Sentiment and Space in Lydia Maria Child's Native American Writings, 1824-1870

Article excerpt

In her 1824 children's book, Evenings in New England, Lydia Maria Child (then Lydia Maria Francis and writing as "An American Lady") includes the dialogue "Personification" in which Aunt Maria helps her nephew Robert interpret a personification of North America: a "young female, clothed in a robe all covered with stripes and stars, carrying a cap upon a high pole, around which an eagle is fluttering; and occasionally looking back upon an Indian, who is aiming his bow and arrow at a wild deer" (3). Aunt Maria, Child's alter ego, offers a straightforward interpretation: "[F]or several hundred years after America was discovered, it was inhabited only by Indians. Now the country is mostly filled by Europeans, and we look back to the savage state as to what we have been" (3). The tableau of America embodies the progressive narrative of history wherein the civilized European figuratively and literally takes the place of the savage Native American and neglects, or perhaps denies, the plurality of the young country. Forty-three years later, in A Romance of the Republic (1867), Child provides her audience with another tableau of America, drawing on common republican symbols such as the flag and liberty cap; however, this time the personification is decidedly interracial and intercultural:

   Under festoons of the American flag, surmounted by the eagle, stood
   Eulalia, in ribbons of red, white, and blue, with a circle of stars
   round her head. One hand upheld the shield of the Union, and in the
   other the scales of Justice were evenly poised. By her side stood
   Rosen Blumen, holding in one hand a gilded pole surmounted by a
   liberty-cap, while her other hand rested protectingly on the head of
   Tulee's Benny, who was kneeling and looking upward in thanksgiving.
   (440) (1)

Cousins Eulalia King and Rosen Blumen are the daughters of biracial mothers fluent in English, Spanish, and French and fathers of Anglo and Germanic extraction, respectively, while Benny is the child of freed slaves. Performed for the birthday of Mr. King, a Civil War veteran who lost a leg fighting for emancipation, this tableau celebrates what Child saw as the ideal outcome of the North's victory: a national family unified across race, ethnicity, and region through the diffusion of culture within a nurturing domestic setting. These disparate national tableaux, framing Child's long and varied career, depend upon radically contrasting definitions of national membership. Between 1824 and 1867, Child's image of America shifts from a people defined by their historical and geographic distance from noble but ill-fated savages to a multi-racial citizenry united by familial bonds.

We recreate the contrast between these two "living pictures" when we read and teach the novel Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times (1824), Child's earliest engagement with the Indian Question, alongside abolitionist writings such as An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), excerpts from Letters from New-York (1843), and A Romance of the Republic. Our focus on Hobomok and its dramatization of the succession of races, that is, causes us to miss the development of Child's often radical defense of Native American rights and the relationship of that defense to her arguments for abolition. In abolitionist writings from An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans to A Romance of the Republic, Child conjures moving domestic scenes such as the separation of families, the abuse of slaves at the hands of both masters and mistresses (supposed parental figures), and the creation of forced and improper sexual relationships. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Child spurs the sympathy of the reader by converting the slave from chattel to endangered child. Child's domestic-familial arguments on behalf of Native Americans also infantilize the group, but in slight contrast, reflect Child's attention to the endangerment not of bodies but of habitations. …