- Lydia Maria Child's Abolition Democracy, and Ours
The proposition that Lydia Maria Child's lifelong literary and political antislavery advocacy belongs to us and to the social justice aspirations we nourish for twenty-first-century academic literary scholarship is both a self-serving claim of literary conservatorship and a potentially disruptive change in the way we use periodization. Child's rediscovery in the 1990s, I submit, maximized a potential within women's studies literary recoveries by making it impossible to screen the nineteenth century's racial and anti-racist history from the practices and instruments of our own knowledge production. Since, or because of, Child's recovery, the American nineteenth century has changed for us, so that it is no longer a mummified object but an unfinished past that continues to unfold amid our contemporary injustices and demands the full measure of our scholarship, teaching, and institutional citizenship.1
What has brought us to this juncture, in which the proper consideration of Lydia Maria Child's aspirations for her antislavery literature includes our profession's aspirations for social justice? Carolyn Karcher's 1994 recovery of Child helped to create a temporal feedback loop in which we are able to recognize the occasion and setting for nineteenth-century literary scholarship in the riots, the criminal court injustices, the student movements, and the racial violence of today. In the preface to The First Woman in the Republic, Karcher situates her scholarship in the present, referring to the fluorescence of women's studies and antislavery literary scholarship that finally brought Child within the nineteenth-century Americanist orbit. More striking, however, is Karcher's use of another temporal point of departure for her recovery of Child: the devastating intellectual, political, and economic consequences of the reversal of Reconstruction in the late 1870s, which left both Child's reputation and the abolition movement for dead. Karcher uses the remainder of her preface to reconstruct a biographical and literary timeline up to Child's death in 1880, but in many ways the critical starting point is 1876 and the long shadow it has cast over both US history and historiography. As a result, Karcher's reflections on Child's thwarted antislavery advocacy are not limited to a single year but to the synchronicity or sum total of all those times that repeat and compound the [End Page 25] effect of Reconstruction's repeal. Ultimately, she attributes her interest in Child to this titanic repudiation of the nineteenth century's social justice milestone: "Child attracted me because she boldly tackled problems of racial, sexual, and economic justice that our society has yet to resolve" (xii).
If Child's unique ability to channel the antislavery politics of the nineteenth century to the twenty-first rests with our failure to resolve them, then let us examine and intertwine two critical timelines of Karcher's literary recovery: the confluence of antislavery literary scholarship and women's studies in the 1990s and the black radical thinking that has germinated from historiographical reflections on the end of Reconstruction. The former is manifest in our critical impulse to bring to fruition a literary career whose arc Child firmly connected to the political fortunes of abolition. She saw their end even in 1841, when she was gathering abolitionist poems and literature for the gift book to be called The Liberty Bell; to Ellis Gray Loring she wrote: "What shall I do? The temptation is to quit reforms, but that is of the devil; for there is clearly more work for me to do in that field" (Child to Loring 44). The second temporality is evident in Child's fatalistic conviction that precisely because her antislavery arguments could never be won, she would be repurposing and reliving her literary accomplishments until the day she died. Nearly three decades after she published An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, she replied to an anti-abolitionist correspondent addressed as Mrs. Mason by marshaling nearly the same evidence and using the same style with a litigator's glee, as if she were discovering the raison d'être for her first major work all over again (Child to Mason). An Appeal existed...