In the Atlantic Monthly for January, 1865, there appeared a "prospectus and announcement" of a new publication. James T. Fields, publisher of the Atlantic, had decided that there was room in the literary marketplace for a new juvenile magazine which might appeal to the families which took the Atlantic. Our Young Folks: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine for Boys and Girls was to be edited by J.T. Trowbridge, "Gail Hamilton," and Lucy Larcom. Trowbridge was a volatile and tactless man who lacked the patience and sensitivity needed behind the editor's desk. "Gail Hamilton" (Mary Abigail Dodge—no relation to Mary Mapes Dodge) was a free spirit: independent, outspoken, sharp-tongued. She was once described as "a sort of Margaret Fuller watered down, and also peppered up." And Lucy Larcom was a complex, stubborn, intelligent woman with little head for business, a woman who valued above all a certain hard-won spiritual autonomy. That this unlikely troika could manage to pull together for even a few years was probably a tribute to Fields's managerial finesse more than anything else.
But the story of Our Young Folks is an important chapter in the history of American literature for children which has never been thoroughly explored. Now, in The Worlds of Lucy Larcom, Shirley Marchalonis has not only produced a solid and well-researched biography of Larcom, but has done useful groundwork toward the editorial history ofthat journal. Drawing on nearly two thousand unpublished Larcom Letters, and on the letters and journals of Larcom's friends and associates, Marchalonis traces her subject's progress through six worlds, defined by "geography, occupation, and time." There was Beverly, Massachusetts, where she grew up; Lowell, where she worked as a mill-girl; Illinois, where she completed her education and began to teach; Wheaton Seminary, where she also taught; Boston, where she edited Our Young Folks and entered the literary scene; and finally Boston and Beverly where she pursued her career as professional writer and lecturer.
Marchalonis does not claim that in any of these spheres Larcom evidenced any great genius. But she stresses what it is so easy to forget: the nineteenth-century literary world "teemed with writers—essayist, poets, journalists—whose reputations in their own time were very different from what they are today." Larcom was a popular writer with a national reputation, a figure highly representative of her period, and interesting precisely because of this. She was, as Marchalonis also demonstrates, a very intelligent, subtle woman whose determination to go her own way did not make for an easy life in a world which imposed constricting roles on its women.
Larcom's happy childhood in Beverly, Massachusetts, was cut short by the death of her father when she was seven and her mother's subsequent failure to manage the family's affairs. They moved to Lowell, where Larcom, still no more than a child, entered the mills. Lowell, however, was no Dickensian "Coketown," but a place of community and culture, and the mill girls, although exploited and underpaid, were bright and hard working young women many of whom went on to become teachers, missionaries, and writers.
Caught up in the dreams and hopes of her sister and her friends, Larcom at twenty-two went west to Illinois to teach and to study at Monticello Seminary where she said she "learned what education really is; the penetrating deeper and rising higher into life, as well as making continually wider explorations, the rounding of the whole human being out of its nebulous elements into form." Larcom's whole life would be devoted to such explorations. And using her correspondence as a guide, Marchalonis gives close attention to the development of Larcom's religious sensibility, her growing need to refuse the conventional female role offered by her society in favor of an independent life, and the hopes and fears with which she embarked finally on a literary career.
After six years in Illinois, Larcom returned to New England where she entered the orbit of a poet who specialized in helping talented women achieve their literary potential: John Greenleaf Whittier. Marchalonis takes issue with Whittier scholars who have assumed that Larcom was one of the many...