Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389
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.
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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.
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 secured prominence in antislavery circles, becoming a close associate of Henry B. Chapman and Maria Weston Chapman and of Ellis Gilman Loring and Louise Gilman Loring, as well as of Phillips, Garrison, and other Bostonians who provided leadership for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In 1840, she was named to the executive committee of that society, and in 1841, Child moved to New York City to edit its official weekly newspaper, The National Anti-Slavery Standard.
When Child left for New York, David Lee Child remained behind in Massachusetts, nearly destitute but committed to the goal of producing sugar from beets, hoping to develop free-labor alternatives to slave-grown cane sugar from the South. In 1837, he and Child purchased a ramshackle farm in Northampton, Massachusetts, where for three years they had struggled to eke out a living. The need for additional income explained much of Child’s reason for assuming the editorship of The National Anti-Slavery Standard and for temporarily leaving her husband. While the paper’s readership grew substantially under her direction, she found the day-to-day work demoralizing and the endless controversies with her abolitionist colleagues distracting. When she resigned in 1843, her husband (now disengaged from the sugar beet business), briefly replaced her before moving on to Washington, D.C., to lobby at an uncertain salary for antislavery causes. In the meanwhile, Child remained in New York. The patterns of extended separation between her and her husband that would be repeated over the years had now become established. Though each would always profess and show deep love for the other, David’s inability to secure a rewarding career had caused their marriage to fracture partially. The couple would always remain childless.
Alone in New York City, Child succeeded somewhat in reestablishing her literary career. Her popular Letters from New York (1843) gave readers vivid pictures of all aspects of life in the nation’s major metropolis. Some of her scenes depicted the grinding poverty of New York’s slums, the injustices endured by the black community, and the degradation suffered by its unskilled workers. She also investigated prison conditions and the bistros and bawdy houses of the notorious Five Points District. She passed no smug judgments on the social outcasts she encountered, writing, “They excite in me more of compassion than dislike.” God alone knew, in her opinion, “whether I should not have been as they are, with the same neglected childhood, the same vicious examples, the same overpowering temptation of want and misery.” Such insights soon led her to publish Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories (1846), a book describing the plight of New York’s prostitutes.
Though Letters from New York proved a popular success, and though Child contributed frequently to other literary periodicals, by 1849 she and her husband continued to face destitution. Still lacking a stable income, David returned to his spouse, and in 1850 both moved to Weymouth, Massachusetts, to take up farming on land furnished at no cost by their Boston friends, the Lorings. By 1852, however, penniless and exhausted, they moved again, this time into a house in Wayland, Massachusetts, owned by Child’s father (now in his eighties). There, Child tended to both her husband’s and her father’s needs, until the latter died, in 1856. During this arduous period of domestic labor, she somehow continued to write a history of Western religion, The Progress of Religious Ideas (1855), in three volumes, which few purchased. Her next work, Autumnal Leaves (1857), a set of inspirational selections for those facing old age, suggested that, at age fifty-five, Child, too, believed her career to be ending. Indeed, she had written little about social questions since leaving New York City, though she participated in antislavery gatherings in Boston in the 1850’s.
John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry changed this state of affairs. “Before this affair,” she wrote, “I thought I was growing old and drowsy, but now I am as strong as an eagle.” She defended Brown’s effort at violent emancipation in numerous pamphlets and letters that circulated all over New England. Her offer to nurse the injured Brown as he awaited execution provoked a widely read exchange of letters between Child and the wife of Virginia Senator James M. Mason. By mid-1863, as the Civil War raged, Child had moved fully into the forefront of the struggle against slavery, a struggle she continued by demanding full black equality once the war ended. In 1865, she published The Freedmen’s Book at her own expense, a compilation of writings of successful blacks for the instruction of newly emancipated slaves. In the immediate postwar period, she pressed the Republican Party to legislate racial equality through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments and supported the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.
By 1868, however, Child was clearly feeling her age. She rarely traveled from Wayland, where she and her husband, now crippled from arthritis, began living in near seclusion. In that year, she published her last important reform statement, An Appeal for the Indians, recalling her first humanitarian efforts nearly forty years earlier. In 1874, when David Lee Child died, Child felt even less reason to engage the outside world. She became intensely reclusive, developing an interest in spiritualism. Few noticed when her last set of essays, Aspirations of the World, was published in 1878. When she died in Wayland at age seventy-eight, the few surviving abolitionist crusaders attended; John Greenleaf Whittier rendered a poem, “Within the Gate,” and Wendell Phillips delivered the oration.
Lydia Maria Child embodied the idealism and reform spirit that lay behind the great crusade against slavery. Her most enduring work, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, is recognized as a classic expression of the abolitionist’s version of a racially just and egalitarian society. Her many-sided interests, her noteworthy sense of humor, her suspicion of self-righteous rhetoric, moreover, disproved the stereotype of the abolitionists as a collection of narrow-minded fanatics and eccentrics. Further, her long association with the cause of black equality illustrated the depth and sincerity of the abolitionist’s commitment.
Child’s literary career and her long struggle for self-sufficiency also suggest the limits and possibilities of female emancipation in the pre-Civil War years. Clearly, her novels and other writings mark her as a pathfinder in the area of women’s literature. Yet she wrote often about the virtues of housework and cheerful obedience to the demands of husband and children. Her lifelong struggle to maintain not only herself but also her husband testifies to the tremendous burdens faced in the nineteenth century by “independent-minded” women who still believed in the primary importance of these domestic roles.
Baer, Helen G. The Heart Is Like Heaven: The Life of Lydia Maria Child. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964. A good modern biography of Child, based on primary research and a grasp of the scholarly literature then available on the antislavery movement.
Child, Lydia Maria. An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Boston: Allen and Ticknor, 1833. Her classic abolitionist exposition of doctrines and arguments. Conveys the full range of Child’s opinions on slavery, race equality, and racial prejudice, while standing as a fine example of her expository style as a reformer.
Child, Lydia Maria. Letters from New-York. New York: C. S. Francis and Co., 1843.
Child, Lydia Maria. Letters from New York: Second Series. New York: C. S. Francis and Co., 1845. Child’s reports on poverty and luxury in America’s largest city give vivid glimpses of her social convictions. Other parts show her facility as an art critic, theatergoer, and fashion commentator. The best introduction to Child’s “popular” writings.
Child, Lydia Maria. Philothea: A Romance. Boston: Otis Broaders, 1836. Typifies Child’s literary romanticism. Set in ancient Greece, the plot features proslavery and antislavery themes but also incorporates a dramatic love story and much melodrama. Since it tried to appeal to both reformers and the general reading public, this romance reveals in one work most of Child’s intentions as a fiction writer.
Meltzer, Milton. Tongues of Flame: The Life of Lydia Maria Child. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965. The best popular biography of Child, written by an experienced historian and based on primary research. Presents Child’s personality in especially vivid terms while giving a compact, readable summary of her public and private lives.
Stewart, James Brewer. Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976. This brief synthesis of the history of the abolitionist crusade gives attention to principal figures and events that bore on Child’s career. This work traces the development of antislavery from its origins in the eighteenth century until the end of Reconstruction.
Thomas, John L. The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1965. This major biography of Boston’s leading abolitionist conveys an excellent sense of the culture, people, and movements with which Child was intimately associated. A major scholarly study of the person who most permanently influenced Child’s views on social reform.