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Legacy 18.2 (2001) 182-192

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"Poetry Experienced":
Lucy Larcom's Poetic Dwelling in A New England Girlhood

Jessica Lewis

Indiana University

In the preface to her autobiography A New England Girlhood: Outlined from Memory (1889 ), Lucy Larcom writes that her autobiography may have been written already in her verses: "In them, I have found the most natural and free expression of myself. They have seemed to set my life to music for me, a life that has always had to be occupied with many things besides writing" (8). Larcom's verses thus operate on a dual level. They offer an expansive forum in which to express her "self," and they add an element of music, of beauty and artfulness, to a life often occupied with the quotidian. For the most part, Larcom critics have ended their discussions of her poetry and autobiography at this level, rightly acknowledging her as an able yet humble versifier of the nineteenth century. Yet Larcom's use of poetry in her autobiography represents something more interesting than this familiar assessment suggests. If in writing her verses she found "the most free expression" of her "self," why should she write an autobiography? She continues in the preface, "My 'must-have' was poetry. From the first, life meant that to me. . . . [P]oetry is . . . an atmosphere in which every life may expand" (10 ). Thus, Larcom asserts that poetry for her is not only an act of writing, but also an act of living. I will argue, then, that her autobiography becomes a kind of model of "poetic dwelling," as Martin Heidegger describes it in his essay ". . . Poetically Man Dwells. . . ." A New England Girlhood both exemplifies and illuminates Heidegger's thesis that "[p]oetry is what really lets us dwell" (215 ), as Larcom illustrates how one comes to "live" poetry in this way (for, as she says, she was often occupied with things other than writing) and how it comes to "live in" one.

A New England Girlhood was originally written at the request of Larcom's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, as a contribution to the Riverside Library for Young People (Kort 25 ). In it, she was asked to focus specifically on her experience as a mill-worker, keeping in mind an audience of young girls. Her awareness of these stipulations is obvious in her preface. She describes her audience as "girls of all ages" and writes that "whatever special interest this little narrative of mine may have is due to the social influences under which I was reared, and particularly to the prominent place held by both work and religion in New England half a century ago" (8 ). Most of Larcom's critics explore her autobiography in light of these stipulations. Larcom's only recent biographer, Shirley Marchalonis, writes that the result of her publisher's [End Page 182] suggestion is "a controlled nostalgia‚ÄĒnot a simplistic urging to return to the past, but a looking back with love on parallel childhoods, her own and that of the country" (251 ). Carol Holly explores Larcom's identity in terms of "affiliation," positing her autobiography with its specific audience of women as "an expressly intimate, interactive, and female event" (219 ). However, other recent critics have examined the ways Larcom's autobiography perhaps transcends the reductiveness of the project suggested to her by Houghton Mifflin. Rose Norman reads A New England Girlhood as a kind of K√ľnstleromane in which Larcom "filters all of [her story] through her lens of the childhood self she sees developing as a poet," a self which conflicted with the cultural ideals of womanhood she needed to uphold for her young female audience (108 , 109 ).

Amy Kort suggests a different, subtle subversion of the proposed project in the text, arguing that Larcom writes herself out of any generic tradition in which her publisher at the time or modern critics might attempt to place her. She argues that Larcom presents a fragmented and imagistic kind of "self" within a text that "equally conceals and reveals the self it purports to describe," thus, ironically exposing "a...


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