Wall Street Journal, Nov. 21, 2002
‘Over the River’: Behind Holiday Ode, A Forgotten Woman
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Mrs. Child Was a Feminist, Abolitionist and Author; The 11 Unsung Verses
By Robert Tomsho
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.
WAYLAND, Mass.—Facing a holiday season clouded by talk of economic turmoil, terrorist attacks and war, Unitarian minister Ken Sawyer thinks next Sunday would be a perfect time for members of his First Parish Church to once again sing all 12 verses of the song probably most associated with Thanksgiving.
Often known by its first line, the song has lyrics that actually come from “The New-England Boy’s Song About Thanksgiving Day,” a 19th-century poem by Lydia Maria Child, a former resident of this quaint, tree-lined town west of Boston.
“It’s good for our kids to know the connection,” says Mr. Sawyer, who, through lectures, sermons and other efforts, has worked to rekindle interest in a woman who was once known for far more than a single lilting tune about sleigh rides and pumpkin pie.
He has had help from Joanne Davis, curator of the Wayland Historical Society, which has collected some of the Mrs. Child’s letters and personal effects. Having painstakingly traced the writer’s local movements, she has become the unofficial tour guide for visitors such as a filmmaker who recently arrived to explore a possible documentary on Mrs. Child. “If you read her letters, you get the sense of such a remarkable person,” Mrs. Davis says.
Indeed, Lydia Maria Child once seemed destined for enduring fame. At age 22, the baker’s daughter stunned the literary world in 1824 with “Hobomok,” a daring first novel about a Puritan girl who falls in love with an Indian after her fiancé is lost at sea. The young author soon founded the nation’s first children’s magazine, Juvenile Miscellany, and Edgar Allen Poe later described her fiction as “an honor to our country and a signal triumph for our countrywomen.”
But life grew complicated with her marriage to David Child, an idealistic editor-lawyer whose libel convictions and failed business ventures quickly drove the couple toward financial ruin. To raise money, Mrs. Child turned to practical writing such as “The Frugal Housewife,” a hugely popular book that offered everything from recipes for cheap cooking to advice on keeping pickles crisp.
Meanwhile, the best-selling author grew close to Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. In 1833, his inspiration led her to publish, “An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans,” one of the earliest book-length attacks upon slavery. At a time when abolition was still a repugnant notion in much of the North, it called for total equality for blacks and blamed Northern business “They tell us that Northern ships and Northern capital have been engaged in this wicked business; and the reproach is true,” Mrs. Child wrote. “Several fortunes in this city have been made by the sale of Negro blood.”
Amid the resulting backlash, canceled subscriptions destroyed Mrs. Child’s children magazine. Publishers refused to accept her writing and once-fawning literary patrons shunned her in the street. Suddenly unable to find work as a writer, she resorted to begging for jobs drawing maps and making candy. Financially and professionally, the book “basically killed her,” says Carolyn Karcher, author of “The First Woman in the
Republic,” a 1994 biography of Mrs. Child.
The Thanksgiving poem first appeared in 1844 as part of “Flowers for Children,” a three-volume collection of children’s stories and poems that Mrs. Child wrote while still trying to regain her financial footing.
By the early 1850s the writer and her husband had moved into her ailing father’s home in Wayland, where many detested the couple’s radical abolitionist views.
Though still struggling financially, Mrs. Child continued to speak out. After John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, Va., she wrote a series of widely publicized letters to the governor of Virginia, defending the abolitionist guerrilla and offering to come south to tend his wounds. Later, she used her own money to publish a reading textbook for freed slaves and wrote articles calling for a more humane policy toward American Indians.
But by the late 1870s, the Indian Wars were raging. Reconstruction had spawned a backlash against the freedmen and, if her outspokenness had not moderated in old age, Mrs. Child sensed that fewer people were listening. “The friends of old times have nearly all gone hence,” she wrote in one letter to a friend, “and with the present generation I meet only as marbles touch each other; here and there a point comes in contact, but the spheres roll apart.”
After Mrs. Child’s death in 1880, some obituary writers ignored her fiction and advocacy writing altogether, mentioning only “The Frugal Housewife.” In the ensuing years, local reporters occasionally wrote stories about Wayland’s most famous resident, but most focused on the Thanksgiving poem.
Over the river, and through the wood,
With a clear blue winter sky,
The dogs do bark,
And children hark,
As we go jingling by.
Eventually set to music by persons whose own names have been lost to time, the poem did not take on a life of its own until after Mrs. Child died. Indeed, even some friends who praised her other writing acknowledged that she was no poet, says Ms. Karcher, her biographer.
Beginning in the 1970s, the women’s movement stirred scholarly interest in Mrs. Child’s work, and a few years ago, a small coterie of Wayland admirers decided it was time to revive her memory. “The thing that kind of rankles us now is that her only claim to fame is that song,” says Dick Hoyt, president of Wayland Historical Society.
Last year, the society put on an exhibit of Mrs. Child’s letters, books and personal items and, in February, it baked a cake and held a part to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her birth. In October, the society’s letters and submissions succeeded in getting Mrs. Child posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, in Seneca Falls, N.Y., beside the likes of Rosalynn Carter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Society curator Ms. Davis, who accepted the award on Mrs. Child’s behalf, has since been trying to see that as many Wayland children as possible get to touch and hold the heavy gold medallion that she brought back. Elementary school girls who attend the society’s after school program have begun learning games and riddles from Mrs. Child’s children’s books.
But there still are no plaques or historical markers to indicate Mrs. Child spent much of her adult life in town and many don’t know that she ever lived here. Mention her name to many Waylanders, and they react as Joe Doucette, runs a local diner did. “Never heard of her,” he said.
“I’ve often wondered how someone is forgotten like that,” says Mr. Sawyer, who has been captivated with Mrs. Child’s story ever since he moved to town in 1974 and learned that she sometimes attended his church to hear the abolitionist sermons of one of his predecessors.
Mr. Sawyer has given talks about Mrs. Child and held commemorative services at her grave. Soon after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 last year, he used her example in a sermon about people who persevere through seemingly hopeless times.
Every few years, Mr. Sawyer also has his congregation sing the Thanksgiving song. He thinks it gets people thinking about the joy of coming together.
Over the river, and through the wood,
And straight through the barn-yard gate;
We seem to go
It is so hard to wait.
The pastor also hopes the singing sparks curiosity about the largely forgotten life behind the words. “It has a power for me,” he says. “To be reminded that people can respond bravely on behalf of their ideals increases the prospect that one of us might.”