All Despotisms Must End: On Lydia Moland’s “Lydia Maria Child”
By J. C. HallmanFebruary 5, 2023
Lydia Maria Child: A Radical American Life by Lydia Moland
Lydia Moland is not, strictly speaking, a literary writer — she’s a philosopher at Colby College in Maine. And though this is not her first book, it’s her first effort aimed at an audience of nonspecialists, nonphilosophers. Apparently, philosophers, too — or some of them, anyway — were thrown by the election of a man who, to this day, evokes, with his sartorial and cosmetological choices, John Wayne Gacy’s “Killer Clown.” Moland’s own postelection crisis, as described in a personal prologue, resulted in an acknowledgment that the practice of modern philosophy, too, is often rendered “impot[ent] in the face of injustice.” She was left a seeker — and she set out on a hunt to find a way to fruitfully respond to the sudden, awful tack our world had taken.
She found Lydia Maria Child.
Imagine the extent to which Moland felt called. She and Child shared a given name, and Child too hailed from Maine. As one of the United States’ leading abolitionists through the final stages of repentance for the country’s original sin, Child seemed a perfect point of reference for a parallel reckoning that began during Previous Guy’s administration. In 2022, there had not been a robust treatment of Child’s life in more than a quarter century. What Moland went on to produce is not only robust; it is also passionate and inspiring by turns, and conscientious in that Moland forthrightly acknowledges that, while the country needs no more “white heroes,” white Americans like herself “need more examples like [Child’s].”
I won’t spill all the book’s beans, but suffice it to say that Child wrote the country’s first book-length abolitionist tract. She stands — in an age when writers exploit social media to leverage wealth and fame with seemingly little concern for the culture at large — as a shining emblem of what a writer-turned-public-intellectual can and should set out to achieve. Child was entirely self-made, a product of her own vision and will. Even before her conversion to abolition, she was guiding the country’s thinking on race with “protest fiction” like the novel Hobomok, A Tale of Early Times (1824) and reinventing womanhood in the United States with books like The Frugal Housewife (1829). (One of the more eye-opening insights of Moland’s book is that women across the country honed their rhetorical and argumentative skills by reading aloud from Child’s work.)
Then, everything changed.
Child encountered William Lloyd Garrison, perhaps the most prominent of the white architects of abolition, and converted to the cause with an extended saintlike retreat from the public sphere. After three years of study and contemplation, Child emerged with a manuscript dismantling the addictive logic of slavery. For this, in modern parlance, she was “canceled.” Child lost her friends in Northern society, ostensibly “upright” people who were disinclined to distance themselves from the “peculiar institution.” One of Moland’s core purposes in telling Child’s story in full is to undermine the false, age-old binary that forgives the North for its decades of complicity in the heinous administration of slavery.
It’s what came next for Child that interests me most: decades of dedication, and a lifetime of meager earnings — if that — in the name of ensuring that her country lived up to the promises made by its founders. Can one imagine a prominent writer of today not only putting their name on the line but also sacrificing their financial fortune to protect and improve the society that provided them with readers? To go no further than Child’s and Moland’s Maine, Stephen King tweets a good game from the confines of a spooky mansion, but it’s hard to name a celebrity American writer who has put serious money or power on the line recently for a cause.
I was drawn to Moland’s book because Child played a small role in the life of a woman I’ve been investigating for years. Like Moland (“Reader, I googled her”), I was “stunned” by how much Child had achieved, and even before I found Moland’s book, I had toyed with the idea of writing a Child biography of my own.
I’m glad I didn’t.
Moland is most charming at those moments when the staid scholarly facade of the historian splinters — when the fourth wall of biography crumbles — and the reader is invited to witness the author reacting to her discoveries in real time. History is interesting only insofar as it bears on the present, either in echoing something of the modern moment or in making a difference in the life of the biographer, who, in a book like this, comes to act almost as a novel’s protagonist, a figure to whom the reader remains attached for the duration. Moland’s book has both. Throughout this thoughtful, soulful work, one feels the author alternately energized by seeing her own ideological proclivities echoed in her story, validated in finding the political predicaments of her own time anticipated, and disturbed when her 19th-century subject fails to fully embody 21st-century values.
The thing that drew me to Child serves as Moland’s climactic episode, the apex of her Freytag’s Triangle in the telling of the fraught story of abolition (a movement beset by petty infighting and frustration over decades of impotence). The critical event, in 1859, was Child’s response to John Brown’s arrest after his assault on Harpers Ferry. She wrote a letter to Virginia governor Henry Wise, Wise responded, some additional letters were exchanged, and then the whole thing was published and widely distributed in pamphlet form. This pamphlet has been credited with helping to cement the North’s resolve in the months leading up to the Civil War.
There is a line from this pamphlet that does not get quoted in Moland’s book. “In this enlightened age,” Child wrote, “all despotisms ought to come to an end by the agency of moral and rational means. But if they resist such agencies, it is in the order of Providence that they must come to an end by violence.”
Reader, this stirred me.
In pointing out that Moland does not quote this passage, I do not mean to suggest that she ignores Child’s embrace of violence to end slavery. Quite the opposite, in fact — Moland complicates the entire question, and crouching deep down inside a cradle-to-grave treatment of an important American life is another latent narrative: the story of how those who were more inclined toward nonviolence came, after endless assaults on their own ranks and decades of ongoing violence against enslaved peoples, to call for a war — and to root for its brutality. They came to see this as the only way to finish the job of the violent revolution that birthed the country, the only way to compel it to fulfill promises that were already four score and seven years old.
Moland does quote Child saying this, in a bit of private correspondence: “Much as I deprecate it, I am convinced that emancipation must come through violence.”
It’s worth backing off a moment to consider the modern implications of this fateful plunge away from pacifism (and this, I believe, is the unspoken suggestion of Moland’s otherwise gentle book). As our time sees Confederate flags trespass through the Capitol, as followers of the Spray-Tanned Diabolus embrace “semi-fascism,” what should the reaction be of those of us who are inclined toward the nonviolence of Gandhi and King? How many MAGA pipe-bombers and unrepentant terrorists armed with hammers should we endure before we reject “rational means” as an impotent response to assault and murder?
In other words, when will it be time to follow the example of Child and stop asking only which ideas are worth dying for, and ask instead — having run out of cheeks to turn — which ideas merit vigorous physical (and, if need be, violent) defense?
In the early 1940s, the United States built dozens of Liberty-class cargo ships. One was called the SS John W. Brown, and another was called the SS Lydia M. Child. I don’t know if the ships were christened to honor the episode that Moland so aptly employs and recounts, a moment that may be less dramatic than a Civil War battle but was no less crucial to sustaining the Union. Regardless, the fate of the two ships illustrates history’s bias toward the dramatic and the masculine.
The John W. Brown survived the war and is now a floating museum, berthed in Baltimore. The Lydia M. Child, carrying a cargo of Lend-Lease supplies, was torpedoed on its maiden voyage by a Japanese sub and sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, 100 miles east of Sydney, Australia.
Like a salvage crew, Moland has scoured an important lost life from the fathomless depths of the past.
J. C. Hallman is the editor of two anthologies of “creative criticism,” The Story About the Story (2009) and The Story About the Story II (2013), and the author of Say Anarcha: A Young Woman, a Devious Surgeon, and the Harrowing Birth of Modern Women’s Health (2023).
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