One fateful night Lydia Maria Child read an article published in a literary magazine by John Palfrey. The Unitarian leader chastised American writers for making no significant contribution to world literature as an exemplar of uniquely American history, culture and traditions. Instead, Palfrey admonished, American literature was really just a historical record of copying British themes and plots and transferring the setting to the New World without really investing in that setting. That very night, Child was moved to begin writing a novel that would seek to tell a distinctly American story. Six weeks later she had a completed the manuscript for Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times. Child was just 22 years old when the novel was published in 1824.
At the time, being a writer—much less a writer of the still rather disreputable mode of literature known as the novel—was not considered proper for a lady, and so first editions were cryptically credited to a mysterious unknown quantity referred to simply as “An American.” Before her 25th birthday, the mystery was solved and the true identity revealed. Brisk sale and widespread popular enjoyment were enough to allow Child to gain entry into the privileged Boston Athenaeum library which until then had been exclusively available only to males.
Much like her chronological and thematic peer Longfellow who also sought to humanize the indigenous people of North American commonly referred to as Indians, Lydia Maria Child enjoyed tremendous commercial success and critical success while alive but suffered a downturn and negative critical re-evaluation following death. Unlike Longfellow, however, Child’s legacy reached a nadir of being practically forgotten entirely. Even the most famous lines she ever write go almost universally uncredited: “Over the river and through the wood / To grandfather’s house we’ll go.” The Civil Rights movement rescued her from permanent midnight as her once-controversial stories lending legitimacy to interracial marriage in her powerfully reasoned 22-page pamphlet “An Appeal for the Indians” which elaborated what was in 1868 one of the most radical propositions that could possibly be made in printed form in America: Indians are every bit as civilized as whites society.
Although Hobomok: A Tale of Early Times was faulted even at the time of publication for being less than completely realistic and suffering from a lack of character complexity, it and other writings on the subject of treatment of the native population of America situate Lydia Maria Child as one of the most important figures in the struggle for Civil Rights for oppressed minorities in America.