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  • Karcher’s Romance of the Republic
  • Elizabeth Barnes (bio)
The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child. By Carolyn L. Karcher. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994. 804 pages. $37.95 (cloth). $22.95 (paper).

One might balk at first viewing the size of Karcher’s biography of Lydia Maria Child: weighing in at more than 800 pages (including notes and bibliography), it has a presence on the shelf that would seem to belie the relative obscurity (compared to her own time) to which Child has been relegated in this century. One only has to read this cultural biography, however, to appreciate how appropriate Karcher’s conscientious recordings of Child’s life and work actually are. An author whose life spans—and whose work chronicles—some of the most significant and turbulent decades in American history, Child demands and deserves our attention. From her first novel, Hobomok (1824), to her last, A Romance of the Republic (1867), Child devoted herself to raising an awareness of and challenging the prevalent attitudes towards discrimination, whether racial, sexual, or religious. Although ostensibly an analysis of a highly prolific and extremely influential writer’s life and work, The First Woman in the Republic is much more than this. Covering topics as diverse as Jackson’s Indian removal policy, the advent of children’s literature in America, transcendentalism, female suffrage, the martyrdom of John Brown, and the failure of Reconstruction, Karcher’s cultural biography is a provocative narrative of American history. In a sense, Karcher has attempted to write her own “romance of the republic”: through the story of one talented, ambitious and troubled author, we read the history of a young, ambitious and deeply divided American culture. [End Page 447]

And this is what separates Karcher’s biography from earlier biographies of Child, including William S. Osborne’s Lydia Maria Child, published in 1980, and more recently, Deborah Pickman Clifford’s Crusader for Freedom, published in 1992. 1 Karcher’s book gives us as detailed a picture of the times in which Child lived as it does of Child’s life in those times. But if Karcher’s is the most extensive biography, it is also in some respects the least critical. To take one example: whereas Osborne describes Child’s A Romance of the Republic as surprisingly sentimental and contrived, and Clifford notes its unintentional racist presuppositions, Karcher celebrates its attempts to turn all of America into one “multiracial family.” 2 Although in an earlier essay Karcher was quite candid about the ways in which Child’s novel “may well have reinforced the ideological assumptions that marginalized the masses of American blacks and circumscribed the freedom of white women,” her biography seems more reticent about expressing these doubts in any but a cursory way. 3 But then this may be due to the implied agenda of the biography: Karcher wants to show Child not only as a feminist, but one ahead of her time. As a thinker who travels an uncharted path, Child is bound to lose her way at times. But this is a subject to which I will return.

Admittedly, Child lived in a fascinating period of American history, but she proves an absorbing figure in her own right. Having spent her life coping with, in Karcher’s words, “the psychic wounds left by her mother’s illness and death,” Child struggles to come to terms with the inner obstacles to literary fame and personal contentment: “unresolved anger toward her parents, the guilt and chronic depression that typically result from anger deflected inward, and an insatiable yearning for love” (5). Karcher attributes this last psychological hurdle to Child’s three-year flirtation with, and eventual marriage to, David Lee Child, a man whose political sympathies would complement Child’s own, but whose lack of business sense resulted in a financial drain on Child for the rest of her life. “Within three months of her marriage in October 1828, Child no longer enjoyed . . . the satisfaction of controlling her income and balancing her literary and financial goals. Instead, she found herself at the mercy of David’s spiralling debts” (102). The loss of two libel suits reduced...

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pp. 447-454
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