RACE TRAITOR - treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity

Carolyn L. Karcher, The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child (Duke, 1994)
By Louise M. Newman

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.

This biography's greatest strengths (and greatest flaws) derive from Karcher's purposeful decision to quote extensively from Child's writings and to offer lengthy critical commentaries. The result is a dense and demanding narrative that extends over 600 pages and is organized around Child's literary output, rather than personal life events. Readers who prefer amore conventional approach to individual biography are likely to find this account unduly long and unengaging, although instructors who welcome the rich analyses that Karcher provides of Child's works will be able to excerpt sections for classroom use. And those readers who have the patience to work through this multi-dimensional, nuanced account will benefit immensely from Karcher's adept forays into nineteenth-century literature, politics and culture.

Intent on according Child the respect that scholars routinely give to "major" authors (xv), Karcher depicts Child as a writer of great imaginative power, whose work, even by current standards of literary canonization, "exhibits a structural complexity and symbolic richness akin to her more famous literary peers" (xv). Hence, two years before James Fenimore Cooper published The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Child offered critical reflections on the relations between white settlers and Indians in her novel Hobomok (1824), and "unlike Cooper, she denied the inevitability of race war" (612). A decade before Ralph Waldo Emerson was identified as a Transcendentalist, Child gave voice to transcendental philosophy in her historical novels, while her Letters From New York (1843), Karcher opines, "exemplifie[d] Transcendentalist literary style at its most innovative" (xv). Thomas Wentworth Higginson praised Child's Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833) as the "'ablest' and most comprehensive antislavery book 'ever printed in America'" (xi), while theologian Theodore Parker pronounced her Progress of Religious Ideas (1855) "the book of the age" (xi). Finally, a reviewer for the National Anti-Slavery Standard characterized her race novel A Romance of the Republic (1867) (in hyperbolic terms) as "one of the most thrilling books... involving the rights of the colored people [ever written] -- not excepting Uncle Tom's Cabin" (xi).

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.

Yet Karcher's account also makes it apparent that the couple went to extraordinary lengths to establish a fulfilling common life, sharing anti-slavery and journalistic work in the 1830s and 1850s. In the last two decades of their marriage, the Childs seemed to have worked out a way of living together that was mutually satisyfing. Whatever the emotional pain and professional costs, Child's marriage lasted over 46 years and was intact at David's death in 1874.

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" [293]). 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 letters [xxiii]).

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.

Chapters 17-19 explore Child's renewed involvement in the anti-slavery movement from 1859 to the end of the Civil War. 1859-1861 was a particularly important period for both Child and the movement, marked by John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry and by Child's editing of Harriet A. Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Impressedby John Brown's heroism, although considering him "sadly mistaken in his mode of operation" (418), Child wrote Brown a letter offering to nurse him while he was in prison, and sent another to Governor Henry Wise of Virginia who was Brown's official custodian. These letters, along with Wise's response and an exchange that ensued between Child and Margaretta Mason, wife of Virginia's Senator James Mason, catapulted Child once more into the forefront of political debate. The correspondence was reprinted in newspapers throughout the country and then reissued as a tract by the American Anti-Slavery Society, reaching the almost unprecedented circulation of 300,000 copies (423).

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" (527).

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 working conditions.

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. women today.

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.