As Carolyn Karcher informs us on the first page of this monumental biography, Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) was once a household name, known throughout the country for her children's stories, domestic advice books, abolitionist tracts, book reviews and articles. Her corpus amounted to 46 books and tracts, including 4 novels, 3 collections of short stories, and enough journalistic pieces to fill several anthologies (xiii). Although her reputation as a creative writer and anti-slavery activist seemed secure in the wake of the Civil War, the backlash against Reconstruction eroded everything she struggled to achieve. To the extent that Child has any public recognition today at all, it is usually for her editing of Harriet A. Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) rather than as an author in her own right.
In assessing Child's racial views, Karcher insists
on a dual perspective: from the standpoint of the nineteenth century,
Child was a radical who denied that whites were innately superior to
other races and went beyond most other white progressives in suggesting
racial amalgamation as a solution to the country's racial conflicts.
From the standpoint of white liberals today, however, Child's imaginings
are marred by what Karcher calls "tragic contradictions" (526):
a paternalistic belief that benevolent whites knew what was best for
other races, and an ethnocentrism that upheld "Euro-American 'civilization'...
as the model for other cultures to emulate"(555). These aspects
of Child's racial thought, Karcher argues, stem from Child's subscription
to evolutionary precepts, which in their most progressive form held
that all races could "advance" through assimilation into Anglo-American
culture. Such an ideology made it possible for reformers to critique
notions of white racial and political supremacy, while leaving intact
dominant assumptions of European cultural superiority. Without denying
the radicalness of Child's literary tropes of inter-racial marriages
and miscegenation, Karcher nonetheless emphasizes that Child's racial
egalitarianism did not permit the survival of alternative cultural practices.
Despite a detailed chronology at the beginning
of the book and a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book,
it still is not easy to come away with an overview of Child's life.
For this reason, it may prove helpful to provide a brief synopsis here.
Lydia Francis was born in Medford, Massachusetts, the youngest of five
surviving children. She attended local schools until she was twelve
years old, but received the bulk of her instruction informally from
her older brother Convers and from reading on her own. When she was
nine years old, Convers left home to attend Harvard University, her
favorite sister, Susannah, married and moved to Charlestown, and her
mother became bedridden with tuberculosis, dying three years later.
These traumatic events had a signficant impact on Child that lasted
throughout her life. As Karcher puts it, "Child would spend a lifetime
coping with the psychic wounds left by her mother's illness and death:
unresolved anger toward [both] her parents.... guilt and chronic depression....
and an insatiable yearning for love" (5).
Lydia Francis sought to satisfy her cravings for love by marrying David Lee Child in 1828, a man whom Karcher depicts as self-centered, fiscally irresponsible and emotionally withdrawn. To help pay her husband's debts, Child stopped writing novels and devoted her time to more lucrative projects -- particularly domestic advice and annual gift books -- while continuing to earn her living by editing the Juvenile Miscellaney, a very successful children's magazine she founded in 1826. Karcher is intensely critical of David's failings as a husband (he was neither an adequate financial provider nor a satisfying lover, it seems), and argues that Child unconsciously circumscribed her professional activities so as not to outshine her husband in all things and sacrificed her own interests to accomodate her husband's various business ventures. Karcher attributes Child's unproductive periods to the many physical and emotional dislocations she endured, arguing that Child's desire to act the part of the "good wife" led her, in the 1830s, to avoid "analysis of the wrongs women suffered under patriarchy, lest it unleash her repressed anger against David" (400). It was not until the 1840s, by which time Child had separated her finances and residence from David's, that she began to express this anger and to "come out" (322) on women's rights, writing columns in which she explored the various methods men used to keep women in subjection: physical force, verbal ridicule, gallantry, intellectual condescension, and so forth.
