Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life

My biography of American abolitionist Lydia Maria Child will be published by the trade division of University of Chicago Press in 2022.  Here is a small preview. More of my writing on Child is on my media page.

In 1830, Lydia Maria Child was one of the fledgling United States’ most beloved authors. Six years earlier, at the age of twenty-two, she had published her first novel in response to a call for new American literature. Its plot—a love story between a European settler and a Native American—had caused a sensation, making her a “wee little lion” in Boston literary circles. Other fiction quickly followed, as did path-breaking writing in other genres. In 1826, Child founded and edited The Juvenile Miscellany, the United States’ first children’s periodical. In 1829, she published The American Frugal Housewife, a self-help book that offered advice on everything from eliminating bedbugs to curing dysentery to roasting a goose. By age thirty, she had established herself as something almost unheard of in the American nineteenth century: a self-sufficient female author.

But in 1833, she threw it all away. She knew what she was doing, and she did it anyway. She did it because of a moment when it became clear that her country and—more importantly—her fellow human beings demanded nothing less.

That year, Child published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, the first book-length argument against slavery printed in the United States. Child wrote it after meeting the fire-breathing abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and being converted to the anti-slavery cause. Meticulously researched and rigorously argued, it documented the history, economics, politics, and wrenching cruelty of slavery. At a time when most Northerners disapproved of slavery but tolerated its persistence, she advocated for immediate emancipation. In her book’s final chapter, Child openly accused Northerners of being complicit in slavery’s survival. She knew that her views were radical enough to alienate her audience before they even started reading. So she issued them a challenge: read the book, she dared them, “from sheer curiosity to see what a woman (who had much better attend to her household concerns) will say upon such a subject.”

The response was sure, swift, and brutal. Friends abandoned her and family shunned her. Her mentor ostracized her; her book sales plummeted. Subscribers’ outrage forced her to give up the Juvenile Miscellany. She and her husband fell deeply into debt. Their shared radicalism kept them poor for decades to come. John Greenleaf Whittier, in his remembrance of the anti-slavery struggle, wrote that among white abolitionists, no one had sacrificed more for the cause.

Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life is the story of what brought Child to this moment and the extraordinary life she lived in response. Child went on to be one of the foremost authors and activists of the American nineteenth century. She continued to pioneer literary genres and wrote both a two-volume history of women and a three-volume history of religion. She edited the National Anti-Slavery Standard and tangled in print with politicians. She wrote dozens of novels, short stories, and poems, including the iconic “Over the River and Through the Wood.” She lived her convictions in matters big and small by aiding fugitive slaves, shielding fellow abolitionist from mobs, collecting books for newly emancipated Black Americans, and knitting hats for soldiers during the Civil War.  Her effect on the Civil War era was substantial: her converts to abolition include Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a financer of John Brown’s insurrection, and Charles Sumner, whose caning on the Senate floor pushed the country closer to armed conflict. As the war began, one of her tracts was distributed to 300,000 Americans to justify the sacrifice of their lives and livelihoods in America’s bloodiest war.

Through the example of this remarkable life, Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life asks a question as pressing in our time as it was in Child’s. What does it mean never to live life the same way again when the moral future of one’s country is at stake? When confronted by sanctioned evil, systematic injustice, or moral corruption, how should a citizen live? Child’s life demonstrates what it means to live up to ideals of freedom and equality. Her mistakes serve as a warning about the dangers of white activism. Her biography provides practical guidance for a lifetime of political engagement: advice on everything from infighting to burnout to staying in love with one’s husband through it all. Her example is timely and inspiring. Her writing is witty and wise. Her story is one for the ages, and it is one for us now.