Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Wheaton College
College History

Academics

1854

Lucy Larcom

Lucy Larcom was hired by Mrs. Metcalf in 1854, and introduced the study of English Literature at Wheaton.  Famed as a poet, author, and editor, Larcom is remembered for her autobiography A New England Girlhood, still in print, in which she describes her youth working in the Lowell mills.

Lucy Larcom was born in 1824, in Beverly, Massachusetts, the ninth of ten children of Benjamin and Lois Barrett Larcom; she began writing poems and short stories at age seven.  Her father was a sea captain, but died in 1832. Mrs. Larcom moved to Lowell in 1835 with Emeline and three of her younger daughters, including Lucy, who was then nine years old.  Mrs. Larcom managed a boardinghouse for the Lawrence Manufacturing Corporation, while the girls worked in the mill.  Later, when Mrs. Larcom returned to Beverly, the girls remained in Lowell, so that they could continue to work and send money in their monthly letters to their mother.

Lucy attended school for part of the year, working the remaining months in the Lawrence Mills as a doffer (replacing the filled bobbins with empty bobbins on spinning machines). Lucy next became a spinner and then moved to the "dressing" room, where the threads of the warp beam were coated with starch to strengthen them.

Emeline, Lucy, and probably sisters Abigail and Octavia attended the First Congregational Church and joined the church-sponsored "Improvement Circle," which developed a literary magazine called the Operative's Magazine.  Emeline and Lucy were frequent contributors, writing articles, editorials, and poetry for that magazine and later for The Lowell Offering. Lucy's articles attracted the attention of poet, editor and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier, who was then conducting a Free-soil paper in Lowell, and who encouraged her literary efforts.  Later Whittier would become Larcom's literary mentor, beginning a life-long friendship and literary collaboration.  Lucy wrote of her ten years in the Lowell mills in "Among Lowell Mill-Girls: A Reminiscence" (Atlantic Monthly, November 1881), the autobiographical A New England Girlhood (1889), and a long blank-verse narrative An Idyl of Work (1875).

At twenty-two, Lucy left the hills and mountains of New England in 1846, moving with Emeline and her husband Rev. George Spaulding to the "Looking-Glass Prairie" area of Illinois. Now St. Clair and Madison Counties, east of St. Louis, a visiting Englishman described Looking Glass Prairie as a place "where long reaches of green undulating prairie stretched away until they became lost in the haze of distance; [it] stretched out before us like an ocean .... one vast plain, uninterrupted by tree or bush, as far as the eye could reach."

Lucy taught in district schools, and attended Monticello Female Seminary in (now) Godfrey, IL, as a part-time-student and assistant-teacher. She graduated in 1852, at a period when the Seminary, under the leadership of Miss Philena Fobes, was at the height of its academic and cultural achievement, dubbed “the ornament of the West.” During this period, a long-standing romantic relationship with Frank Spaulding ended; Lucy's choice of a career and the freedom it gave her removed her from women's traditional sphere of marriage and children. Returning to Massachusetts in 1852, Larcom entered Boston’s literary world, publishing her first book, Similitudes, from the Ocean and Prairie in 1853, and publishing poems and articles in numerous national magazines. Larcom was an ardent abolitionist, and submitted a poem to an 1855 contest organized by the New England Emigrant Aid Company for the best poem written to encourage anti-slavery emigrants to settle Kansas.  Her entry, "Call to Kansas," won the prize, a fifty dollar gold piece, and was printed in many newspapers, and on handkerchiefs to be handed out at Free-Soil rallies.

Needing a steady income, Lucy took a position at Wheaton Female Seminary in Norton, MA, where she taught English literature, composition and other subjects from 1854 to 1863, and from 1865 to 1867, followed by many years as a visiting lecturer. Larcom's teaching style was revolutionary and influential at Wheaton: she taught by lecture, reading and discussion, rather than by memorization and recitation.    In 1855, she initiated the student literary magazine Rushlight, still in publication, and founded the intellectual discussion group "Psyche" and compiled the Wheaton Library's first catalogue in 1857. Her popularity with Wheaton students interfered with her ability to write, and she came to deplore living in the boarding house. Larcom remained a life-long friend of the Seminary's founder, Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, and wrote the Seminary's 50th anniversary Wheaton Seminary: A Semi-Centennial Sketch in 1885.