In 1843, however, after 14 difficult years, Child
decided out of "self-defense' to protect her earnings from David's
creditors and to remain in New York ("let him experiment where
he will" ). During this time she created new bonds with a
"feminist sisterhood" (323), including Lucy Osgood, Marianne
Devereux, and Margaret Fuller, as well as close relationships with several
men: her longstanding friend Ellis Loring, who served as her financial
and intellectual advisor; John Hopper, a man 13 years her junior, who
was her daily companion, and the Norwegian pianist, Ole Bull, who stirred
her passion for music. In this period, she also came to identify strongly
with "fallen women," perhaps, Karcher speculates, "as
a result of [her own] struggle to contain sexual impulses which [she]
felt to be illicit"(327).
Karcher frequently ventures psychological speculations
of this type, often grounding them in controversial readings of Child's
fictional writings. The result is a probing exploration of Child's soul
and psyche. From Hobomok, for example, Karcher finds evidence
of Child's conflict with her father as well as forebodings over her
developing feelings for David. Philothea: A Romance (1836)
registers Child's repressed awareness that "she was killing the
most vibrant part of herself by....allowing an 'incurable' husband todirect
the course of her life" (236). Early writings often serve as "prophesies"
for the radical course that Child's later life would take, while stories
written in the 1840s provide " vital clues" about Child's
"remarkable psychosexual insights" into her relationship with
her estranged husband(330). Despite Child's seeming ease in negotiating
her many different roles -- novelist and literary darling of the Boston
salons in the mid 1820s, loving wife and domestic advice expert of the
late 1820s, political reformer and spokesperson for the anti-slavery
movement of the 1830s, separated writer and woman's rights advocate
in the 1840s, and so forth -- Karcher finds evidence in Child's fictional
work that "the conflicts among her different selves were tearing
her apart" (236). Karcher's interpretations thus make visible an
unresolved struggle that cannot be documented by Child's existing correpondence.
(In 1849, thinking she was close to death, Child burned over three hundred
This analytical methodology is central to the book
and provides the basis for Karcher's most interesting and provocative
musings. One reviewer has criticized such uses of Child's fiction as
"ahistoricist," objecting that Child's "stories... cannot
simply be read as 'reality' or 'fact.'" Readers who insist on literal
interpretations of memoirs and letters as the only valid entree into
personal life will undoubtedly find Karcher's approach unacceptable.
But those who have a greater appreciation for the fluid boundaries between
imagined and lived reality, and who are as skeptical of finding "truth"
in letters as others are of finding it in "fictive" stories,
will delight in the way that Karcher mines Child's writings for the
unspoken anxieties and repressed emotions that constitute the context
for Child's racial views, political commitments and literary creations.
By the mid 1850s, Child had reconsecrated her relationship
to her husband, again turning their marriage into an antislavery partnership.
After many separations and having experienced an independence that had
tremendous emotional costs, Child ultimately "directed her residual
anger over her aborted career away from David and toward the patriarchal
system that subordinated all women to men" (399). In the late 1850s,
approaching the age of 60, settled in Wayland, Massachusetts in the
house she inherited upon her father's death, Child entered a period
of steady work that culminated in some of her most influential works,
The Right Way the Safe Way (1860), Correspondence Between
Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason of Virginia (1860),
The Freedmen's Book (1865), and a novel Child considered the
capstone of her career, A Romance of the Republic (1867).
For readers of Race Traitor, the chapters that may prove of greatest interest are those that directly explore Child's involvement in the anti-slavery movement. Chapters 8 and 9 examine the couple's anti-slavery activities of the early 1830s and analyze how David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829) and exchanges with William Lloyd Garrison prompted Child to move from colonization to abolitionism. Chapter 12 treats the early 1840s when Child assumed the editorship of the American Anti-Slavery Society's National Anti-Slavery Standard, doubling the Standard's subscription list from 2500 to 5000. Child not only made the paper a leading source of news about the slavery controversy, she also developed the literary department into a major attraction, contributing what became the newspaper's most popular item, a column called "Letters From New York," which blended pictorial description, social criticism and philosophical reflection in treatment of such issues as urban poverty, prison reform, women's rights, capital punishment and religious tolerance.
