Lydia Maria Child ranks among the most influential nineteenth-century women authors, and was one of the first American women to earn a living from her writing. She was renowned in her day as a crusader for truth and justice and a champion of excluded groups in American society – especially Indians, slaves and women. She then turned her energies to reform and became a leading abolitionist.
Maria Child is probably best remembered today for the Thanksgiving children’s poem, “Over the River and Through the Woods.” But in her lifetime she published more than fifty books, plus short stories, poems and articles for periodicals. The North American Review, the leading literary periodical of the time, commented: “We are not sure that any woman of our country could outrank Mrs. Child. Few female writers, if any, have done more or better things for our literature…”
Born on February 11, 1802 in Medford, Massachusetts, Lydia Maria Francis was the youngest of six children born to Convers and Susannah Rand Francis. She preferred to be called Maria. She was educated in Medford public schools and spent a year studying at a women’s seminary.
After her mother died when Maria was twelve, she spent her teen years living with a married sister in Maine, where she was exposed to the plight of the Native Americans. At nineteen she moved back to Massachusetts, where she lived with her brother Convers, a Harvard graduate and a Unitarian minister, and the person chiefly responsible for her education.
Child was still living with her brother in 1824 when she wrote her first book, Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times, a romantic novel that dealt with the then scandalous notion of an Indian warrior in love with a white woman. In this tale, Child blames the first white settlers’ inhuman treatment of the Native Americans on their religious bigotry and demonstrates that all white Americans are guilty of racial prejudice.
Set in the early settlement of Salem, Massachusetts, Hobomok breaks away from the traditional Puritan narrative by looking at American history from a feminine point of view. Because it used Colonial historical material as background, it has the distinction of being the first New England historical novel.
Child became a literary sensation at age 22. She was invited by the governor to the reception for Lafayette and entertained by Boston’s elite in the grand houses of Beacon Hill. Her prominence garnered her such friends as Edgar Allen Poe, poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and Transcendentalist Bronson Allcott. Ralph Waldo Emerson sent her complimentary tickets to his lectures.
Child’s first children’s book, Evenings in New England. Intended for Juvenile Amusement and Instruction (1824), discusses subjects ranging from history and literature, slavery and Indians, to botany and other sciences. The book’s focus on American issues and American values made it an instant success. By publishing literature for American children, Child discovered that she was not only filling a void but also earning a living.
She then turned her talents in a more lucrative direction by founding and editing the first American children’s magazine, a bi-monthly called The Juvenile Miscellany (1826-1834). Sarah Josepha Hale‘s Ladies’ Magazine urged every family with children to subscribe. Child also came to know other women in New England’s intellectual community, including Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.
Marriage and Family
On October 19, 1828, she threw away her hard-earned financial security by marrying a lawyer, newspaperman and aspiring politician named David Lee Child. Child endeared himself to her with his idealism and his enthusiastic promotion of her writings in the columns of his newspaper, the Massachusetts Whig Journal. But Maria quickly became the couple’s chief breadwinner. They had no children.
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. An abolitionist and 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 debt and near-poverty for most of their married life.
Soon after the Childs’ wedding, David drew Maria into his political interests, and she began to write for his newspaper. He turned the literary column of the Massachusetts Whig Journal over to his wife. This marked her debut as a political writer. Published during the Indian Removal Crisis, her book, The First Settlers of New-England: or, Conquest of the Pequods, Narragansets and Pokanokets (1829), is set during the Indian wars of the seventeenth century.
Early in her marriage, Child also began writing for the growing number of women readers. The most popular of these works was a manual called The Frugal Housewife. Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (1829). It contained recipes, housekeeping tips and advice on women’s everyday problems. Although she netted $2000 from The Frugal Housewife in its first two years of publication, David Child’s debts continued to rise and swallow up every penny his wife earned.