After leaving Norton because of failing health, Larcom pursued her writing career, publishing poems and "newsletters" in newspapers; compiling anthologies of her own, Whittier's, and others' works; co-editing journals; lecturing; and occasionally teaching. Lucy became assistant editor to the Boston magazine, Our Young Folks, in 1865. Becoming editor-in-chief only a year later, Lucy conducted the magazine until 1874, and contributed regularly to St. Nicholas Magazine. Her works were also published in many other leading periodicals of her time, such as: The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, and The New England Magazine.  She published a book, A New England Girlhood, in which she describes her early life and mill experiences.

Larcom’s independent life-style was hard-won; she was never wealthy, and although she would never admit to having a "career," her ability to support herself through writing was still unusual for an unmarried woman of her era.  Throughout her life she struggled with loneliness and self-doubt, overcoming them through work and faith.  Beginning in 1891, Larcom suffered increasingly frequent bouts of illness; in November 1892, she sorted her papers, destroying everything that seemed too private, including her journals from the 1860s and 1870s with their references to Frank Spaulding.  Murmuring the word "freedom," Lucy died on 17 April 1893.

A memorial number of The Rushlight, edited by Susan Hayes Ward, a student of Larcom's and then assistant editor of The New York Independent, was reviewed in the New York Times on 30 June 1894. The article described Larcom's teaching as leaving an "imperishable impression upon the body of girls thus thrown under her powerful influence." The Memorial Number includes a biography of Larcom, quotations from her letters, and descriptions of her classes and lectures.

Larcom Hall, built in 1908, is named in honor of Lucy Larcom, as is a room in Mary Lyon Hall, made possible through a 1983 gift from her great-grand-niece Lois Larcom Horn, Class of 1928, and her classmates.

Larcom's published works include:

“Recollections of L.L.” Lowell Offering [1845]: 211-16, 220-23.

Lottie's Thought-Book. Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1858.

Ships in the Mist, and Other Stories.  Boston: Hoyt: 1860.

Similitudes, from the Ocean and Prairie.  Boston: Hoyt, 1860.

Leila Among the Mountains.  Boston: Hoyt, 1861.

Breathings of a Better Life.  Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1866.

Poems. Boston: Fields, Osgood, 1868.

Child-Life.  Ed. with J. G. Whittier.  Boston: Osgood, 1871.

Child-Life in Prose. Ed. with J. G. Whittier.  Boston: Osgood, 1873.

Childhood Songs.  Boston: Osgood, 1875.

An Idyl of Work.  Boston: Osgood, 1875.

Roadside Poems for Summer Travelers.  Ed. Boston: Osgood, 1876.

Songs of Three Centuries. Ed. with J. G. Whittier.  Boston: Osgood, 1876.

Hillside and Seaside in Poetry.  Ed.  Boston: Osgood, 1877.

Landscape in American Poetry.  New York: D. Appleton, 1879.

Wild Roses of Cape Ann and Other Poems.  Boston: Houghton Osgood, 1880.

“Among Lowell Mill-Girls.”  Atlantic Monthly 48 [1881]: 593-612.

“American Factory Life-Past, Present and Future.” Journal of Social Science, 16 [1882]: 141-46.

Larcom's Poetical Works [also titled Lucy Larcom's Poems].  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1884.

Semi-Centennial Sketch of Wheaton Seminary.  Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1885.

Beckonings for Every Day.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1886.

Easter Messengers.  New York: White, Stokes, and Allen, 1886.

See also Daniel Dulaney Addison's Lucy Larcom: Life, Letters and Diary, and the University of Virginia Library's The Poetical Works of Lucy Larcom.

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