- The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker
Labor history and theory owes a great debt to the factory women of the Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mills whose literary accomplishments hold a well-recognized place in the tradition of writing by ordinary, working women. Judith Ranta enhances Lowell scholarship with her meticulously researched book The Life and Writings of Betsey Chamberlain: Native American Mill Worker. Ranta is a tenacious archivist, and her book rescues Betsey Guppy Chamberlain (1797- 1886) from obscurity by collecting the majority of her contributions to the Lowell Offering and New England Offering (some thirty-four pieces making up just over a third of the book) and by setting Chamberlain's writing in historical, biographical, and critical contexts.
Some of the book's value, however, is undermined by Ranta's rather strained attempts to place Chamberlain in a Native American literary tradition. Ranta appears to have approached her scholarship with two predrawn conclusions: that the hardships of Chamberlain's life were due largely to her native ancestry and that these hardships flavored her writings in covert ways. The writings are presented in three categories—"Native Tales and Dream Visions," "Women's Concerns," and "Village Sketches"—and Ranta traces an American Indian influence in each category. Chamberlain's use of humor and irony, for example, are linked to an Algonkian storytelling tradition as well as to the influence of Caroline Kirkland and other local color humorists available to the writer in Lowell's circulating libraries. Ranta offers these multiple contexts for Chamberlain's work in each instance, emphasizing that the published writings of other early American Indian writers (William Apess and Ann Plato, whose African American heritage is more commonly recognized) may have encouraged the mill woman's literary work, even though the most apparent influences on Chamberlain's style and subject matter are those Euro-Americans (Lydia Maria Child, Catherine Sedgwick) whose books were most readily at hand.
Ranta's unspoken concern seems to be that Chamberlain will not be perceived as "Indian enough" for inclusion in the canon of Native American literature. As a result, she foregrounds Chamberlain's Indianness by placing her "Native Tales" (two of the thirty-four pieces) first, by seeking out ways racism might have affected Guppy family history, and by dedicating the book "to the Abenaki people." The question of who is Indian and who is not fits into the larger debate occurring among Americanists and theorists about identity and representation; unfortunately, by not drawing on the terms of this debate, Ranta misses an opportunity to measure their value to scholars attempting to "read" and understand the life story of an "ordinary" American. By repeatedly emphasizing the anti-Native biases of the white Americans with whom Chamberlain lived and worked, Ranta presumes that racism was a day-to-day experience for the mill worker and her family in spite of their long-standing status as assimilated Americans. However, what portion of Chamberlain's colleagues knew or suspected the writer's heritage remains unclear. Also unclear is the degree to which her protests against the widespread mistreatment of native peoples is the result of direct experience or of the New England reform culture within which she worked and wrote. A more productive approach might have been to balance speculations about the role of racism in the writer's life with equivalent conjecture about Chamberlain's potential to capitalize on an Indian past by invoking the American tradition that imagines Indian blood as the noble heritage of the "purest" Americans.
This book's Indianist perspective takes a more productive turn when it considers the complex bicultural position that leads Chamberlain to [End Page 107] portray Native Americans as either noble victims or savage marauders. The brief discussion of bicultural ambivalence in these texts deserves a longer treatment in this book and should be taken up by future scholars as should Ranta's intriguing identification of the often-used but under-discussed "dream vision" genre in nineteenth century popular literature.