LYDIA MARIA CHILD: A RADICAL AMERICAN LIFE
By Lydia Moland
Biography was once the elegant matriarch of nonfiction. Smelling faintly of lavender, she clutched her pearls when the story got too personal, or the author intruded on the narrative to address the reader, or the political machinery showed through the corseted layers of her heaving bodice. No more. Her skirts are shorter now, her research notes briefer. Her authors prance through their pages telling us what to think and feel within a hodgepodge of genres—memoir, philosophy, even a bit of self-help.
Lydia Moland’s thorough, fascinating biography of the 19th-century writer Lydia Maria Child fits all of the above. “There’s a lesson here,” Moland writes of Child’s political awakening, in an aside that would wake up even the sleepiest undergraduate. “Even if you resolve never to live your life the same way again, center before you stretch. Gather your resources, find your arguments, get your facts straight. Uninformed enthusiasm helps no one.”
A growing number of 21st-century biographers are in the middle of a 19th-century restoration project. Skipping the 20th century, they are interested in giving voice and paying attention to the formerly visible—and currently invisible—women of the 1800s. There have been recent biographies of Margaret Fuller, the Grimké sisters, and Louisa May Alcott’s youngest sister, Abigail May Nierike—all prominent figures in the 19th century who are often overlooked now. Meanwhile, The New York Times, worried about past omissions, is in the process of printing obituaries of the 19th-century women it once ignored.
In the old days, women did not go to college, couldn’t own property, and didn’t have the vote. Worse, they were also left out of their own history. Women could be of considerable importance in their time and then be almost entirely forgotten. Many 20th-century books about the 19th-century American Renaissance in literature, for instance, fail to mention that Louisa May Alcott was an important link between Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, or that Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne fell out over their shared passion for Margaret Fuller. The women who washed Emerson’s dishes and raised his children, cooked for Thoreau when he walked into town from Walden Pond, mended Herman Melville’s black waistcoat, and put up with Bronson Alcott’s loony ideas have all been rendered invisible.
Lydia Maria Child is another famous 19th-century woman you have probably never heard of, although you may know one of her poems by heart. In 1844, Child—who by that time was already famous as an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate—wrote the sentimental poem “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” with its famous opening lines: “Over the river, and through the wood, / To Grandfather’s House we go….” It was an oddly cheery choice for a political rabble-rouser who would offer to join John Brown in prison for his final days when the time came. “I think Child was trying something different,” Moland speculates regarding the Thanksgiving poem: “hoping that since all truths were interconnected, she could help her readers towards antislavery sentiments by encouraging a wider embrace of humanity.”
Although she had no children herself, Child was one of the first American writers to address children directly. When she was still in her 20s, she made a name for herself with the first periodical for children, The Juvenile Miscellany. Working as a teacher, she quickly wrote the first of a series of popular historical novels about New England, Hobomok. Her lifetime of writing included not just novels but poetry, essays, and self-help books. Child’s The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy was hugely popular, and she also wrote helpful guides for mothers and for girls. Her biographical subjects ranged from Madame de Staël to the Quaker elder Isaac Hopper. Her An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, published in 1833, was cited by people as varied as Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the 19th century and Invisible Man author Ralph Ellison in the 20th. Yet it took more than 100 years for Child to rate a biography: Carolyn Karcher’s The First Woman in the Republic, published in 1994. Moland, who had never heard of Child until a chance encounter at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, seeks to restore this prolific, passionate writer and activist to her former revered status.