Lydia Maria Child

 

LYDIA MARIA CHILD

Lydia Maria Child, Wayland's famous author and abolit ionist, was born more than two hundred years ago, but it wasn't until much later that she was nominated by the Wayland Historical Society and inducted into The National Women's Hall of Fame, Seneca Falls, NY.  Child was inducted in ceremonies October 5,2002.

Child who is known for her work in the women's rights and antislavery movements and for her pioneering role in children's literature, was a Wayland resident for the last twenty-seven years of her life. Born Lydia Francis in Medford, Massachusetts in 1802, she adopted the middle name "Maria" and preferred it to "Lydia" all her life. She was educated in Medford public schools and spent a year in seminary, but it was her brother, the Rev. Convers Francis, a leading Transcendentalist, who was her most important educational influence.

Child's first book, Hobomok, a romantic novel that dealt with the then scandalous notion of an Indian warrior in love with a white woman, catapulted her to fame when she was just 22. Because the novel used Colonial-era historical material as background, it has been called New England's first historical novel. With the publication of Hobomok and the appearance a year later of The Rebels, Child became a literary sensation. She was invited by the governor to the reception for Lafayette and entertained by Boston's elite in the grand houses of Beacon Hill.

When Child began writing, there was virtually nothing published especially for children. In 1826 she started the first children's magazine, Juvenile Miscellany, a tiny paper periodical she edited, writing many of the didactic little stories herself. The publication enjoyed wide support for nearly ten years.

Child's successful literary career came to an abrupt end in 1833 when she published “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans”, often cited as the first antislavery book. In it she reviewed the history of slavery. She insisted that slavery had an evil impact on both slave and slaveholder, and she outraged her Boston friends by describing Northerners' prejudice against blacks and the segregation that existed in Northern cities. As a result, subscriptions to Juvenile Miscellany were cancelled and Child was forced to resign as editor. Her readers stopped buying her books. The Boston Athenaeum trustees revoked her library privileges. Nevertheless, long before Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin” was published, Child's book won many converts to the antislavery cause.

She married David L. Child, a young lawyer and editor for the Massachusetts Whig Journal. David was an idealistic young man, whose editorial opinions got him sued on more than one occasion and even jailed, and whose business schemes always seemed to turn out badly. A firm abolitionist and true believer in women's rights, he was proud of his wife's achievements and never limited her freedom to write or work, as many husbands of the period might have. But his reckless business ventures kept the couple continually in poverty and debt. Throughout most of their 46-year marriage, Maria was the major family breadwinner.

In 1841 David and Maria were appointed co-editors of the Massachusetts Whig Journal, the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Both were reluctant to take on the responsibility. Because David was involved in another ill-fated venture, a sugar beet farm in Northhampton, Maria shouldered the job alone, although both names ran on the masthead. Besides editing the paper, Maria was charged with building up the newspaper's readership, serving on the formerly all-male executive committee, and balancing the conflicting demands of different antislavery factions. During her years living alone in New York, Child wrote the two-volume, “Letters from New York”, and also the story of the Quaker Abolitionist, Isaac T. Hopper.

At first, Child had believed that the slavery problem could be solved gradually and through African colonization, but her  work with William Lloyd Garrison's fiery wing of  Abolitionists' movement, convinced her that a stronger, more  assertive approach was needed. Nevertheless, during the three years Maria edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard, she resisted printing articles reflecting Garrison's strident tone and refused to issue calls for the North to repeal the Union. Instead Child edited an antislavery paper that would appeal widely to those she was trying to attract to the cause. She doubled the number of subscriptions and put the insolvent paper on a firm financial footing. Finally, finding her editorial freedom challenged too often, she resigned.

Child's most popular book, The “Frugal Housewife”, went through 33 editions, and is still available today. It contained recipes, housekeeping tips and advice on women's everyday problems. “The Mother Book”, published two years later, articulated her concern that mothers guide the education of their children, especially their daughters, and stressed the importance of sex education for children.

In her two-volume work, “The History of the Conditions of Women in Various Ages and Nations”, Child considered the roles and cultural limitations of women from Biblical times through to her own era. She argued that in many different settings, women's influence had benefited these cultures morally and economically. Her book encouraged contemporary women, to widen their world and to work politically for Abolition. Hundreds of women followed her advice, collecting signatures on antislavery petitions-the first political action most of them had ever taken.

In a letter to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1866, Child outlined her arguments in favor of the vote for women, pointing out that women were taxed and women were prosecuted by laws which they could not take any part in making. In 1870 Child was a founding member of the Massachusetts Women's Suffrage Association.

Child has been described as a crusader for women's suffrage, but Abolition was always her first priority. While she had at first supported the campaign to win the vote for both women and former slaves, when she felt the women's suffrage campaign would jeopardize the enfranchisement of freedmen, she withdrew her support for women’s suffrage. She felt it was essential for all blacks' personal safety, for black men in the South to have the vote.

As the Civil War drew to a close Child worked to help the former slaves make the transitions that would be necessary in their new life. Her contribution was “The Freedmen's Book”, a collection of readable materials-biographies of black leaders, stories of fugitive slaves and practical advice from the author. Published largely at her own expense, the book was priced cheaply so that the freedmen could afford it. All profits were plowed back into future editions. She worked to send teaching materials, books, etc. to the former slaves.

In 1853 the Childs moved to Wayland so that Maria could take care of her aged father. On his death the house on Old Sudbury Road was theirs and for the first time, after years of moving, the Childs had a home of their own. Lydia Maria Child formed warm friendships with a number of local residents: the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, minister of the First Parish Church and author of the hymn, "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear",  and her little next door neighbor, Alfred Wayland Cutting, who grew-up to be Wayland’s well-known photographer.

She died on October 20, 1880. Wendall Holmes gave the eulogy in a simple service at her home. She was buried beside her husband at North Cemetery.

In her lifetime Child published more than fifty books, plus short stories, poems, articles for periodicals and newspapers.  So much of her writing was more suited to the tastes of her contemporaries than to today's readers that it is hard for us to grasp what a literary giant she was in her time. The North American Review, the leading literary periodical of the time, commented "We are not sure that many woman of our country could outrank Mrs. Child. Few female writers, if any, have done more or better things for our literature."

Child's prominence in the Boston literary scene won her  such friends as Edgar Allen Poe, Poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and Transcendentalist Bronson Allcott, indeed all of Louisa May Alcott's family. Ralph Waldo Emerson sent her complimentary tickets to his lectures. Editor Horace Greeley was so impressed with her “The Kansas Immigrants” that he interrupted a Charles Dickens serial story to publish it. Women Suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were among those she counted as friends.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Lydia Maria Child. Two major biographies have been published since 1992 and a couple dozen references to her life and writings appear on Internet web sites. Nevertheless, it is ironic that Lydia Maria Child is probably best remembered today for the Thanksgiving children's poem, "Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandfather's House We Go".

Major sources for this article were Deborah Pickman Clfford's, Crusader for Freedom: A Life of Lydia Maria Child, Beacon Press, 1992 and Lydia Maria Child: Selected letters, 1817-1880, Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Holland, editors, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.