restricted access Lucy Larcom and the Poetics of Child Labour
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Lucy Larcom and the Poetics of Child Labour

Child labour has been present in North America since the beginnings of European colonization, and regulation of their industrial employment dates at least to the early nineteenth century in Rhode Island (Abbott). Given moral injunctions to keep children from mischief and utilitarian demands for labour and family income, such regulation remained basically ineffective. With industrial expansion following the American Civil War children established themselves as a major presence in the workforce and occasionally appeared in industrial stories such as Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861).

By 1880 an estimated 6 percent of U.S. children between ages ten to fifteen were working in industry (Felt 1). Early child advocates such as Charles Loring Brace of the Children’s Aid Society in New York opposed child labour and documented its prevalence (1872, 353–65, and 1893). The height of political concern over child labour occurred between the 1890s and the 1920s, with the establishment of the National Child Labor Committee; the documentary photography of Louis Hine; initiatives from Congress and state legislatures; the creation of the Child Labor Office within the U.S. Bureau of Labor; and legal contests over child labour taxes. Representations of child labour proliferated with social reportage such [End Page 139] as Thomas Robinson Dawley’s The Child That Toileth Not (1912), which describes his travels in Southern mills and industries as an investigator appointed by the Bureau of Labor. For all of this emergent social concern, we have very little literary documentation of the consciousness of working children.1

In the antebellum United States the predominant reform concerns—slavery, temperance, and women’s rights—addressed the social concerns of children in relation to these issues. There are no known antebellum autobiographies of working-class children, and their stories tend to appear in brief unreflective passages of adult autobiographies that mention childhood labour. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, representation of children at work came almost entirely from adult authors describing their observations. Much of it emerged in the form of short stories or romance novels, such as Day Kellogg Lee’s Merrimack: or, Life at the Loom (1854), a fictional first-person narrative of an orphaned thirteen-year-old girl who goes to work in the mills and benefits by acquiring independence. Autobiographical self-representation focused on the labour experiences of U.S. working-class children only begins to emerge a rough half-century later, with such texts as Through the Mill: The Life of a Mill-Boy (1911) by Al Priddy, a child immigrant from England who describes his experiences as an eleven-year-old in the New Bedford mills. As another example, Rose Cohen’s Out of the Shadow (1918) is the autobiography of an immigrant Russian Jewish girl’s life in the piecework shops of the Lower East Side in the 1890s.

Given the absence of more than limited narrative and epistolary evidence, one purpose of the present discussion lies in elucidating this tradition through examination of how child labour informed the ethos and conscience of a nineteenth-century American writer and how her work-place memories from a textile mill emerged in literary form to replace a foreshortened childhood. Lucy Larcom’s narratives of child labour during the mid-1840s, published several decades later, represented an inherent advocacy of human developmental rights during a period when U.S. law did not acknowledge children’s industrial labour as a social wrong. Her advocacy was fragmentary, mixed together with larger stories, and did not have an argumentative focus on child labour. Persistence delineates a consciousness, however, and Larcom’s persistent return to images and [End Page 140] themes of child labour characterizes her writing more than its repetition of standard sentimental tropes of nature.

A consciousness of child labour contributed a subterranean radicalism that emerged with opportunity in the imagery of a poet otherwise careful to shape her market acceptability for middle-class Victorian America. The present paper first will address Larcom’s autobiographical self-observations in A New England Girlhood (1889) concerning her life as a child worker, in order afterward to contextualize representations of labour in...