The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child

The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child

by Carolyn L. Karcher

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Overview

For half a century Lydia Maria Child was a household name in the United States. Hardly a sphere of nineteenth-century life can be found in which Lydia Maria Child did not figure prominently as a pathbreaker. Although best known today for having edited Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she pioneered almost every department of nineteenth-century American letters—the historical novel, the short story, children’s literature, the domestic advice book, women’s history, antislavery fiction, journalism, and the literature of aging. Offering a panoramic view of a nation and culture in flux, this innovative cultural biography (originally published by Duke University Press in 1994) recreates the world as well as the life of a major nineteenth-figure whose career as a writer and social reformer encompassed issues central to American history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398387
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/04/1994
Series: New Americanists
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 844
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Carolyn L. Karcher is Professor of English, American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Temple University.

Read an Excerpt

The First Woman in the Republic

A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child


By Carolyn L. Karcher

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9838-7



CHAPTER 1

The Author of Hobomok


* * *

"I did not mean ... that my wildest hopes, hardly my wildest wishes, had placed me even within sight of the proud summit which has been gained either by Sir Walter Scott, or Mr. Cooper.... Still, barren and uninteresting as New England history is, I feel there is enough connected with it, to rouse the dormant energies of my soul; and I would fain deserve some other epitaph than that 'be lived and died.'"


Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times (1824) opens with an autobiographical vignette depicting its author's dramatic entry onto the American literary scene. Bursting into the study of a friend we can easily recognize as Convers Francis, the young artist-to-be brashly announces "his" intention to write "a new England novel"—an intention prompted, as Child's was, by a Mr. "P[alfrey]'s remarks concerning our early history." Through her male persona, Child articulates her unwomanly aspiration to express the "dormant energies of my soul" and to win an epitaph in the male sphere of public action instead of in the female sphere of domestic life. Like Convers, her fictional persona's friend agrees to further the enterprise by procuring "as many old, historical pamphlets as possible." And like Child, her persona self-consciously surveys a literary landscape dominated by Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, and proceeds to stake out the ground that remains unexplored.

This vignette, which constitutes the preface to the novel, suggests how Child met the challenge of defining herself as an author in an era when authorship was still almost entirely the prerogative of an educated male elite. She began by identifying herself so thoroughly with her elder brother that she all but assumed his gender. Just as she had taken refuge in his bedroom and "devoured" his books while he was fitting himself for college, so she now ensconced herself in his study and enlisted his aid in fulfilling her literary ambition. At age seven or eight, it had not occurred to her that the books of a schoolboy six years her senior were beyond her "childish comprehension." No more did it occur to her at age twenty-two that she could not claim the right to a public career her brother took for granted. Child seems never to have suffered from either the fear of unsexing herself or the paralyzing sense of inadequacy that inhibited so many other nineteenth-century women writers. In keeping with her male identification, she looked for literary precursors among male writers, showing no discernible awareness of being disqualified by gender from inheriting (or appropriating) their mantle. Simultaneously, she treated their texts with the same iconoclasm she had displayed as a fifteen year old when she had questioned Milton's "lordly" assertion of maculine superiority. Intuitively recognizing the problems posed by patriarchal literary conventions, she boldly revised them to accord women greater freedom and dignity.

The anxiety Child acknowledges in the preface to Hobomok is not that of a woman entering a domain reserved for men. It is the anxiety of an American seeking to demonstrate that New England's history offers as much scope as Old England's (and Scotland's) for the homegrown novelist hoping to emulate Scott.


Aspiring American writers indeed faced a daunting prospect in 1824, as they groped for direction. Irving had just published The Sketch Book in 1819-20, Cooper The Spy in 1821 and The Pioneers in 1823. As for predecessors like Susanna Rowson, Hugh Henry Breckinridge, and Charles Brockden Brown, none had succeeded in solving the problem that confronted the writers of Child's generation—the creation of a distinctive national literature rooted in American soil.

Rowson and Brown, however, had identified key elements of such a solution. In Reuben and Rachel (1798) Rowson had provided an epic that not only commemorated the discovery, conquest, and settlement of the New World, but probed the complex relations between its European and Indian peoples. And in Edgar Huntly (1799) Brown had transferred the Gothic novel from a European to an American setting, where "[t]he incidents of Indian hostility, and the perils of the western wilderness" replaced sadistic priests and haunted castles as mainsprings of terror. Of the two, Rowson came closer to furnishing Child with a congenial model; for unlike most of her successors, she perceived that the interactions between Spanish and English settlers and Indians had taken a range of forms besides wars of extermination —forms that included the assimilation of Indian converts into early colonial Spanish and English society, the assimilation of European captives into Indian tribes, and a degree of cross-fertilization among the various cultures. Even more significantly, Rowson, who self-consciously announced in her preface that she presumed to write "[f]or my own sex only," had revised the historical record to give women a leading role.

