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  • Introduction
  • Sarah Olivier

In May 2015 a group of scholars gathered at the American Literature Association conference to establish the Lydia Maria Child Society (lmcs). In founding an author society, one must consider (among other things) what sort of work the organization will do and what its guiding principles will be. Our founding members thought it best to look to our author for inspiration. One of the nineteenth century's most prolific and influential author-activists, Child addressed sociopolitical issues, such as slavery and racism, Native American rights, the conditions of the urban poor, women's equality, and religious intolerance, through a variety of literary genres. The passionate purpose that suffuses her writing reflects the deep social commitments that she embraced and also illuminates possibilities for future change. Child speaks of her own vocation as a writer in the following manner: "It is my mission to help in the breaking down of classes, and to make all men feel as if they were brethren of the same family, sharing the same rights, the same capabilities, and the same responsibilities. While my hand can hold a pen, I will use it to this end; and while my brain can earn a dollar, I will devote it to this end" (Child 484). In considering what our part might be in furthering Child's legacy, we were immediately drawn to her commitment to social justice. In her foundational biography, Carolyn L. Karcher illustrates the continued relevance of Child's "unfinished revolution" (616): "Engaged in the leading intellectual and social movements of her time, [Child] devoted her life and writings to transforming the United States into a multiracial egalitarian republic. In the process, she articulated penetrating critiques of nineteenth-century America's dominant ideology and formulated alternative cultural possibilities. … Through her eyes, we can recapture [End Page 1] both the America she struggled to change and the America she envisioned in its place" (xv–xvi). Following Karcher's lead, our newly formed society seeks to spark a conversation centered on Child's immense contributions to an American literary tradition rooted in principles of social equality and their potential applicability to the social problems we face today.

Accordingly, this forum provides a discussion of Child's continuing relevance to the United States' social and political landscape and considers how this relevance may be incorporated into our pedagogies. The commentaries here explore the following queries: In her fiction and nonfiction, how does Child imagine new models of American citizenship and identity? In advocating for social justice, does she use existing cultural paradigms or push for alternative ways of thinking? In what ways do her approaches to history and her own contemporary moment connect to the American experience today? How might this be significant to the study and teaching of humanities disciplines? In reflecting upon these matters, our contributors cover a variety of current topics, including race relations, immigration, prison reform, religious tolerance, environmental rights, women's equality, inclusivity in the classroom, recent adaptations of abolition politics, and the relevance of our historiographical approaches to all of these, demonstrating the wide scope of Child's work and legacy.

I extend my heartfelt gratitude to each of the distinguished scholars participating in this forum—Karcher, Karen L. Kilcup, Hildegard Hoeller, Bruce Mills, Robert Fanuzzi, and Dana D. Nelson—for their thought-provoking contributions here, for their previous commitments to Child's recovery, for inspiring new scholarly engagement with her works, and for their support of the Lydia Maria Child Society. I wish to express a very special thank-you and acknowledgment to Karcher. Her scholarship on Child is unparalleled and continues to exert strong influence over junior scholars. Like Child, Karcher inspires with her forthright dedication to social equality. Without her scholarship and, just as importantly, her enthusiastic mentorship and attentive guidance, this forum and the Lydia Maria Child Society would not exist.

An explanation of the organization of this forum may be helpful to readers. My contribution appears first as it offers background information on the founding of the lmcs along with a rationale for its creation and articulation of its goals. Karcher is the first of the commentators on our topic because she is, in many...


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