Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Iconoclasm, Parody, and the Provocations of Lydia Maria Child's a Romance of the Republic

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

Iconoclasm, Parody, and the Provocations of Lydia Maria Child's a Romance of the Republic

Article excerpt

If I live to be ninety years old, and go on at this rate, I shall be the rabidest radical that ever pelted a throne, or upset an image.

Lydia Maria Child to William Lloyd Garrison, 7 July 1865

In 1865, printer L. Franklin Smith and lithographer Max Rosenthal commemorated Abraham Lincoln's declaration of emancipation by publishing an extravagantly ornate print, Proclamation of Emancipation (see fig. 1). Adhering to the conventions for such patriotic displays, Smith and Rosenthal surrounded the text of the Emancipation Proclamation with ample decoration: cherished American icons like the flag and eagle, portraits of the founding fathers and well-known abolitionists, allegorical figures, and several intricate vignettes depicting, as an accompanying booklet explains, "the more striking results of the great Crime" (slavery) on the left and the results of "the great Justice" (emancipation) on the right (Smith 7). This elaborate construction, with the words of the proclamation spread between the scenes of slavery and freedom, implies that emancipation ended "the great Crime" and enacted "the great Justice." According to Proclamation of Emancipation, Americans had much to celebrate and only the past to grieve.

Yet racial injustice in the form of prejudice and segregation persist in the print. The images present cliched scenes of black life before and after

A shorter version of this essay won first prize in Legacy's Best Paper Contest, Student Category, honoring the best student paper presented at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference in Denver in 2012. It also won first place in the SSAWW'S Graduate Student Paper Award Competition for that conference. emancipation, and none of the scenes depict egalitarian integration. The only white figures pictured are slaveowners and overseers (on the left) and a white teacher, far more elegantly dressed than his black pupils (on the right). Between the scenes of slavery and freedom are white allegorical figures and formal cameo portraits of the white men and women celebrated for emancipation and America's commitment to liberty. These latter white figures are placed prominently toward the center at the bottom and top. As Harold Holzer, who has studied the art and history of emancipation, explains, in "nearly all these initial, tentative efforts to commemorate emancipation in popular prints, black Americans were emphatically not created equal." Blacks are "relegated to the sidelines," where they appear as generic figures, nominally free but still subordinate to whites (Holzer, Emancipating Lincoln 138). In this way, Proclamation of Emancipation, like most of the era's strategically patriotic prints, promotes white supremacy and Northern pride. It placates rather than provokes its white postbellum viewers. (1)

This print, however, unwittingly broaches its own critique by featuring Lydia Maria Child. While it is fitting that Child should be honored for her fierce advocacy of abolition, it is also ironic that her image should appear on such propaganda. Throughout her career, as we will see, she challenged grandiose conceptions of the United States demonstrated by the type of iconography appearing in abundance on this print. Moreover, she was openly critical of the Emancipation Proclamation's compromises and failure to address the problem of racial injustice at large. On 3o October 1862, soon after President Lincoln issued the Preliminary Proclamation, Child wrote to good friend Sarah Shaw,

  As for the President's Proclamation, I was thankful for it, but it
  excited no enthusiasm in my mind. With my gratitude to God was mixed
  an under-tone of sadness that the moral sense of the people was so
  low, that thing could not be done nobly.... The ugly fact cannot be
  concealed from history that it was done reluctantly and stintedly,
  and that even the degree that was accomplished was done selfishly;
  was merely a war-measure, to which we were forced by our own perils
  and necessities. … 
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