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  • The Real Housewives of New England:Poverty and Epistemology in Lydia Maria Child's The American Frugal Housewife
  • Tara Robbins Fee (bio)

A mind full of piety and knowledge is always rich; it is a bank that never fails; it yields a perpetual dividend of happiness.

—Lydia Maria Child, The American Frugal Housewife

When The Frugal Housewife first appeared in 1829, its author Lydia Maria Child had already published her sentimental novel Hobomok (1824) to some encouraging reviews, and she would eventually achieve broader success and some notoriety for her activism on behalf of African American slaves.1 Of all her life's work, however, nothing would introduce her into American public life like this slim volume of domestic advice, published in thirty-three editions prior to the Civil War. Late in the century, Thomas Wentworth Higginson would fondly recall its "appetizing pages" and observe that American women gained "passage into literature by first compiling some kind of cookery book. … as Charlotte Hawes has since written, 'First this steak and then that stake'"—first a domestic entrée and then a seat at the table.2

But the passage into literature to which Higginson refers was not a smooth one. Child's book, with her stated intent to write "for the poor," was greeted with some dismay by one of the age's great tastemakers, Sarah Josepha Hale (AFH, 6). Herself a widowed mother of five, Hale also recognized the need for her readers to plan for financial exigencies.3 However, she offered only faint praise in an 1830 Ladies' Magazine review of the first edition of Child's book, which [End Page 1] dedicated its candid advice about saving money "to those who are not ashamed of economy" (AFH, [ii]). After noting briefly that the author had "done well," Hale criticized what she termed colloquial "vulgarisms" in its style and "a tendency to engender avarice" in its frankly expressed interest in money management, fearing in the text a "contagion" that would sully the dignity of womanhood.4 Hale subsequently reviewed the second edition more favorably, but her own 1839 book The Good Housekeeper, which commented derisively about those who seek to teach "cheap living," seems pointed directly at Child.5 For Hale, Child's explicit discussions of money and the labor that conserves it would have been better subordinated into more genteel discussions of "living well" (GH, 1).

The scope of this dispute between Child and Hale extends beyond a difference of opinion over a single work's tone. Rather, Child and Hale each assume positions on how poverty and its consequences for a woman's life—including the need for stringent economy and the realities of household labor—should feature in writings for an American female audience. The desire to obfuscate or euphemize money in literary conversation evinces a critical problem John Guillory has noted: it is nearly impossible to imagine a political strategy for addressing poverty that casts the impoverished subject affirmatively. As Guillory puts it, "while it is easy enough to conceive of a self-affirmative social or sexual identity, it makes very little sense to posit an affirmative lower-class identity, as such an identity would have to be grounded in the experience of deprivation per se."6 Rather than consider an impoverished life's deprivations, Hale suggests that literature should lift the reader out of her poverty. Child, however, wishes to address the present realities of those living within it.

The tension between exhorting the poor to build a better life and depicting real poverty as a lived experience seems an almost intractable literary problem. Gavin Jones writes [End Page 2] that even Henry David Thoreau, the century's greatest advocate of austerity, "recoils in horror" at the grubby, hungry desperation of the real Irish immigrant and its contrast with the transcendentalist's bracing, self-reliant asceticism.7 Lawrence Buell puts Jones' question even more pointedly, asking, "Can dramatization of the virtues of restraint as aesthetically appealing avoid suppressing or at least marginalizing the hard realities of poverty?"8 Indeed, in an exploration of voluntary simplicity, David Shi recognizes the origins of the discourse among those "free to choose their standard of living" and...