The First Woman in the Republic

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In what will be the definitive biography for years to come, Carolyn Karcher has written an exhaustive study of a formidable nineteenth century figure. The life of Lydia Maria Child spanned the century, and as a writer, publisher, journalist, and activist, she knew most of the prominent people of her time and all the important controversies. She worked on issues of abolition, Indian rights, women’s rights, racism, old age, and poverty. Her corpus is voluminous: forty-seven books and tracts, as well as many uncollected stories and articles, and a huge correspondence. In an era when respectable women were relegated to the private sphere, Child managed to engage in the public political debate (especially antislavery), to win fame and artistic acclaim for her writing, to support herself and her husband, yet to remain mostly a private person.

Karcher’s thesis is that Child has been wrongly erased from American literary history, even though she pioneered the development of several genres—political novel, short story, children’s literature, essay, journalism. Karcher hypothesizes that Child has been overlooked because she does not fit the standard argument that nineteenth century American women writers were essentially domestic “scribblers,” writing insignificant and derivative potboilers only to earn money. Nor does Child fit with a feminist revisionist view that the domestic sphere was a source of strength and inspiration to women. All her life Child chafed at domestic drudgery (she never had the income to hire servants on a regular basis). She often spoke of the mindlessness of repetitive tasks: “Even if I had time to write, all power of thinking, and still more of imagining, is pressed out of me by this perpetual load of anxiety. . . . The dull monotonous life of the country kills my mind . . . stone dead.” Nevertheless, she remained steadfastly antiaristocratic and was often uncomfortable in the fine houses of her upper-class friends. Her life, avers Karcher, illustrates many of the ambiguities that intellectually ambitious nineteenth century women faced: how to arrange a more egalitarian marriage (in the face of laws erasing a woman’s legal existence upon marriage), how to be a “good wife” and still have a career, how to speak out on the great moral issues of the time (slavery, women’s rights, Indian removal) and remain a respectable woman, how to question received religious dogma and reconcile various religious traditions.

Reading Child’s correspondence and published work is like eavesdropping on the nineteenth century. One moves from the debate surrounding the referendum on Maine statehood in 1820 (in exchange for Missouri’s admission as a slave state) through the politics of Indian removal and on to the controversy over schemes to send former slaves to Africa. Events surrounding the Civil War sparked much of Child’s writing.

Karcher’s book is vast. It includes analyses of all the genres of Child’s writing, much of which is out of print. Hoping to resituate Child in American letters, Karcher exhaustively researches the contextual historical materials of the nineteenth century. She summarizes various debates, clarifying how Child’s position was different from others. For example, Karcher shows how Child was bolder than many of her contemporaries regarding Indian removal; Child proposed the solution of intermarriage and created sympathetic mixed-blood characters in her fiction.

The youngest of six children, Lydia Maria Francis Child was born into a working-class family in small-town Massachusetts in 1802. Only twelve when her mother died, she was reared mostly by older siblings. Like other early nineteenth century intellectual women such as Sarah Grimké, Child got her “passion for books” and most of her education from an older brother. Convers Francis, educated at Harvard University, loaned her books and discussed them with her. Sent to live with her married sister in frontier Norridgewock, Maine Territory, she continued her voracious reading while attending school there. At the same time, she experienced frontier life with Indians, enabling her to start making cross-cultural comparisons of women.

She embarked on her literary career in Watertown, Massachusetts, where she moved to live with Convers and his wife in 1824. Her first publication was a novel about Massachusetts’...

(The entire section is 1786 words.)