A Christmas Offering
December 20, 2013 9:36 AM   Subscribe

...They have got up among themselves a periodical called THE LOWELL OFFERING, "a repository of original articles, written exclusively by females actively employed in the mills," -- which is duly printed, published, and sold; and whereof I brought away from Lowell four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end...Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals. It is pleasant to find that many of its Tales are of the Mills, and of those who work in them; that they inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of enlarged benevolence.
On an early leg of his 1842 American tour, Charles Dickens paid a visit to Lowell, Massachusetts, where he toured the famous river-powered textile mills and met some of the thousands of young women employed there. The literary journal he carried away, the Offering, inculcated certain of its benevolent doctrines through stories about Christmas, ghosts, mystic journeys through time and space, and mystic journeys through time and space with ghosts. Soon after his return to England, Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Coincidence?

Of Interest:

-"A Visit from Hope," by an unknown author, 1841. One of the Offering pieces in question.

-"The Story of the Goblins Who Stole of a Sexton," a tale of supernatural rebuke and moral reversal told within the famous Christmas episode of Dicken's Pickwick Papers (1836).

-Judith Ranta's study of Betsey Guppy Chamberlain, a mill worker of Algonquian descent whose vivid Offering stories protested the persecution of Native Americans. Ranta observes in passing that "the dream vision is a fairly common genre in the Lowell Offering and other nineteenth-century periodicals, yet virtually no scholarship exists on this genre in nineteenth-century U.S. writing, perhaps because periodicals have been little studied or the form has been deemed subliterary. Twenty-one prose dream visions were recounted in the Lowell Offering, and another nine prose pieces recount waking visions."

[Hat tip to crush-onastick!]
posted by Iridic (13 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
He also toured our prisons, designed by then selectman Charles Bullfinch. He commented on our wonderfully progressive correctional system.
posted by Teakettle at 9:45 AM on December 20, 2013

If I could time travel to any point in history (well, maybe American history...) it would probably be Lowell, Mass, in 1842.

I am STILL holding a grudge about the fact that I wanted to write my college US History 101 term paper on early union organizing by female textile workers in Lowell, and was point blank told by the professor that this was not a thing, and thus I could not write my paper on this total non-thing. Like 100% veto, shut down, NOPE.
posted by Sara C. at 10:07 AM on December 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

There were a LOT of ghost stories of various kinds floating around in mid-Victorian literature. Dickens may well have been influenced in part by these stories (in a "hmmm, maybe I should try my hand at one of these" way--we're clearly not talking about plagiarism or anything of that kind) but then it may be just as true to say that both the Lowell authors and Dickens were simply caught up in the prevailing literary zeitgeist.
posted by yoink at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Lowell influence also adds a layer of complexity to a holiday fable, recasting it as not just a sentimental Victorian story of redemption and generosity, but also a wider-ranging social critique.

I think I get what the author of the Boston Globe piece is saying here, but if you don't get "social critique" straight up reading A Christmas Carol with or without Lowell influence, I think you're missing the boat.

Similarly, there's a reason why nearly all the modern re-imaginings of the Scrooge story I can think of take place with a high powered CEO in the Ebeneezer role rather than a small businessperson with one employee. That social critique is still pretty timely.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:24 AM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

it may be just as true to say that both the Lowell authors and Dickens were simply caught up in the prevailing literary zeitgeist.

I agree in so far as the Gothic ghostly elements are concerned. Those were everywhere. Dickens was also interested in Christmas from some time back, and wrote about it in The Pickwick Papers. He certainly could have come up with the melding of ideas all on his own - all the tools were in his toolbox already.

Scrooge’s sudden reconsideration of his life—closely resemble plot points in stories by the city’s “mill girls” that Dickens read after his visit.

Both this comparison and the Lazarus one are strained. One doesn't need to look too hard for where you get the idea of character redemption. Everyone's soaking in Christianity and, in Lowell, temperance rhetoric. The redemption story -- "I once was lost, but now am found" -- is the self-replicating DNA of narratives in Christian cultures.

Still, after reading the Globe piece, I'm intrigued. Had he not directly mentioned reading and admiring the whole 400-page Offering, I'd be more skeptical about this thesis. But he points to it approvingly, and goes on to continue dealing with the same kind of material. This argues that it didn't have zero influence or a negative influence. It may have had some influence. You can't really evaluate the argument without reading the not-yet-published paper, though. And as with all these kinds of arguments, it bears remembering that it wasn't just plot devices that make A Christmas Carol a titan of Western literature. Had he written an entirely different Christmas book, we'd probably still know him for that, just as we still know a number of his tales. His books are still read, and it's because his prose is incredibly, his output was staggering, and his self-promotional abilities exceptional. He was the perfect storm of a writer, and even if, like Shakespeare, he outright stole every plot he ever crafted, he would still deserve his reputation.
posted by Miko at 12:32 PM on December 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Memory and Hope available here.

And, in something of a turnabout, "Mind Among the Spindles", an English edition of selections printed in 1845. The intro makes for interesting reading.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:49 PM on December 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is also right around the period that people start writing about Christmas, in general, and wherein Christmas as the modern holiday we know today was gelling into place, largely through popular literature like all of this stuff, "A Visit From St. Nicholas" (1823), and "The Gift Of The Magi" a few decades later.
posted by Sara C. at 12:53 PM on December 20, 2013

The intro makes for interesting reading.

And sobering, when it starts talking about the working hours and conditions.
posted by mittens at 12:57 PM on December 20, 2013

Indeed. Which makes the English editor's comment that he intends to forward part of the proceeds to the authors themselves especially worth noting. (This at a time when American publishers were shamelessly pirating English works (like those of Dickens) basically because they could get away with it.)
posted by IndigoJones at 1:04 PM on December 20, 2013

Wow, Betsey Guppy Chamberlain's story The Indian Pledge is really beautiful.
posted by larrybob at 2:25 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wanted to write my college US History 101 term paper on early union organizing by female textile workers in Lowell, and was point blank told by the professor that this was not a thing

In hindsight, Trump University may have been a poor choice.
posted by uosuaq at 2:44 PM on December 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Lowell Mill Girls have a compelling story even without any connection to Dickens. Note that they had struck 6 years before his visit, in one of the earliest labor actions in the U.S.

If you find yourself near the place, you can visit the National Historical Park, which offers exhibits in Boott Mills, a restored mill of the period, a boardinghouse used by the Mill Girls, and much more.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:57 PM on December 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Heartily seconding that - it's a terrific park. There is so much good scholarship on Lowell, and it continues to be a fascinating city. If you go to the museum, try to catch the tour where they take you onto the former factory floor and start a couple of original textile weaving machines for you. The clatter is incredible (you immediately wish for earplugs and the guide has to shout to be heard), and then they tell you that you are just hearing the sound of one machine, when the room would have about 100 all going at once. That's a visceral experience of historical conditions you don't forget.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on December 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

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