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When Dickens's dream of Lowell came crashing down

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  January 8, 2014 09:19 AM

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On December 15 I wrote a story for Ideas about new research suggesting Charles Dickens may have found inspiration for “A Christmas Carol” in an unexpected place: a literary journal called “The Lowell Offering” written by Lowell “mill girls” that Dickens encountered on his 1842 tour of the United States. The researchers, Natalie McKnight, a professor at Boston University, and Chelsea Bray, a graduate student at Boston College, have found good evidence to support the connection, but literary influences are always hard to pin down completely. What’s beyond dispute, though, is that Dickens was highly impressed by Lowell and its cultured millworkers—particularly in contrast to the dreary industrial cities he knew in England.

A week after the article ran I received an email from Elizabeth von Klemperer, a retired English professor at Smith College. She explained that the cheery working conditions Dickens saw in Lowell proved to be short-lived. In 1845 a potato famine struck Ireland and triggered a wave of immigration to the United States. New England cities were flooded with poor, often illiterate Irish laborers who were willing to endure longer hours and lower pay than the Yankee women who’d staffed the Lowell mills at the time of Dickens’s visit. Working conditions plummeted as a result, and it wasn’t long before conditions in Lowell more closely resembled the abject factories Dickens was so critical of in his native country.

That email from Elizabeth von Klemperer suggested some scholars I might talk to about the transformation that overtook Lowell, and led me ultimately to Thomas Dublin, professor of history at Binghamton University. Dublin has written perhaps the authoritative book on the subject, “Women at Work: The Transformation of Work and Community in Lowell,” and we spoke over the phone just after New Year’s.

“I think its safe to say Dickens caught Lowell at about its high point,” he says. “Had he come six years later he would have observed a much more mixed picture in the mills.”

In the 1830s, native New Englanders accounted for nearly the entire labor force in Lowell. By the outbreak of the Civil War, though, they’d become a minority of the millworkers. One quick consequence of this transformation was that “The Lowell Offering,” which had so impressed Dickens, shut down. The literary journal was published for just five years, from 1840-1845, and it’s unknown whether the women authors simply lost interest in the project, or whether it was engulfed by the economic shifts taking place at the time.

“Mill owners were out to distinguish themselves from the dark satanic mills in the north of England, so they were very pleased to have these women writing these short stories,” Dublin says. “But by 1845 they didn’t feel a need to, or were less inclined to keep supporting them.”

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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