To add to the couple’s troubles, David’s political writings at the Journal had resulted in many cancelled subscriptions and a trial. In 1830 David was sent to jail for libel. David’s decreasing income led Maria Child took on a teaching position as well as continuing her own writing and publishing the Miscellany. Her The Biographies of Madame de Staël, and Madame Roland (1832) projects a more independent and creative role for women.
In the early 1830s, just when Maria’s literary reputation was at its highest, she and her husband joined the group of antislavery reformers organizing under radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Maria was considered a great catch for the movement and put her talents as a writer to work for the cause.
In 1833, after several years of study and thought about slavery, Child published An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. This work provides an overview of the history of slavery in America and graphically describes the horrific conditions of slave life. She also calls for the immediate emancipation of all slaves without compensation to slaveholders.
In this book Child blames the North as well as the South for the existence of slavery and calls for the immediate eradication of all forms of racial discrimination, openly defending interracial marriage. This was the first anti-slavery work printed in America in book form, and Child followed it up with several smaller works on the same subject.
Meanwhile, the sales of Child’s work in other areas plummeted. Subscriptions to Juvenile Miscellany were cancelled and Child was forced to resign as editor. By daring to condemn slavery at a time when abolition was still highly unpopular even in the North, Child became the object of national hatred. Her friend John Greenleaf Whittier later claimed that no other woman had suffered so greatly for her principles as Child.
She outraged her Boston friends by describing Northerners’ prejudice against blacks and the segregation that existed in Northern cities. 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.
Almost overnight, Maria Child lost her livelihood, her popularity and her reputation, but she was undeterred:
I want to shoot the accursed institution from all quarters of the globe. I think, from this time till I die, I shall stop firing only long enough to load my guns.
By 1835 Child had adjusted to the idea of belonging to a band of social outcasts. Although the loss of many friends and admirers had been a bitter blow, she had the consolation of knowing that her fellow abolitionists shared her passion for truth and freedom and that they were pleased with her work.
Meanwhile, financial troubles continued to plague the Childs. David’s law practice had failed, and income from Maria’s books was at an all-time low. David’s legal entanglements led to his arrest on August 16, 1835. Maria spent these months of uncertainty boarding with a Quaker family in New Rochelle. While soon freed, David was forced to look for other work.
She consoled herself by completing a work of fiction she had begun five years earlier. Philothea. A Romance (1836) satisfied a longing to escape the world of reform for a romantic and idealistic realm of her own making. While Philothea was generally praised as Child’s most distinguished literary work to date, general sales were disappointing.
In the spring of 1838 the Childs moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, where David attempted unsuccessfully to make a living manufacturing beet sugar. Overwhelmed by poverty, loneliness and isolation, Maria stopped writing.
Relief came in May 1841 when she was offered $1000 a year to edit the antislavery paper, National Anti-Slavery Standard. Both Maria and David became more active in the abolitionist movement. She served on the executive committee of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS), alongside Lucretia Mott and Maria Weston Chapman.
For part of this era, the Childs maintained an early commuter marriage while he worked as a journalist in Washington and she edited the Standard in New York. Despite her skills as an editor, Child could not meet the demands of the various antislavery factions. In the spring of 1843, after two years as editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard, she resigned.
The abolitionists’ inability to work together angered Child and led to a permanent estrangement from the AASS. Child stated that she believed herself to be “finished with the cause forever.” She did continue to write for many newspapers and periodicals during the 1840s, and promoted greater equality for women. However, because of her negative experience with the AASS, she never again participated in organized movements or societies.
Instead of returning to Northampton, Maria Child remained in New York, where she hoped to distance herself from her husband’s legal and financial entanglements and devote herself to literature. The next five years were among the happiest and most productive of Child’s literary career. She first republished her popular column for the National Anti-Slavery Standard in book form, Letters from New-York (1843). The popularity of this book did much to restore Child’s literary reputation.
By the spring of 1844 Child had enough offers from booksellers to keep her busy. The most noteworthy of her writing from this time is Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories (1846). Meanwhile, she paid the bills with periodical articles, inspirational anthologies, biography, more children’s literature, short stories and abolitionist works.
