- If We Are Brave Enough to Accept:Taking on the Challenges of Lydia Maria Child Today
We have a new society. And it's not your old-timey author society. Inspired by Lydia Maria Child's activism, Sarah Olivier has crafted a society that "supports the pursuit of social justice and inclusive excellence through education, academic scholarship, creative projects, and social action" ("Constitution and By-Laws"). To facilitate that vision, the by-laws mandate that there be a vice president of Inclusive Excellence and Social Action, who
shall create and organize programs and initiatives that are rooted in principles of social justice and equality with the assistance of the Executive Board; shall provide guidance to the Executive Board on creating and maintaining exemplary standards of inclusive excellence in membership, programming, and operations; shall advise in the creation of culturally diverse panel topics and selections for conferences; and shall lead in the development of social action initiatives that are feasible for the lmcs to undertake.
Olivier, in other words, inspired by the author she honors in the creation of the society, crafted a vision and agenda for the society that actually connects the nineteenth to the twenty-first century and takes us far afield from the familiar activities of author societies.
In this way (and in her dissertation too, readers should note), Olivier offers a vision that counters Lauren Berlant's famous qualification of writers like Child and Stowe, whose work has long been dismissed first as "sentimental" and (à la Berlant) as aiming its vision narrowly only at "changing hearts" rather than changing the world (Berlant 645).1 Olivier has organized a society that honors Child's efforts to galvanize individual and collective action on behalf of social justice in the nineteenth century—by asking us to continue that work today. We members of this society stand in Olivier's debt, not just for her determination and moxie but for her wisdom, as you've seen in her contribution to this forum. [End Page 29]
It's a wonder to see, in the launch of our new society, real momentum that might finally install Lydia Maria Child more centrally within American literary history and within our conversations about American political and economic culture. But before we get too comfortable celebrating ourselves for launching the society, I need to offer a serious caveat: we have a great deal of work before us if we are serious in this endeavor. Time will tell—and, perhaps, on us. As Karen Kilcup suggests, Child is still victim to the lingering bad habits of canonization and the myopia of US nationalism that she so capably critiqued in her own day. In this era of canon-busting, diversity, and political correctness, progressive faculty of American literature, as Boston University professor Maurice Lee recently proved statistically, tend largely to teach an only barely revised literary canon from the one we taught in the bad old Cold War days.2 Here is the top ten, in descending order (and brace yourselves), whom we teach in nineteenth-century literature classes (Lee gleaned these statistics from 120 syllabi volunteered in reply to a c19 listserv call): Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allan Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Washington Irving. Women only start showing up in better numbers after the top ten (and so here are eleven and twelve): Harriet Jacobs, Catharine Maria Sedgwick. Then we're back to men momentarily: James Fenimore Cooper (thirteen) and Charles Brockden Brown (fourteen). Things start looking better again for a moment: Rebecca Harding Davis (fifteen), William Apess (sixteen), William Wells Brown (seventeen), and Margaret Fuller (eighteen) (Lee 128). William Cullen Bryant and Abraham Lincoln round out the top twenty.
Child—our gentle reader will please note—does not make that cut.
Momentarily setting our panel's focus on extra-institutional activism to the side, I'd like to underscore that we have some significant classroom work to do on behalf of Child as we launch this society: we need to do a better job providing convincing rationales for the centrality of her fiction and nonfiction in literary, social, political...