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Thursday, January 6, 2011

January 6, 2011: Workers Write

One of the most unique and effective American short stories has to be Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” (originally published in Harper’s in 1855; Tartarus is a hellish underworld in Greek mythology). Melville’s story features two seemingly distinct and unconnected halves in which the unnamed first-person speaker visits, and describes at great length, the two titular communities: in the first half he attends a refined and luxurious dinner party in the London club of a group of wealthy and unmarried male lawyers; and in the second his business pursuits lead him to the hellish gorge that houses a paper mill and the community of pale and silent young women who work there. As my parallel summaries have probably already highlighted, the story’s overall structure, as well as a number of specific choices and phrases in each, brings these two disparate worlds together in very clear and provocative ways, forcing Melville’s readers to confront the realities of their new industrial age; such realities include not only the conditions and environments necessary to produce in bulk the items used by the London bachelors, but also the differences in class and gender and identity that accompany such distinct settings. It’s a great story, much more explicitly social than many of Melville’s works without sacrificing any of his stylistic strengths, and well worth a read.
In order to make his comparisons and contrasts work, though, Melville does have to render the mill’s working women overtly and fully silent; and while that makes for a compelling metaphor, it also elides one of the more interesting (if relatively brief) literary experiments in American history. In 1840, fifteen years before Melville published his story, Abel Charles Thomas, pastor of the First Univeralist (Unitarian) Church in Lowell, Massachusetts and a mentor to many of the young women who had come to work in Lowell’s textile mills, founded and began editing The Lowell Offering, a literary magazine consisting entirely of contributions (in a wide variety of genres) from mill workers. Although Thomas had a strong hand in the magazine’s first four issues (published between October 1840 and March 1841), not only as editor but in soliciting contributions from the improvement and reading circles that he organized and ran, by April 1841 it had begun to receive numerous unsolicited pieces (enough to require the monthly publication schedule that would continue from then on), and in 1842 Thomas turned over the editorship to two of the women themselves, Harriot Curtis and Harriet Farley; they served in that role until the magazine ceased publication in 1845 (not for lack of success, but for what Curtis and Farley called “reasons of a private nature … in which the public is not interested”), and Farley later collected some of the magazine’s best pieces in the book Shells from the Strand of the Sea of Genius (1847).
There are lots of such great pieces waiting to be discovered, both in the complete issues from 1840-1841 that are collected at the online database linked below and in the two different Google books versions of the Offering (the fifth and eighth results in a Google search for “Lowell Offering”); as is often the case with literary magazines, it helps to read them in context and in connection to one another, to look through an issue or two and see the interconnected identities of the magazine and the mills begin to emerge. But it’s worth noting that the first piece in the first (October 1840) issue, “History of a Hemlock Broom: Written by Itself,” exemplifies many of the magazine’s great strengths. The piece is witty and touching, with the broom (speaking through its “amanuensis” Hannah because it “cannot hold a pen”) guiding us through its tumultuous life, from its “first distinct recollections” as “the lowest branch” of a tree through its service to multiple masters and mistresses (but especially the aforementioned and supportive Hannah) in a house down the hill to its final retirement in the backyard, with a “full prospect of [its] former companions on the hill beyond.” But it also engages, subtly but clearly, with the kinds of broad and significant issues of work and identity, of the ways in which we define ourselves and how those definitions evolve in relation to our personal and professional roles and the settings and controlling forces that influence them, that would be at the heart of the Offering throughout its run.
Life in the mills was indeed far from paradise, and the writers in the Offering didn’t hesitate to engage with the most dark and difficult sides to their world and experiences there. The fact that they did so through their impressive and eloquent voices makes their work, to my mind, less a contrast and more a complement to Melville’s story; together, these unique and rich American Renaissance texts can help reveal the new world of industrialization in all its complexity—and, for our 21st century world of sweatshops and high-end retailers, migrant labor and billions in bonuses, its ongoing relevance. More tomorrow, on the two crucial ways in which America owes its Revolutionary ideas and identity to the French.
PS. Three links to start with:                
1)      The full text of both parts of Melville’s story:
2)      A very thorough index for every issue of the Offering; the 1840-1841 volumes seem to be available online through links here:
3)      OPEN: Any must-read works about work?

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