Prologue
A Passion for Books
..
My Dear Brother, - I have been busily engaged in reading "Paradise Lost. " ... I could not but
admire such astonishing grandeur of description, such heavenly sublimity of style. I never read a
poem that displayed a more prolific fancy, or a more vigorous genius. But don't you think that
Milton asserts the superiority of his own sex in rather too lordly a manner? Thus, when Eve is
conversing with Adam, she is made to say, -
"My author and disposer, what thou bid'st
Unargu'd I obey; so God ordained.
God is thy law, thou mine: to know no more
Is
woman
s
happiest knowledge, and her praise.
"1
This precocious letter, written at age fifteen, aptly introduces one of nineteenth-
century America's most original writers and reformers, Lydia Maria Francis Child.2
When it was first published in a selected edition of Child's correspondence, two years
after her death in 1880, reviewers familiar with her controversial career as an advocate
of racial, sexual, and religious equality immediately recognized it as casting her "mental
horoscope."3 Addressed to her elder brother, Convers Francis, then finishing his stud-
ies at Harvard Divinity School, Child's comments on Paradise Lost reflect the mind of a
young woman sensitive to literary genius but unawed by patriarchal authority, impa-
tient of the restraints placed on her sex, and already prone
to
reject orthodoxy and think
for herself. Her letter to Convers also gives a foretaste of the rhetorical strategies that
would enable Child
to
exert such a powerful influence on her contemporaries during
her half century as a cultural spokesperson. Not only does this largely self-educated
fifteen-year-old bolster her interpretation by citing chapter and verse, as she would in
the many polemical works she would go on to write, but under the guise of tactfully
deferring to her university-educated brother, she firmly reasserts her independence.
"Perhaps you will smile at the freedom with which I express my opinion concerning the
books which I have been reading," she writes ingenuously, hastening to assure Convers
that she "willingly acknowledges the superiority of [his] talents and advantages, and ...
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