Lydia Maria Child

(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111205077-Child_L.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Child was one of America’s first successful women writers and editors, combining popular writing with a lifetime’s dedication to the causes of racial equality and general public enlightenment.

Early Life

Lydia Maria Child, born Lydia Maria Francis in Medford, Massachusetts, on February 11, 1802, wished when young that her father had paid as much attention to her as he did to her older brother, Convers. Maria, as she preferred to be called, envied her brother’s inquisitive spirit and her father’s willingness to encourage it. Throughout her life, her choices would reflect the strength of mind and heart that she so early learned from having to act on her own.

Maria’s father, David Convers Francis, a prosperous baker, had little time for his strong-minded daughter. When his wife, Susannah (Rand) Francis, died, he sent twelve-year-old Maria to live with a married sister in Norridgewock, Maine. By age fifteen, Maria was already reading the works of John Milton, Homer, and Sir Walter Scott and was beginning to show the literary interests that were soon to make her famous. At eighteen, she opened a private academy, which had become well established when next she decided to join her brother Convers, now a Unitarian minister, and his wife in Watertown, Massachusetts, just outside Boston. There, her literary career began to flower.

Francis’ first novel, Hobomok (1824), was an instant success. This romance, involving an Indian male and a white female, reflected her childhood talks in Maine with local Abamake Indians and foreshadowed her lifelong opposition to the United States government’s Indian policies. Hobomok also hinted at Maria’s radical social views, since the plot featured an interracial marriage. A second work, The Rebels: Or, Boston Before the Revolution (1825), also sold well, and in 1826 she began publishing the Juvenile Miscellany, America’s first periodical created exclusively for children. All the while, Francis continued to teach in the private academy which she had founded in Watertown. Her childhood dream of being as independent as her brother was rapidly becoming a reality.

Her popular writing soon brought her notice in Boston’s aristocratic literary circles, where she became known for her charm and intelligence, though she was not regarded as a natural “beauty.” By 1827, she had been successfully courted by David Lee Child, a dashing figure eight years her senior, who had diplomatic experience in Europe and who aspired to become a politician. They were married on October 19, 1828, and settled in Boston, where David, for a meager salary, edited a political newspaper. To augment family income, Child published yet another successful book, The Frugal Housewife (1829), which passed on to readers the methods she was learning for running a household at low cost. (One cake recipe, however, did call for twenty-eight eggs and three pounds of butter.) The volume, which sold widely in both Europe and the United States, brought the Childs much-needed income, for from the start David Child did poorly in his career. His newspaper attacks on Andrew Jackson for forcibly removing the Cherokee Indians from their land in Georgia after the discovery of gold there made him unpopular, as did his sudden decision to become a vigorous opponent of slavery.

Child, however, agreed with her husband’s radical views. While he editorialized, she wrote a history of the Indians in her own region, The First Settlers of New England (1829); she soon became an abolitionist as well. In 1831, she encountered William Lloyd Garrison, the most militant of New England’s antislavery leaders, and was immediately converted to his cause. Yet once she had embraced this controversial new reform, her popularity as a writer vanished. Patrons snubbed her, and publishers refused her work. Her lucrative career was at an end. “Hardly ever was there a costlier sacrifice,” remarked Wendell Phillips, a close friend of Child and another leading Bostonian abolitionist. “Fame and social position [were] in her grasp. But confronted suddenly by the alternatives—gagged life or total wreck—she never hesitated.” In 1832, Child had irrevocably committed herself to emancipating the slaves and to seeking social justice. From then on, her brief enjoyment of fame was transformed into a lifetime of struggle against the formidable challenges of poverty and unpopularity.

Life’s Work

In 1833, Child published her views on slavery, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a highly influential work which guaranteed her banishment from Boston’s literary circles and sealed her public commitment to a career as a social reformer. The work persuaded Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and others to examine the slavery question, particularly because Child presented her case in such a logical fashion. (In all of her radical publications, Child seldom made use of overemotional rhetoric.) In calm tones, she denounced racial prejudice, called for equal education and employment opportunities for blacks, demanded an immediate abolition of slavery, and called for the repeal of all segregation laws, including those prohibiting racial intermarriage. Several other abolitionist publications soon followed, and the sales of her other books dwindled in proportion. Even another romantic novel, Philothea (1836), set in ancient Greece, failed to sell.

In the place of popularity came mobs of enraged citizens, anxious to purge the North of dangerous radicals such as Child. The famous Boston mob of 1835 specifically aimed at suppressing the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society of which Child had become a leading member. By 1840, she had...

(The entire section is 2389 words.)