After nearly a decade in New York, Child’s years of independence ended. Her unemployed husband joined her there in the fall of 1849, and the following year the couple returned to Massachusetts. After renting a hardscrabble farm in Newton, in 1852 they moved in with Child’s elderly father in Wayland, a small village twenty miles from Boston.
Maria cared for her aged father until his death a few years later. The house on Old Sudbury Road was now theirs and for the first time, after years of moving, the Childs had a home of their own. Though she became increasingly reclusive there, her literary horizons continued to expand.
Having largely devoted her life to literature for several years, Maria Child focus changed in the 1850s as she once again embraced the abolitionist cause, responding to the mounting sectional crisis, particularly the violence erupting in Kansas over the expansion of slavery and the beating of the antislavery Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate in May 1854.
Child gave vent to the anger she felt over the free-soil issue by writing one of her most influential short stories, “The Kansas Immigrants” (1856). The heroes and heroines of this tale are law-abiding settlers who suffer persecution at the hands of border ruffians from Missouri. Published during the closing days of the fiercely contested presidential campaign between John Fremont and James Buchanan, the story had an enormous readership.
In 1857, now 55 years old, Maria Child published the inspirational collection Autumnal Leaves, apparently feeling her career coming to its close. However, she reached her pinnacle of fame as an antislavery activist in the fall of 1859 when John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry prompted her to write her most widely circulated antislavery tract.
Correspondence between Lydia Maria Child and Gov. Wise and Mrs. Mason of Virginia (1860) was published as a pamphlet in which Child praised John Brown’s intentions while deploring his methods. It also includes one of Child’s most memorable lines. Responding to a letter which defended slavery by pointing to the kindness of Southern ladies in helping slave women give birth, Child replied: “… here in the North, after we have helped the mothers, we do not sell the babies.”
Although isolated in Wayland for much of the Civil War, Child worked hard to ensure that the conflict would result in true liberation for the blacks. Her writings from this time were carefully designed to calm fears on the emancipation question and to prepare her Northern readership gently for the former slaves’ eventual acceptance as full-fledged members of a free republic.
Child’s concern for the plight of slaves was heightened by her editing of the memoirs of Harriet Jacobs. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) describes the sexual oppression Jacobs suffered while a slave and her successful struggle to free herself and her children. Although Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is now recognized as a major antebellum autobiography of a black woman, the timing of its publication in the months just prior to the Civil War brought it little public notice.
Child’s most significant literary contribution to the war effort was a book designed especially for the emancipated slaves, The Freedmen’s Book (1865), which sought above all to counteract the sense of inferiority shared by former slaves. The selections promote both self-respect and self-reliance and include biographical sketches of such prominent African Americans as Frederick Douglass.
A Romance of the Republic (1867), Child’s last published novel, sought to raise public consciousness on the evil legacies of slavery. The story traces the lives of two mulatto sisters, Flora and Rosabelle, from their kindly and sheltered upbringing as slaves in New Orleans, through the trials and sorrows of their early adult life, to their marriage to white men and their eventual acceptance as respectable Boston matrons.
Child was bitterly disappointed by the critical reception of A Romance of the Republic, which she called the child of her old age. Sales of the novel were poor, and notices were brief or nonexistent. Particularly galling was the lack of response from her friends. However, she failed to notice the gratifying attention the book was getting from her African American friends.
David Child’s death in 1874 was a great loss to Maria. The couple’s last years together had been happy ones; money problems had eased. For the remainder of her life she kept the house in Wayland and lived largely as a recluse. Her last book, Aspirations of the World. A Chain of Opals (1878), was an anthology of holy writings from various ages and nations.
Lydia Maria Child died on October 20, 1880, at age 78 at the farm she had shared with her husband since 1852, and was buried beside him at North Cemetery.
My favorite Maria Child quote:
I was gravely warned by some of my female acquaintances that no woman could expect to be regarded as a lady after she had written a book.