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  • Authority, Affect, and Impersonality in Lydia Maria Child’s Social Criticism
  • Bonnie Carr O’Neill (bio)

Writing to a friend in 1841, Lydia Maria Child reflects on the popular press: “the penny papers, every now and then, frighten me out of my wits.”1 The papers, Child recognizes, peddle feelings, including fear, rather than facts. The communication of feeling between and among people is a characteristic of affect.2 Child worries about the behaviors that arise from affect. If the penny papers incite fear, they may not help bring about the reforms that would reduce or eliminate vice; they would not help make the society more just. Child displays her anxieties about New York’s seamier side—the crime, prostitution, drunkenness, and other illicit behaviors—in her Letters from New-York (London, 1842; New York, 1843) as well. Rather than indulge her emotions, Child questions the causes of vice, and finds it originates in a society and economy that privilege the few. By examining the roots of vice and inequality, Child seeks an understanding of contemporary life unrestrained by feeling, and she denies the significance, though not the fact, of affect. Her method is impersonal insofar as it subordinates individual reaction to universal moral law that she identifies by various names, including “the Law of Love,” “Necessity,” and “the Gospel standard.”3 In general, Child’s moral law [End Page 645] anticipates philosopher John Rawls’ concept of justice as fairness, irrespective of social, gender, racial or economic differences—or, Child suggests, of affect.4 Rawls’ system relies on a “veil of ignorance,” which obscures information about citizens that might prejudice a judgment. Child’s impersonal method does not construct such an apparatus, but her reference to a universal moral law achieves a similar effect: it requires citizens to deliberately fail to account for distinguishing individual traits in ascertaining judgment. Advocating for and practicing this impersonal method, Child not only addresses pressing problems of inequality and injustice, including slavery, poverty, and crime, but she also establishes herself as an authoritative social critic.

As a social critic, Child draws on the Transcendentalist and Emersonian philosophy of impersonality. She shares two important ideas with the Transcendentalists: that moral knowledge exists outside of human social relationships and constructions, and that the receptive individual can shape her life in response to that knowledge. For Emerson, impersonality leads to nonconformity with social conventions. For Child, it does the same and more: it governs her approach to solving pernicious social problems. Child reflects the female tradition within Transcendentalism as one of the “Exaltadas” who “represent[] a claim for women as professors of a high, quasi-divine consciousness and truth-telling power ‘within.’”5 In general, the Exaltadas sought to exercise their philosophy through activism, such as agitation for reforms like women’s rights and abolition. As the editor of the National Anti-Slavery Standard and in her Letters from New-York, Child relies on Transcendentalism’s impersonal philosophy to establish her moral authority. Further, impersonality shapes her skepticism of public appeals to affect that, she argues, undermine principled judgment. In framing such arguments, Child marks out a pathway to fuller civic inclusion not only for herself but also for other disenfranchised Americans. [End Page 646]

The first female editor of a national newspaper, Child struggled to establish her public authority and independence within the antislavery movement, and she faced criticism for her dissents from Garrisonian orthodoxy. In response, she rejected the appeals to personal feeling that dominated the antislavery and social reform movements, and instead advocated for the impersonal appeal of universal moral law. Child’s letters and published writings during her years at the National Anti-Slavery Standard show her skepticism of a culture motivated by affect. That is, I argue here that Child’s social and cultural criticism deplores the rhetorical uses of affect in a mass culture that produces it in excess.6 Undeniably, the sympathetic appeal of Child’s “Letters from New-York” column contributed to the Standard’s success. I do not wish to dismiss sympathy’s significance to her work, especially in the Letters.7 But I do offer a critical distinction between Child’s sympathetic appeal via her personal, descriptive...


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pp. 645-677
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