Over the river, and through the wood,
To Grandfather’s house we go;
the horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.
Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for ’tis Thanksgiving Day.
Fifty or a hundred years ago almost every child in America would know that song because it was sung in classrooms all over the country. No matter that many American children lived in cities and had no experience of sleighs or woods or even Grandfather’s house, which might have been across the ocean instead of through the woods. Today the song would mean even less to children who may never have seen a real horse much less a spinning top—dolls we have with us still, although not like the ones our grandmothers had.
And so the song drifts off into history, but it is the only legacy left by a remarkable woman who would probably spin in her grave if she thought that of all the books she wrote, lectures she gave, and magazines she published, only this trifling set of verses is left. What has happened, she might wonder, to the explosive stories she wrote about intermarriage, abolition, and the rights of American Indians. Those were the works that led the Boston Athenaeum to revoke her free borrowing privileges. Lydia Maria Child was a firebrand despite the decorous cap and long, sedate dresses she wears in her portraits.
Born in 1802 in Massachusetts, she was a member of the first post-revolution generation. Her father Convers Francis was a prosperous baker and her older brother, also named Convers Francis, became a Unitarian minister and a professor at the Harvard Divinity School. It was her brother who encouraged her to try writing a novel and she completed Hobomok, with an American Indian as its hero. It was a popular success and started her on a lifetime writing career.
When she met the Harvard educated lawyer David Childs she was introduced to the abolitionist cause. They married and pursued lifelong careers as reformers and radicals. Unfortunately David was constantly in debt, made innumerable bad choices in business investments, and even spent time in prison for debt. Lydia (usually called Maria, which she preferred) had to be the stable breadwinner. She did this by starting a children’s magazine and by publishing books directed at housewives. Her hugely popular Frugal Housewife addressed the problems of middle-class women who struggled to maintain a house and feed a family.
But Maria Child was not content to linger over the problems of making soap and choosing fresh eggs, she was determined to help in the struggle to free slaves and women, two groups which she saw as being exploited by men who treated them as property. The book which angered many New Englanders was her An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. In it she advocated the abolition of slavery but rejected the notion of sending freed slaves back to Africa. Instead, she wanted to integrate them into American society and make them the equal of white citizens. She accused Northerners of being just as racist as Southerners, which infuriated many old friends and leading citizens of Massachusetts. She believed in education and in intermarriage. She wrote:
An unjust law exists in this Commonwealth, by which marriages between persons of different color is pronounced illegal. I am aware of the ridicule to which I may subject myself by alluding to this; but I have lived too long, and observed too much, to be disturbed by the world’s mockery. In the first place, the government ought not to be invested with power to control the affections, any more than the consciences of citizens. A man has at least as good a right to choose his wife, as he has to choose his religion.
Her sentiments shocked even many of the abolitionists who wanted to abolish slavery, but hesitated over the question of total equality. Maria Child spent most of her life facing controversy. She believed that men and women should work together in the Anti-Slavery Society and precipitated a long-lasting feud in that group. For all her long life she argued for freedom and equality. On this Thanksgiving Day we ought to give thanks to her, not for producing a sweet little verse, but for persisting in the endless struggle to make Americans live up to their highest aspirations.
As far as I know, there is no easily accessible biography of Lydia Maria Child. The one that I read is a detailed scholarly biography by Carolyn Karcher, The First Woman in the Republic: A Cultural Biography of Lydia Maria Child (Duke University Press 1994). I highly recommend it, but not too many people will commit to 800 pages. Perhaps someday Professor Karcher will produce a shorter, more popular introduction to a woman who deserves more attention than she has received in our history books.
Last night on the TV news, the signoff story was about Veterans Day. “Tell us about how a veteran affected your life” said the anchor. How to begin? When I was growing up, all the men I knew were veterans. On long Thanksgiving afternoons my father and uncles would sit in the living room smoking cigars and telling stories of their army days. My brother was allowed to sit and listen to them while my sister and cousins and I helped our mothers and aunts in the kitchen. War was a closed male circle that we knew little about.
I’ll never forget one story my father told about his war—World War I. When he was in the Army on the Western Front, he and his company marched across a desolate battlefield. Wearing gas masks in case of attack, they stumbled across the fields and into a wooded area. When it became so dark that moving forward was dangerous, they were ordered to lie down and get a few hours sleep. My father was lucky to find a spot on the ground that was not too rocky and he slept soundly. When morning came the men woke up and saw that the soft spots they had found and where they had rested their heads were the bodies of dead German decomposing in the mud. The horror of that morning discovery never left him. Even though he returned home safely, married and raised a family, and led a successful life, the scene was still in his head. Even when he was close to death at the age of 93 he could recall those grim hours on the battlefield seventy years earlier.
All veterans have been marked by their experiences. Some of them are scarred so badly they can never be the same; others seem to return to everyday life without deep trauma, but all of them remember. All of America’s wars—all of the world’s wars—have left indelible scars on those who fought in them. William Dean Howells, the American novelist, describes the impact of the Civil War on President James Garfield. “At the sight of these dead men whom other men had killed, something went out of him, the habit of a lifetime, that never came back again: The sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it,”
The Civil War, the two World Wars, and the Korean War were almost universally felt by Americans. Every family had people serving, every community lost friends and neighbors. The wars since then have directly affected far fewer people, but those who served come back with the same kind of memories and scars. We see Vietnam veterans among the homeless on our city streets, and Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in our colleges and workplaces. Some of them carry physical wounds that will affect their lives and the lives of their families for decades to come. Others carry only memories that are not visible to the rest of us, but which will live with them all of their lives.
And yet we continue to have more wars and more veterans. Why can’t we remember how terrible it is? Why do we forget so much of the pain and suffering? I recently read Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine which gives a vivid account of the unnecessary pain we Americans inflicted on people of Japanese ancestry who lived among us. Many veterans of the Japanese internment camps are still alive and still carrying memories of the pain of their exclusion from the country they had chosen.
The drones we are sending now to bomb people in the Middle East are creating more memories and more suffering. Children in Pakistan today who lose family members to American drones will carry that pain through most of the 21st century. More wars—more veterans. When will it ever stop? When will the world learn that we already have enough veterans to honor? Let’s honor the veterans we have and work to prevent more wars that will continue the cycle of suffering and remembrance forever.