The First Woman in the Republic

A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child

The First Woman in the Republic

New Americanists

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Book Pages: 832 Illustrations: 10 b&w photographs Published: November 1994

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs

For half a century Lydia Maria Child was a household name in the United States. Hardly a sphere of nineteenth-century life can be found in which Lydia Maria Child did not figure prominently as a pathbreaker. Although best known today for having edited Harriet A. Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she pioneered almost every department of nineteenth-century American letters—the historical novel, the short story, children’s literature, the domestic advice book, women’s history, antislavery fiction, journalism, and the literature of aging. Offering a panoramic view of a nation and culture in flux, this innovative cultural biography (originally published by Duke University Press in 1994) recreates the world as well as the life of a major nineteenth-figure whose career as a writer and social reformer encompassed issues central to American history.


“[O]ne of the strengths of this extremely detailed, well-researched, and . . . thought-provoking biography is the way in which the author delineates the interrelationships between Child’s varied causes. . . . The First Woman in the Republic will undoubtedly become the definitive biography of Child.” — , Historical Association

“This is an impressive and scholarly biography, an important work for students of nineteenth-century American literature and culture and especially of American women’s place in literary history and in the history of political and social activism.” — , Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

“As biography, Karcher’s work extends the genre admirably to place a life in its historical and literary contexts. Her consistent sensitivity to matters of gender underlies the necessity of applying a feminist analysis to a writer like Child.” — , New England Quarterly

“By probing Child’s literary innovations, her radical social vision and activism, and the response of the intellectual and political world of nineteenth-century New England to her activity, Karcher adds a vital dimension to scholarship of this period. . . . Karcher’s recreation of the rich cultural milieu of Child’s era is sure-footed and copious. . . . Karcher makes a powerful case for the resurrection of interest in Child.” — , Boston Book Review

“Carolyn Karcher is to be commended for the overall fine quality of her research and writing. She demonstrates an impressive command of primary and secondary literature and does a thorough job reviewing and analyzing al of Child’s important works, a challenging proposition given their number, length, and variety. She does an equally fine job placing this remarkable woman in the context of her era. . . . [A]fter reading this book, one cannot help but share Karcher’s belief that Child is ‘an exceptionally rewarding subject.’ ” — , Biography

“Carolyn L. Karcher’s cultural biography of Lydia Maria Child goes a long way to reestablish this author-reformer’s central place in nineteenth-century literary and cultural history. . . . The First Woman in the Republic sets high standards for critical biography that at once traces political history and probes psychological motivations, that reads literary language in context of cultural politics. Karcher’s Herculean research and eloquent writing will help propel the recanonization of Child that has only begun.” — , William & Mary Quarterly

“Child’s was a ‘household name’ during her lifetime, Carolyn Karcher writes, . . . yet since then her works and influence have been all but ‘erased from history.’ Ms. Karcher hopes to restore that reputation and to familiarize the modern reader with Child’s writings through a literary biography based on ‘extensive quotation and detailed literary analysis.’ Ms. Karcher’s goal is an admirable one; Child’s importance and influence should be reasserted.” — , New York Times Book Review

“For the first time historians and literary scholars have a full biography of Lydia Maria Child that includes discussion and explication of her voluminous writings. . . . Karcher is especially thorough in showing the interrelationships among Child’s causes.” — , Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

“In this monumental study, Professor Karcher establishes the intellectual stature of one of the nineteenth century’s most overlooked figures. . . . With a passion that matches Child’s for her causes, Karcher offers Americanists a rich remapping of U.S. antebellum literary history.” — , American Literature

“In what will be the definitive biography for years to come, Carolyn Karcher has written an exhaustive study of a formidable nineteenth century figure.” — , Magill's Literary Annual

“Karcher [has] extraordinary skills as both historian and literary critic.” — , Race Traitor

“Karcher convincingly argues that Child deserves recognition as one of the handful of leading women intellectuals of her day: indeed, of leading intellectuals of either sex.” — , London Review of Books

“Karcher details Child’s life in a thoroughly researched manner that emphasizes Child’s own writings.” — , Library Journal

“Karcher has prodigiously researched nineteenth-century life in America to place her subject in historical context for this definitive biography.” — , Publishers Weekly

“Karcher’s biography of Child is a monumentally thorough scholarly work.” — , Women's Review of Books

“Lydia Maria Child was a remarkable woman, and Carolyn Karcher’s full account of her life, her society, her writings, and actions to change the ills of society is an extraordinary book. . . . [I]n Karcher’s biography Child’s life, writings, and social and political activities have received their fullest, most interesting scholarly account.” — , Science & Society

