In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Lydia Maria Child

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Biographies
  • Personal Reminiscences
  • Correspondence
  • Documentary Film

American Literature Lydia Maria Child
Carolyn L. Karcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0021


Lydia Maria Child, née Francis (b. 1802–d. 1880), the daughter of a baker in Medford, Massachusetts, and almost entirely self-educated, rose to fame at age twenty-two with the publication of her novel Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times (1824) and remained a household name and a central figure in 19th-century American culture for the next five decades. She pioneered almost every department of American letters: the historical novel, the short story, children’s literature, the domestic advice book, women’s history, antislavery fiction, and journalism. She also created a distinctive style of transcendentalist writing. Child’s corpus amounts to forty-seven books and tracts (including four novels and three collections of short stories). A reformer as well as a writer, Child played a leading role in the crusade against slavery and racism; campaigned for justice for Native Americans; participated in the movement for women’s rights; spoke out against capital punishment and in defense of immigrants, prisoners, prostitutes, and the urban poor; and called for religious tolerance. She reached the height of her popularity by founding and editing the nation’s first successful children’s magazine, the Juvenile Miscellany (1826–1834) and by publishing two best-selling domestic advice books, The Frugal Housewife (1829) and The Mother’s Book (1831). With her public embrace of the abolitionist cause, Child forfeited her popularity but achieved her greatest fame and broadest influence. Besides editing the National Anti-Slavery Standard for two years (1841–1843), she produced more than a dozen books, countless articles, and a number of short stories aimed at converting readers to abolitionism and promoting racial equality. Of these the most important are An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), The Freedmen’s Book (1865), and A Romance of the Republic (1867). Four other works that deserve special mention are Child’s innovative journalistic sketches Letters from New-York (1843, 1845), ranked by many as her best work; her History of the Condition of Women, in Various Ages and Nations (2 vols., 1835), a valuable resource for the nascent women’s rights movement; The Progress of Religious Ideas through Successive Ages (3 vols., 1855), an encyclopedic comparative study of the world’s religions; and An Appeal for the Indians (1868). Despite Child’s prominence in her time, she disappeared from history after her death, but the late 20th and early 21st centuries have witnessed an outpouring of scholarship on her life and writings, and literary critics and historians alike now recognize her key role in shaping 19th-century US culture.

General Overviews

So far only three book-length studies of Child’s writings have appeared. Osborne 1980 offers a brief and accessible but somewhat dated overview in the Twayne series. Karcher 1994, a comprehensive “cultural biography,” covers Child’s entire career and corpus. Mills 1994 takes a more selective approach, concentrating on a handful of texts. The two differ in their interpretations of Child, Karcher 1994 viewing her as a radical who pushed the boundaries of her culture, Mills 1994 as a moderate who worked within those boundaries. The two works also complement each other. Bruce Mills devotes more attention than Carolyn L. Karcher to Child’s affinities with the transcendentalists and her editing of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Mills also provides a sustained reading of Philothea (1836) as an antislavery novel, while Karcher mainly treats it biographically. Karcher, on the other hand, provides in-depth analysis of many more fictional and nonfictional works, including Child’s domestic and juvenile writings, her novel A Romance of the Republic, and her journalism of the Reconstruction era.

  • Karcher, Carolyn L. The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

    A definitive biography that sets Child’s life and writings in historical context, compares her works in all genres to those of her contemporaries, and explicates her literary and rhetorical strategies in detail, with a view toward promoting her inclusion in canons, anthologies, textbooks, and course syllabi.

  • Mills, Bruce. Cultural Reformations: Lydia Maria Child and the Literature of Reform. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1994.

    A stimulating and often insightful study that examines selected works by Child in relation to Unitarian and transcendentalist literary culture and social reform movements. Includes a chapter on Child’s editing of Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

  • Osborne, William S. Lydia Maria Child. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

    The first book-length overview of Child’s writings to appear, it is longer on summary and quotation than on interpretive analysis and somewhat dated in its evaluations of Child’s writings. More useful for beginning students than for advanced scholars.

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