- Lucy Larcom and the Time of the Temporal Collapse
In March 1890, under the title “Two New England Women,” the Atlantic Monthly reviewed Lucy Larcom’s A New England Girlhood (1889) alongside a posthumously published collection of Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical writing, Louisa May Alcott: Her Life, Letters, and Journals (1889). The review notes the dramatic differences between the past and present as represented by Larcom’s autobiography and draws attention to her nostalgia for the antebellum past. Writing of A New England Girlhood, the reviewer speculates on the cause of this dramatic disconnect between Larcom’s childhood and the present moment:
Nothing brings before the mind so vividly the rupture between the New England of one generation ago and that of to-day as to read these pages, written by a woman in the vigor of her days, who is recalling both the circumstances of her own childhood, and an order of society which has been swept away, not by any cataclysm, but by the rapid movement of two forces, one from within and one from without.(418)1
The language used by the Atlantic reviewer flirts with a striking claim. In naming the transition from an antebellum to a fin de siècle America a “rupture,” this anonymous reviewer drives home the point that Larcom has lived through, experienced, and now documented in literary autobiography a radical break that far exceeds an everyday generational divide. The various social mechanisms—economic, political, technological, and scientific—by which US society noticeably reorganized itself after the Civil War has “swept away” the past and thus made it available for Larcom’s nostalgic recollection. But, as the reviewer notes, to access this past as an object of either longing or critique requires crossing a rupture.
In this essay I argue that A New England Girlhood demonstrates a potentially historically specific and marked ambivalence toward both the past and [End Page 82] the present that complicates autobiography’s conventional nostalgic impulses and produces scenes of what I call temporal collapse: the coexistence of two or more modes of time that resist the flattening, linear logic of progressive temporality. While Larcom’s autobiography provides an important case study for examining the (re)construction of nineteenth-century temporality, we do need to acknowledge that hers is a highly restricted case. Although her biography, her lived experience, and her published text share certain features with other authors and texts from this historical moment, her class, gender, and race limit claims to broader representativeness.2 As a white, educated, middle-class woman writing at the turn of the century about her childhood in antebellum America, Larcom experiences and articulates ambivalences resulting from what we might consider the vicissitudes of determining social privileges and restrictions. Thus my arguments about A New England Girlhood will be mostly phenomenological: Larcom’s text records and reproduces a highly personal experience of complex time.
Because her autobiographical essay “Among Lowell Mill-Girls: A Reminiscence,” published in the Atlantic in 1881, sparked a growing number of requests for her story, Larcom decided at age sixty-five to write a full-length autobiography. The resulting text, A New England Girlhood: Outlined from Memory, was published as the sixth volume under a new Houghton Mifflin imprint, the Riverside Library for Young People. By the time she wrote this autobiography of her childhood for children, Larcom was a well-known figure in the American literary scene; she had published several books, including a collection of her wide range of poems that had appeared in numerous monthly magazines, a guide to American poetry, and short-story collections; and she had been the editor of Our Young Folks, a monthly children’s magazine.3 A New England Girlhood narrates Larcom’s first nine years spent in the Massachusetts coastal town of Beverly through her removal to Lowell, where at the age of eleven she began working alongside her sisters in the famous textile mills of this riverside industrial town. Her father’s death and his substantial debts necessitated the family’s relocation and the subsequent employment of the young Larcom girls, and the move enabled Larcom’s mother to repay her debts by running...