It is intriguing to speculate about the influence Rowson might have had on Child, whose historical fiction would exhibit the same protofeminist thrust and revisionist daring. By a curious coincidence, Rowson was running a school for girls in Medford during Child's infancy, and she died in Boston the year Hobomok appeared on the local market. But no evidence suggests that the two women's paths ever crossed, or that Child ever read Reuben and Rachel, though she did express an unflattering opinion of Rowson's best-selling novel of seduction, Charlotte Temple (1794): "[It] has a nice good moral at the end, and I dare say was written with the best intention, yet I believe few works do so much harm to girls of fourteen or fifteen."

Writing when the historical novel was still fluid, Rowson never managed to shape it into a paradigm that an emergent national literature could adopt. Not until Scott brought the historical novel to maturity in the second decade of the nineteenth century—the decade when Child was sharing her impressions of his novels with Convers—did American writers find a genre suited to their purposes.

Designed specifically to forge a nationalist consciousness and cultural identity in the newly independent United States, the American historical novel inevitably exhibited the same central contradiction as American history itself—the contradiction between an ideology based on the premise that all men are created equal and a political structure based on the assumption that people of color and white women do not fall under the rubric "men." Like its British prototype, the American version of the genre developed by Scott celebrated the triumph of a technologically advanced civilization over a tribal society. Unlike Scott, however—identified by birth with one of the defeated ethnic groups whose heroic struggle against Norman and British invaders he memorialized—American writers belonged to the conquering race, which constituted their sole audience. Their mission was not to reconcile the victor with the vanquished, nor to offer a healing vision of the two groups' eventual amalgamation under the victors' hegemony. Rather, it was to justify the complete obliteration of the vanquished race and at the same time to assert the victors' own cultural independence vis-à-vis the British they had just overthrown.

Ironically, as American writers were to find, the key to establishing a distinctive cultural identity lay in exploiting the culture of the very race their compatriots were so brutally extirpating. An early nineteenth-century critic writing for the North American Review, the journal that was to formulate the first major theory of American literature, put the case bluntly. The United States was "deficient in literature" because its "colonial existence," inherently "opposed to literary originality," had deprived it of the basis for a true national literature. "The remotest germs of literature are the native peculiarities of the country in which it is to spring," he pointed out, and a "National literature seems to be ... the legitimate product, of a national language." Yet colonialism had saddled Americans with a literary tradition rooted in another continent and with a language suited perhaps to describing the serenity of the Thames, but far too "tame" to convey the "majesty of the Mississippi" or the grandeur of Niagara. These handicaps notwithstanding, the critic contended, America did in fact have an indigenous literature that displayed "genuine originality," "haughty independence" of foreign influences, and poetic vigor equal to soaring with the eagle and thundering with the cataract: "the oral literature of its aborigines." Critics in later numbers of the North American Review were quick to draw the inference: if American writers could mine the linguistic and mythological riches of this literature, they would develop the means of escaping their humiliating cultural subservience to England.

The reliance, for their prime claim to originality, on borrowings from a culture the nation was currently destroying—a culture whose destruction, indeed, the nascent "American" literature had the task of rationalizing—was not the only contradiction to beset the historical novels that appeared in response to such promptings. The mission of declaring the nation's cultural independence involved the further problem of defining its relationship to the colonial past. On the one hand, Americans had rebelled against patriarchal authority both by casting off the yoke of the king and by rejecting the worldview of their Puritan Founding Fathers as superstitious and bigoted. On the other hand, they needed to legitimate the political system they had erected in the place of the old aristocratic and theocratic orders they repudiated.

The novelists who took up the challenge of creating an authentic national literature in the 1820s envisioned diverse solutions to the problems of racial conflict and patriarchal authority. They ranged from the symbolic marriage of cultures to the elimination of Indians.

In Logan, A Family History (1822) John Neal conjures up what is potentially the most radical solution—a white man who goes Indian, marries into an Indian tribe, and fights on the side of his adopted people, putting his technological skills at their service in order to lead them "'forth, from barbarianism and ignorance, to liberty and light!'" Yet Neal proves unable to follow through on this conception, which often seems to repel him. Throughout the novel, the hero is more attracted to a married white woman than to his Indian wife, and after he leads her tribe in a bloodthirsty reprisal raid, he wallows in self-loathing. Not surprisingly, Neal ends up killing off all his principal characters.

In Koningsmarke (1823) James Kirke Paulding briefly flirts with the possibility that whites might wish to permanently embrace Indian ways—a possibility discussed nervously by several eighteenth-century writers who noted that although "thousands of Europeans" were living as Indians, "we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans!" Paulding's purpose is merely satiric, however; his true view, expressed in a long disquisition preceding his hero and heroine's captivity among Indians, is that destiny has slated the primitive red man for "extinction" and the "'wise white man'" for "final ascendency." Foreshadowing his future role as an apologist for slavery and white supremacy, Paulding also hints at the threat of an impending alliance between Indians and blacks; he then symbolically forestalls such a consummation by bringing his grotesque black characters to ignominious ends.

