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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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- Lydia Maria
- William & Ellen Craft
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Authors: Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)

Lydia Maria Child
[6766] L. Schamer, Lydia Maria Child (1870), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535].

Lydia Maria Child Activities
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Lydia Maria Child (born Lydia Francis) was raised outside of Boston in a community she described as made up of "hard-working people who had small opportunity for culture." Her parents ran a bakery while raising six children, leaving them little time for intellectual pursuits. Still, Child, encouraged by her Harvard-educated older brother, developed an early interest in books and learning. By 1820, she had completed her training as a teacher and begun working at a school in Maine. She soon moved back to Massachusetts, where she started a school for girls and kept house for her brother, who had become a Unitarian minister. When she joined the Unitarian Church herself, Child adopted a new name to signal her independence and new identity. Rebaptized as Lydia Maria, she preferred to be called Maria for the rest of her life.

Child embarked on her literary career after reading a piece in The North American Review in 1821 calling for American authors to take American colonial history and Native American life as subjects for their fiction. Taking up the challenge, Child wrote Hobomok, a tale of interracial marriage between a Puritan woman and an Indian man set in colonial Salem. Although Hobomok was published when Child was only twenty-two, the novel was an early illustration of the concern with social justice and commitment to ending racism that would dominate her subsequent work. While many critics pronounced the novel, with its moving portrait of racial intermarriage, "in very bad taste," it immediately catapulted Child to literary celebrity. Capitalizing on her success, she soon produced another historical novel and the first periodical for children published in the United States, The Juvenile Miscellany.

In 1828, Lydia Maria married David Child, a man who shared her commitment to radical social causes. Unfortunately, he was also extremely impractical and prone to debt, leaving the couple dependent upon Child's literary efforts to support their household. While living with David, she successfully published housekeeping manuals, a history of the condition of women, and stories and articles for a variety of American journals. In 1833, Child changed the course of her career with the publication of An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans, a sweeping indictment of slavery and racism addressed primarily to a female audience. The pamphlet was greeted with hostility and damaged Child's mainstream popularity, but it also pushed her to the forefront of the radical abolitionist movement in the North. Affiliated with abolitionism, the movement for women's rights, and advocacy of Native American rights, Child had marked herself as a radical and a reformer.

In 1841, Child informally separated from her husband and moved to New York City to edit The National Anti-Slavery Standard, an abolitionist newspaper, and to work as a correspondent for the Boston Courier. Composing weekly "Letters from New York," Child reported on a broad spectrum of urban life, including problems of poverty, crime, and racism. She eventually collected this groundbreaking journalistic work into the two-volume Letters from New York (1843, 1845).

In 1843, exhausted by divisions within the abolition movement, Child resigned as editor of the Anti-Slavery Standard. In 1850, ending nine years of independence, she reunited with her husband and moved to a village outside Boston where she cared for her ailing father and continued writing on behalf of the causes that had motivated her early career. While some of her work was very public, such as the stirring letters she wrote in defense of John Brown and his raid on Harpers Ferry, Child also worked behind the scenes, helping Harriet Jacobs edit her narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. All of Child's anti-slavery writing and editing work was crucial to the development of the abolitionist movement. Some 300,000 copies of the pamphlet collection of her abolitionist letters circulated in 1860, effectively galvanizing anti-slavery sentiment in the North.

Upon her death in Wayland, Massachusetts, Child left a legacy of pioneering literary achievement. In her nonfiction work, she gave voice to the perspectives and concerns of traditionally marginalized groups. In her fiction, she mixed sentimentality with calls for social reform, creating a powerful formula that would be imitated by writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Helen Hunt Jackson.

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