Lydia Maria Child papers 1835-1894
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The collection consists of ninety mostly personal and often playfully provocative letters dating from approximately 1835 to 1877. Most of them are from Lydia Maria Child to her wealthy Boston abolitionist and philanthropic friends, the Lorings, and date from 1839 to 1859. They thus concentrate on the period of Maria Child's distress with the institutional politics of antislavery, her editorship of the Standard, her growing attachment to New York Bohemia, and the publication of Letters From New York. Many of the letters deal simply with her day to day finances, friends, and family.

These letters chart Maria Child's loss of "pleasure" in "anti Slavery" until the martyrdom of John Brown renewed her "youth and strength." They witness her antagonism to the aggressive tactics of elements of the American Anti-Slavery Society and her defense of the "Old Organization." It is in terms of intra-organizational criticism that she justifies her job at the Standard despite reservations. Later, however, the letters witness her declining commitment to pacifism. They describe a remarkable fearlessness to the danger of the mobs in New York, and they note the challenges that the Standard faced. They speak of Maria Child's withdrawal from cliques of reformers and antislavery organizations, though clearly her hermitage was constantly broken by meetings with the likes of Catherine Beecher and Margaret Fuller. Throughout, she declares a radical social egalitarianism while demonstrating a contemporary racial paternalism and liberalism. Of particular interest concerning antislavery and race are:

  • (1) To George Kimball, Jan 1835, on Texas and the freemen plantation in Mexico
  • (3) To Louisa L., April 1839, concerning the discord within the movement
  • (6) To "Nonny", Dec 1840, of a story about "our colored man... our retainers"
  • (8) To Ellis L., May 1841, about guilt for accepting money for editing the Standard
  • (9) To Ellis L., June 1841, where she insinuates the A.A.S.S. with proslavery form
  • (13) To Ellis L., May 1842, about the Boston and Philadelphia cliques and N.Y. mobs
  • (17) To Louisa L., May 1843, about the New York Letters and Angelina Grimké
  • (48) To Ellis L., December 1852, with reference to Charles Sumner and Catherine Beecher
  • (57) To Louisa L., October 1856, about Kansas and Frémont
  • (69) To Oliver Johnson (A.A.S.), Dec. 1859, on John Brown's execution
  • (70) To William Cutler, July 1862, on the questions of wage slavery and social equality
  • (72) To Anna L., Oct (1871?), on a "mulatto girl" asking for handouts.

More peripherally the letters are witness to the homosocial support networks of Victorian America despite their author's exceptional ability to transcend the limitations imposed on her sex. Of the latter she was painfully aware, complaining here of the impropriety of a "young lady" staying at the Globe Hotel, determining to "always avoid belonging to any association of men" because of her "experience," noting how her critics preferred to attack her as a woman rather than deal with the facts, how some were shocked to meet a woman like her, and complaining about her gendered financial liabilities despite her disfranchisement. Indeed, she detaches gender stereotypes from biological sex as she writes repeatedly of the "small female minds of both sexes." Writing domestic guides for women and attending Emerson's lectures on domestic life never reconciled Maria Child to domestic work, of which she often complains here. On the other hand, she seemed to relish romance and also writes of her caring for a "wild Irish girl," and her poor niece Maria, and her taking in of Dolores, a poor Spanish woman, as her companion. Particularly relevant are her letters: (67) To Louisa L., December 1857, a story of two babies engaged in the struggle of the sexes; (71) To Anna L., July 1871, on suffrage for societal efficiency and female education.

Lydia Maria Child's letters also chart her critical attitude to religious and social injustice in general. This is born out in accounts of specific incidents of charity to orphans abandoned in the Tombs. Calling Angelina Grimké a "flaming Millerite," Maria Child also makes fun of her patron Isaac T. Hopper's Quakerism, claims to prefer the "Lord Pope" to the "Lord Presbyters," and "shocked... Christian piety by saying if Mendelssohn were a Jew, I hoped I should get into the Jew's Quarter in heaven." Her "dislike to respectable Puritanical character" crops up repeatedly in these letters. In one letter she jokingly claims her "right to be damned." She praises Plato as a forefather of "modern socialists" and writes of the world of the spirits and of her "bigotted Swedenborgian[ism]." In terms of her pacifism she recounts an argument she had with Samuel Colt over "his battery." Her letters moreover present a consistent picture of her preference for the soul-inspired music of the underdog against anything machine-like, or tainted by the "diseased ambition of wealth and show... and respectability." She criticizes the "ruffianly Forrest" and the Astor Place Riots for demagoguery and violence while repeatedly noting the blindness of aristocracy and arguing for a world in which "all ranks, and sexes, and sects, and barriers of all sorts," would be ignored. In an elusive search for freedom she claims pleasure in acting "contrary to statutes made and provided."

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