We are all familiar with the formula for resolving racial conflict that prevailed historically and found consummate expression in the only novels of this period to survive in our literary canon—those of James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper's scenario presupposes that on a national level the encounter between "savage" and "civilized" races can take but one form—war—and can lead to but one outcome—the total defeat and extinction of the "savage" race. Though drenched in violence and replete with scenes of Indian tomahawking, scalping, and torture, Cooper's novels do not glorify the extermination of the Indians, as do those of Paulding and his later competitor, Robert Montgomery Bird. Instead, they mourn the "vanishing" of the red man as tragic but inevitable, and they pay tribute to the noble qualities of those Indians who ally themselves with whites. Through Cooper's great mythic creation, the Indianized frontiersman Hawk-eye, and through the friendship between Hawk-eye and the noble Indians Uncas and Chingachgook, the Leatherstocking Novels also seek to mediate the conflict between "savage" and "civilized" ways of life. Yet Cooper's scenario allows no role in America's future, either for Uncas and Chingachgook or for Hawk-eye—all three are doomed to die without issue. In lieu of a reconciliation between Indians and whites, Cooper's The Pioneers (1823) provides a reconciliation between Tory and Revolutionary. Obviously serving to reestablish patriarchal authority in the new order emerging from the routing of Indian savages and British tyrants, this solution leaves Anglo-American women on the sidelines—precisely the position they occupy in the political system.

Excluded as they were from the benefits that American democracy conferred on their male peers, middle- and upper-class white women often identified consciously or unconsciously with other excluded groups. In the 1830s an awareness of being "bound with" black slaves would propel a significant number of American women into the abolitionist movement. In the 1820s it led some of the women writers who helped shape the American historical novel to imagine alternatives to race war, genocide, and white male supremacy as modes of resolving the contradictions that riddled their society. Child's career—which as we shall see followed a trajectory from portraying Indians sympathetically in her fiction, to agitating against Andrew Jackson's Cherokee removal policy, to assuming a leading role in the struggle against slavery, to campaigning for black suffrage, woman suffrage, and a more humane Indian policy after the Civil War—illustrates how closely these phenomena are connected.


When Child sat down to write Hobomok in 1824, she took her cue directly from one of the critics who had been calling on American writers to exploit the matchless resources that America's panoramic landscapes, heroic Puritan settlers, and exotic Indian folklore afforded the romancer. Leafing through an old volume of the North American Review in her brother's study as she was whiling away the hours between morning and afternoon Sunday services, she had come across a long review of a narrative poem entitled Yamoyden, A Tale of the Wars of King Philip, in Six Cantos, by James Wallis Eastburn and Robert Sands (1820). Yamoyden represented a landmark in American literature, proclaimed the reviewer, John Gorham Palfrey, whom Child had met through Convers. "We are glad that somebody has at last found out the unequalled fitness of our early history for the purposes of a work of fiction," he pontificated. That history, Palfrey went on, contained all the elements Scott had put to such effective use in his novels of border warfare—indeed, the "stern, romantic enthusiasm" of America's Puritans; the "fierce," "primitive" character of her Indians, "with all the bold rough lines of nature yet uneffaced upon them"; and the vast scale of her picturesque scenery surpassed anything Scodand could boast. "Whoever in this country first attains the rank of a first rate writer of fiction," predicted Palfrey, "will lay his scene here. The wide field is ripe for the harvest, and scarce a sickle yet has touched it."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The First Woman in the Republic by Carolyn L. Karcher. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Illustrations ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Chronology xix

Abbreviations xxvi

Prologue: A Passion for Books 1

1. The Author of Hobomok 16

2. Rebels and "Rivals": Self Portraits of a Conflicted Young Artist 38

3. The Juvenile Miscellany: The Creation of an American Children's Literature 57

4. A Marriage of True Minds: Espousing the Indian Cause 80

5. Blighted Prospects: Indian Fiction and Domestic Reality 101

6. The Frugal Housewife: Financial Worries and Domestic Advice 126

7. Children's Literature and Antislavery: Conservative Medium, Radical Message 151

8. "The First Woman in the Republic": An Antislavery Baptism 173

9. An Antislavery Marriage: Careers at Cross Purposes 195

10. The Conditions of Women: Double Binds, Unresolved Conflicts 214

11. Schisms, Personal and Political 249

12. The National Anti-Slavery Standard: Family Newspaper or Factional Organ? 267

13. Letters from New York: The Invention of a New Literary Genre 295

14. Sexuality and Marriage in Fact and Fiction 320

15. The Progress of Religious Ideas: A "Pilgrimage of Pennance" 356

16. Autumnal Leaves: Reconsecrated Partnerships, Personal and Political 384

17. The Example of John Brown 416

18. Child's Civil War 443

19. Visions of a Reconstructed America: The Freedmen's Book and A Romance of the Republic 487

20. A Radical Old Age 532

21. Aspirations of the World 573

Afterword 608

Notes 617

Works of Lydia Maria Child 757

Index 773

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