=ydrJE8zwm56VqiNs4rCV-Jb5vCo&hl=en&ei=u8ntTKPjN4T78Abk8YH8Cw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false
Interesting figure, and nice overview that you give about her and her work.ReplyDelete