CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM: A Life of Lydia Maria Child by Deborah Pickman Clifford

CRUSADER FOR FREEDOM: A Life of Lydia Maria Child

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Over the river and through the woods,"" the opening of Lydia Maria Child's popular Thanksgiving song, best describes this biography: The book skips lightly over the turbulent times that Child participated in as a writer and abolitionist, and it gets lost in the woods of Child's nearly nonexistent domestic life and personal relationships--which Clifford (Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, 1978) presents in much detail but with little insight. Child (1802-80), a largely self-educated New England baker's daughter, supported herself and her improvident husband through teaching, editing, and writing. Her works included Hobomok, the first novel to describe a marriage between a Native American and a white settler; domestic manuals such as The Frugal Housewife; anti-slavery propaganda; and a history of religion. Her own childhood, lost at age 13 when her mother died, was reclaimed in her stories for and about children and in her marriage to David Child, who wandered about pursuing noble but futile causes during their years together (which produced no offspring, apparently because of their ""childlike"" lovemaking). Child, Clifford tells us, rejected literary culture (she refused to meet Dickens, and dismissed Emerson as a ""wandering prophet"") and even feminists, preferring to work with men. Raised a Calvinist, she became a Swedenborgian, lived among Quakers, and participated in sÉnces. But there must have been more. Clifford neglects the Civil War, in which this ""crusader for freedom"" had considerable stake, as well as Child's literary contemporaries outside the salon--including Emily Dickinson, her neighbor in Northampton, and Walt Whitman, who was involved in the same causes at the same time and places. The major problems here, however, are a strident voice (defending instead of presenting the life); soft focus (missing, in order to demonstrate a thesis, what was important to Child); and an overworked style marred by passive voice, baggy sentences, and the inflated rhetoric suggested by the title.

Pub Date: May 11th, 1992
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: "Beacon--dist. by Farrar, Straus & Giroux"