“Lydia Maria Child’s rich and expansive life has finally been accorded the voluminous treatment it deserves.” — , American Historical Review

“Much of Karcher’s success in portraying Child’s character comes from giving serious attention to Child’s total output rather than concentrating narrowly on her better known antislavery work and her descriptions of urban life. . . . Taken altogether, Karcher gives us a Child that earlier biographers only skimmed because they failed to interweave the writer with the reformer.” — , Reviews in American History

“One only has to read this cultural biography . . . to appreciate how appropriate Karcher’s conscientious recordings of Child’s life and work actually are. . . . Works such as Karcher’s offer an invaluable service to scholars, teachers, and students interested in broadening their understanding of American literature and culture and the significant role that women played in developing these arenas. . . . The First Woman in the Republic is a book that has much to offer and much to teach, not only about a major literary figure, but about the culture in which she lived and wrote. . . . Karcher’s biography compels one to give Child another look, to acknowledge her status as a major American writer, and to factor her in when creating the next syllabus for a nineteenth-century American literature class.” — , American Quarterly

“Perhaps Karcher’s most important contribution is her prodigious research—other scholars now have an understanding of the depth and volume of Child’s writing. Each of Lydia Maria Child’s causes—Indian removal, women’s rights, abolition, and even respect for the elderly—is deserving of further analysis. Taken together, they reveal Child, and Karcher, to be tireless, insightful, and forward-thinking.” — , American Studies International

“This valuable portrait of a complex and talented woman may be most notable for indicating the extent to which she was of—rather than ahead of—her time.” — , Kirkus Reviews

“Weaving together textual analysis and biographical narrative, Karcher maps the relationship between Child’s professional and personal lives, her marriage and her career. Simultaneously, she offers us a lens through which we can glimpse a rapidly changing nation. . . .” — , Journal of American History

“Where Karcher scores, as her subtitle indicates, is as a cultural biographer. . . . The biography benefits from archival materials, an extensive knowledge of the literature of anti-slavery, Reconstruction, and Indian removal, and a broad knowledge of American politics and literature to boot. . . . The chapters on children’s literature and anti-slavery, The National Anti-Slavery Standard, John Brown, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, are particularly impressive. Karcher’s literary judgements are also often acute. She brings out Child’s supreme grasp of literary strategy, her sharp powers of persuasion, and her accurate sense of her audience.” — , Slavery & Abolition

"A monumental scholarly achievement." — Joan Hedrick, author of Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life

"The definitive biography of a major figure in American literary and political history." — Richard Slotkin, author of Gunfighter Nation

"This is a magnificent book. Child’s character emerges as a model for what a woman can be." — Jane Tompkins, author of West of Everything


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Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Carolyn L. Karcher is Professor of English, American Studies, and Women’s Studies at Temple University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations ix

Preface and Acknowledgments xi

Chronology xix

Abbreviations xxvi

Prologue: A Passion for Books 1

1. The Author of Hobomok 16

2. Rebels and "Rivals": Self Portraits of a Conflicted Young Artist 38

3. The Juvenile Miscellany: The Creation of an American Children's Literature 57

4. A Marriage of True Minds: Espousing the Indian Cause 80

5. Blighted Prospects: Indian Fiction and Domestic Reality 101

6. The Frugal Housewife: Financial Worries and Domestic Advice 126

7. Children's Literature and Antislavery: Conservative Medium, Radical Message 151

8. "The First Woman in the Republic": An Antislavery Baptism 173

9. An Antislavery Marriage: Careers at Cross Purposes 195

10. The Conditions of Women: Double Binds, Unresolved Conflicts 214

11. Schisms, Personal and Political 249

12. The National Anti-Slavery Standard: Family Newspaper or Factional Organ? 267

13. Letters from New York: The Invention of a New Literary Genre 295

14. Sexuality and Marriage in Fact and Fiction 320

15. The Progress of Religious Ideas: A "Pilgrimage of Pennance" 356

16. Autumnal Leaves: Reconsecrated Partnerships, Personal and Political 384

17. The Example of John Brown 416

18. Child's Civil War 443

19. Visions of a Reconstructed America: The Freedmen's Book and A Romance of the Republic 487

20. A Radical Old Age 532

21. Aspirations of the World 573

Afterword 608

Notes 617

Works of Lydia Maria Child 757

Index 773
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2163-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1485-1
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