Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)
Contributing Editor: Jean Fagan Yellin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
To some, Child's writings appear all too commonplace, not radically different from writings that twentieth-century readers associate with ladylike nineteenth-century writers. Yet Child is radical, although it is sometimes difficult for today's students to understand this. They often ask about her relationship to the feminist movement.
She wrote about the most controversial issues of her time, and she published her writings in the public sphere--in the political arena which, in her generation, was restricted to men. Today's readers need to read Child carefully to think about what she is saying, not merely to be lulled by how she is saying it. Then they need to think about the tensions between her conventional forms and her highly unconventional content.
Focus on problematic passages. What do you do with the first sentence of her Preface to the Appeal? It reads like the beginning of a novel--like a private, emotional appeal to readers, not like an appeal to their intellects and not like a public political appeal. Yet it is public and it is political. How does Child's narrator present herself? How does she define her audience? What are the consequences of this strategy for today's reader? What do you think were the consequences of this strategy for the reader in Child's day?
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Major themes: Chattel slavery and white racism; women's rights; life in the cities; problems of class in America; social change and "Progress."
Historical and personal issues: Garrisonian abolitionism; the movement for women's rights; the development of the Transcendental critique of American society; women's role in American journalism; the discovery of urban poverty in America; the invention of the Tragic Mulatto in American fiction.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Child characteristically uses a conventional style and appears to be writing from a posture relegated to women novelists and to commonsense male news analysts. But she is saying things that are quite different from other nineteenth-century American writers of fiction in re: attitudes about race and gender, just as she is saying things that are quite different from other nineteenth-century American journalists in re: attitudes about class and race, and slavery and women's rights. Look at her language and her syntax. Then try to locate the places in her text where she does not say the expected, but instead says the unexpected.
With Child, this seems easy because--as her style suggests--she appears to be appealing to the common man and the common woman; she is not writing for a "special" audience of "advanced thinkers."
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Perhaps it would be interesting to contrast Child's newspaper rhetoric with that of Garrison--or even to contrast her Appeal with Angelina Grimké's Appeal and with Sarah M. Grimké's Letters in terms of language and syntax and logic--and of course in terms of audience. Like Jacobs and the Grimkés, Child is an American woman who condemns chattel slavery and white racism and attempts to assert women's rights. In what ways does she approach these issues differently from Jacobs and the Grimkés? And it would be interesting to read Child in relation to Emerson and Thoreau, who, like Child, were developing critiques of American capitalist culture. In what ways is Child's critique similar to Emerson's? To Thoreau's? In what ways is it different? Furthermore, it would be interesting to read Child's fiction in relation to American mythologists. Irving and Cooper presented types of Dutch America and of the West. What mythic types does Child present?
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
I try to stress the exceptional: Why was Child's membership in the Boston Atheneum revoked when she published the Appeal? What is so terribly outrageous about this book? Why might she have omitted Letter 33 from the edition of Letters? How could this letter have affected the sale of the book? It is hard, today, to see Child as a threat. Why did she appear a threat in her own time? Why doesn't she appear a threat today?