March 5, 2011

Larcom: Their mental activity was overflowing

Lucy Larcom was born in Beverly, Massachusetts on March 5, 1824, the ninth of ten children. When her father died in 1835, the family moved to Lowell so that her mother could run a boarding-house for local mill girls. Young Lucy became one of those mill girls at age 11. In her ten years there, she began writing poetry, soon drawing the attention of John Greenleaf Whittier, who became her life-long friend and advocate. After a short tenure teaching in Illinois, Larcom returned to Massachusetts and edited the children's magazine Our Young Folks, later renamed St. Nicholas Magazine.

Toward the end of her life, Larcom wrote A New England Girlhood. Published in 1889, the book was aimed for "girls of all ages, and [for] women who have not forgotten their girlhood." In it, she describes her early attempts at writing:

My early efforts would not, probably, have found their way into print, however, but for the coincident publication of the two mill-girls' magazines, just as I entered my teens. I fancy that almost everything any of us offered them was published, though I never was let in to editorial secrets. The editors of both magazines were my seniors, and I felt greatly honored by their approval of my contributions...

We did not receive much criticism; perhaps it would have been better for us if we had. But then we did not set ourselves up to be literary; though we enjoyed the freedom of writing what we pleased, and seeing how it looked in print. It was good practice for us, and that was all that we desired. We were complimented and quoted. When a Philadelphia paper copied one of my little poems, suggesting some verbal improvements, and predicting recognition for me in the future, I felt for the first time that there might be such a thing as public opinion worth caring for, in addition to doing one's best for its own sake...

And, indeed, what we wrote was not remarkable, — perhaps no more so than the usual school compositions of intelligent girls... But it was a perfectly natural outgrowth of those girls' previous life. For what were we? Girls who were working in a factory for the time, to be sure; but none of us had the least idea of continuing at that kind of work permanently. Our composite photograph, had it been taken, would have been the representative New England girlhood of those days. We had all been fairly educated at public or private schools, and many of us were resolutely bent upon obtaining a better education... The girls there were just such girls as are knocking at the doors of young women's colleges to-day. They had come to work with their hands, but they could not hinder the working of their minds also. Their mental activity was overflowing at every possible outlet.

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