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Legacy 17.2 (2000) 127-140

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“But Maria, did you really write this?”:
Preface as Cover Story in Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok

Molly Vaux
Independent Scholar

     Hobomok was the first thing I ever attempted to write for print. I had for several years, until then, lived in the interior of Maine, almost entirely removed from literary influences. I went to Watertown, Mass. where my brother, Dr. Francis, of Harvard University, was then settled as a Unitarian clergyman. Soon after I arrived there, one Sunday noon, I took up the N. American Review, and read Mr. Palfrey’s review of Yamoyden, in which he eloquently describes the adaptation of early N. England history to the purposes of fiction. I know not what impelled me; I had never dreamed of such a thing as turning author; but I siezed [sic] a pen, and before the bell rang for afternoon meeting I had written the first chapter, exactly as it now stands. When I showed it to my brother, my young ambition was flattered by the exclamation, “But Maria did you really write this? Do you mean what you say, that it is entirely your own?” Lydia Maria Child (Collected Correspondence, letter 646)

When Lydia Maria Child wrote this account in an 1846 letter to Rufus Wilmot Griswold, she was forty-four years of age and at the height of her career as a writer and reformer. Her correspondent was a well-known literary critic who was compiling an anthology, Prose Writers of America, which would include Child’s work and would be published in the following year. In this story of the donnée of her first novel, Child betrays the sensitivity to the interdependencies of writers, critics, and editors that served her well throughout her writing career. Her muse, she diplomatically tells her current editor, was a literary critic, the Unitarian clergyman and historian John Gorham Palfrey, and her first reader was her brother, Convers Francis, also a Unitarian clergyman and a Harvard graduate. That Child chose to take her brother’s doubts about the chapter’s authorship as fuel for her ambition rather than as condescension toward her gender demonstrates the confidence and energy with which she approached writing, as well as other endeavors. “I know not how it is,” she wrote Convers in 1838,

but my natural temperament is such that when I wish to do anything I seem to have an instinctive faith that I can do it; whether it be cutting and making a garment, or writing a Greek novel. The sort of unconsciousness of danger arising from this is in itself a strength. Whence came it? I did not acquire [End Page 127] it. But the “whence? how? whether?” of our inward life must always be answered, “From a mystery; in a mystery; to a mystery.” (Collected Correspondence, letter 138)

     Child’s account of the birth of Hobomok is the kind of story of creative initiative and authentication we love to hear. It serves the traditional conception of the writer as divinely inspired, as does her attribution in her letter to Convers of her will to “do” things. One might expect Child to have drawn on this experience in the preface to Hobomok as a way of exciting readers about her novel. But this was not the narrative that Child told in her preface in 1824. There is, indeed, a spirited young writer driven by the prospect of writing a new kind of work, a New England novel. But the writer is a young man. And the story runs differently. Before the man sets pen to paper, he lays his idea out before a prominent editor friend. The editor instantly provides the prospective writer with the historical documents necessary to carry out his project. Upon completion, the young man sets the manuscript on the desk of the editor, who reads it through once and then inscribes on it, “Send it to the Printer.”

     It is interesting that, besides appropriating a male mask in this fiction of Hobomok’s beginning...


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