Nowhere are Karcher's extraordinary skills as both
historian and literary critic more apparent than in her treatment of
A Romance of the Republic, which she reads for its autobiographical
resonances, its historical allusions, and its radical, but nonetheless
racist, ideology. Karcher points out that while the work was "aimed
at healing the national divisions caused by slavery, war and racial
hatred," its "healing mission" was "personal as
well as political," bringing "into harmony the dissonant phases
of [Child's] life... reconcil[ing] her conflicting loyalties to men
who had fulfilled different needs in her ... and merg[ing] her disparate
selves ..." (511). In the novel these various reconciliations were
embodied in two interracial marriages that served as Child's metaphor
for the union of ethnic groups, classes, and cultures. But as Karcher
poignantly acknowledges, Child's conception of an egalitarian marriage
was severely compromised from the start, in part because she was unable
to imagine a partnership free of the delibitating effects of patriarchy
(her own marriage having failed her in this respect), in part because
Child's understanding of racial equality depended upon cultural assimilation
and thus remained "white-dominated" (527). Karcher makes the
point effectively by comparing Child's plot to that of the African-American
writer Frances Harper in Iola Leroy (1892). Where Child's octoroon
protagonists, Rosa and Flora Royal, retain their racial identity as
white women and marry white men in part to secure this identity, Harper's
protagonist, Iola, rejects the "ambiguous assimilation that Child's
Rose and Flora embrace, choosing instead to marry a man of her own race
(and color) and to go South with him to teach the freedpeople"
The last two decades of Child's life were filled
with the deaths of close friends and associates (Louisa Loring, 1868,
Charles Sumner, 1874, her husband David, 1874, William Lloyd Garrison,
1879), but Child continued her political activism by publishing articles
on black suffrage, land redistribution, women's rights, and Indian rights
in journals that included the Standard, Independent,
Woman's Advocate, and the Woman's Journal. In Karcher's
assessment, Child's commitment to racial and sexual equality never wavered.
Unlike other women's rights advocates of the 1870s, Child did not give
in to the backlash against Reconstruction and supported the Fifteenth
and Sixteenth Amendments, even though these amendments did not have
provisions for enfranchising white women. She opposed postbellum schemes
to annex the Dominican Republic and Cuba as vehemently as she had refuted
antebellum justifications for seizing Florida and northern Mexico. On
class issues, however, Child was not among her generation's most progressive
thinkers. She remained rooted in an antebellum view of labor, clinging
to her "'faith in Association' as the ultimate solution to the
conflict between capital and labor, rich and poor" (567). Thus
she opposed legislation designed to protect workers' rights and to regulate
For Karcher, Lydia Maria Child's example poses
a challenge to scholars' "persistent identification of women writers
with sentimentalism," (609) and enables us to explore the tensions
that existed in bourgeois women's rights ideology. Unlike some of her
contemporaries, Child was overtly ambitious, desirous of literary fame,
intent on reshaping political discourse, and unafraid to criticize her
society's racial and sexual hierarchies. In her struggle to reconcile
her desire for a comfortable domesticity and an unconventional career,
Child's life illuminates a struggle still relevant for millions of U.S.
Despite its great strengths, this book may have trouble finding an appreciative audience. Critics on the right may be offended by Karcher's unconventional methodology and her insistence that Child's ideology be assessed from the vantage point of current racial theory. Critics on the left may feel that Karcher pushes too hard to identify a "subversive art" (609) in admittedly bourgeois writing. My own concern is that white feminists, to whom this biography is so clearly addressed, will assume that, because we can critique the class and cultural ethnocentrism of Child'sviews, we have moved beyond the tradition that she so centrally embodies. But perhaps the greater worry is not that this biography will be misread, but that it will not be read at all -- and the significance of Child's life pass unnoticed.