A "fully aware" woman
My last post was about Lydia Maria Child's classic poem. This post is about her—a forward-thinking, groundbreaking, influential novelist, journalist, essayist, editor, letter writer, social critic, and reformer with a broad agenda that still resonates today, from the rights of marginalized people to the need for frugality.
Born on February 11, 1802, and named Lydia, she grew up in Medford, Massachusetts. (She later added Maria, pronounced "Ma RYE a," her preferred name.) With the death of her mother, twelve-year-old Lydia went to live with her married sister in Norridgewock, Maine, a village on the banks of the Kennebec River. There she spent time with the Abenaki Indians who lived nearby, eating with them, watching them making baskets, and hearing their stories. Her sympathies were undoubtedly heightened when a church bell was uncovered in Norridgewock, the remnant of a massacre of the Abenaki and their French priest by British troops in 1724. Her experiences motivated her life-long advocacy for Native Americans and the taboo-defying theme of interracial marriage in her first book—Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times.
A novel of historical fiction set in the 1600s, Hobomok is the story of a white Puritan
teenager, Mary Conant, whose Puritan father forbids her relationship with a non-puritan, Charles Brown. Charles disappears. and thinking that he is dead, Mary runs away, marries Hobomok, a Native American warrior, and has a child. Charles reappears and Hobomok releases Mary from their marriage. She returns to white society, marries Charles and together they raise her mixed-race son.
Lydia Maria self-published Hobomok in 1824. Perhaps to add mystery, and thus salability, to the book and/or to guard her reputation because, at that time, women authors were an eye-brow-raising rarity, Hobomok was published as having been written "By an American." Lydia Maria's authorship was soon discovered. Book reviewers were scandalized, but the approval of a prominent Harvard professor propelled Lydia Maria into literary stardom. Eminent writers and intellectuals such as Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson embraced her. The Boston Athenaeum, an elite membership-only library, invited her to join. "Praise and invitations have poured in upon me, beyond my utmost hopes," she wrote in a letter to her sister. All this, and she was only twenty-two years old.
Lydia Maria soon published two more books—a children's book for "Amusement and Instruction" and another historical fiction novel:The Rebels, or Boston Before the Revolution. In 1826, she founded The Juvenile Miscellany, the first monthly periodical for children. That same year, she married David Lee Child, a zealous idealist social reformer and lawyer. Did she know what she was getting into? Certainly she knew that because of the law of coverture, a married woman's legal rights were subsumed under her husband's legal rights and that all her property, and her earnings belonged to him. But did she know that David was financially inept? As one of the first women to earn a living from writing, her earnings supported them and repeatedly paid off her husband's debts.
Lydia Maria Child wrote more than fifty books, plus short stories, poems, articles, and pamphlets. She tapped into new audiences. Her bestseller, The Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy, was the first book with recipes and homemaking advice aimed at women of "middling means"who did not have servants.
In 1833, an article in the July issue of The North American Review, a prestigious literary journal, heralded Lydia Maria Child as the "first woman of the republic," the woman who "wrote the most useful books." Later that year, she published a deeply researched book that turned her life upside down—An Appeal in Favor of the Class of Americans Known As Africans. Her well-documented, impassioned book, the first book-length antislavery book, indicted both Southerners and Northerners for the cruelty and inhumanity of
of slavery and called for the immediate emancipation of enslaved people. In the preface of her book, Child wrote that she was "fully aware of the unpopularity of the task I have undertaken, but though I expect ridicule and censure, it is not in my nature to fear them."
The backlash was swift and devastating. Bookstores returned her books. People cancelled their subscriptions to her very popular children's magazine,The Juvenile Miscellany, that she edited and that provided a steady income. The Boston Athenaeum revoked her free borrowing privileges. She was denounced, shunned, and ostracized. A man in Boston picked up her book with tongs and threw it out the window.
The small cadre of abolitionists were thrilled: Child's book was converting some people to their emerging anti-slavery movement. The "anti-slavery ladies" of Lynn and Salem, Massachusetts gave her a gold pocket watch that was inscribed: "To their friend MRS. CHILD, the true, the noble, the irreproachable, who made the first 'APPEAL' in behalf of the AMERICAN slave."
Despite the turmoil, Lydia Maria Child kept writing, including The History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations, Vol. 1 Comprising the women of Asia and Africa; Vol.11. Comprising the women of Europe, America, and South Sea Islands.
In 1860, Child edited and wrote the preface for Harriet Jacobs' autobiography. Born into slavery, Harriet Jacobs had endured sexual abuse for years before escaping. The book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, was published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent. The book is now considered a classic in the genre of slave narratives.
After a lifetime of writing boldly and passionately for justice and equality, Lydia Maria Child died on October 20, 1880 at the age of 78. There are no solo landmarks for her, but her written works remain and many can be accessed online. Here are links to An Appeal in Favor of the Class of Americans Called Africans, The Frugal Housewife, and The History of the Condition of Women in Various Ages and Nations, vol 1. https://archive.org/details/appealinfvor00child/mode/2up?ref=ol&view=theater
Images top to bottom (click to enlarge): Portrait by Frances Alexander of Lydia Maria Francis, age 22. Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society; recent edition of Hobomok with explanatory notes and updated bibliography by Carolyn L. Karcher; article in an abolitionist newspaper, "Mrs. Child's New York," The Liberator, Sept. 7, 1833, p. 1. The first paragraph notes her recent praise in the "North American Review." The second paragraph refers to her new book, An Appeal in Favor of the Class of Americans called Africans. "We admire the moral courage of this lady in risking her literary name by taking the stand which she does in thiis volume."; "Representative Women," a combinative portrait created circa 1870 by L. Schamer. top and clockwise—Lucretia Mott, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, Lydia Maria Francis Child, Susan B. Anthony, Sara Jane Clarke Lippincott. Anna Elizabeth Dickinson is in the center.: Harriet Jacobs; a group landmark for abolitionists in Northampton, Massachusetts—top row: Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Linda Case; bottom row: Sylvester Judd, Moses Breck, Charles P. Huntington