Lucy Larcom

Lucy Larcom was hired by Caroline Cutler Metcalf in 1854 and introduced the study of English Literature at Wheaton.

Born in 1824 in Beverly, Massachusetts, the ninth of ten children of Benjamin and Lois Barrett Larcom, Lucy 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 boarding house 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 home 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 also probably her 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).

In 1846, at age twenty-two, Lucy left New England, moving with Emeline and her husband, Rev. George Spaulding, to the “Looking-Glass Prairie” area of Illinois east of St. Louis, MO.

Lucy taught in district schools and attended Monticello Female Seminary, dubbed “the ornament of the West,” in 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. During this period, her 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 after graduation, 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, 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. However, her popularity with Wheaton students interfered with her ability to write, and she came to deplore living in the Boarding House.

In 1855, she initiated the student literary magazine Rushlight, still in publication, and founded the intellectual discussion group, “Psyche.” She compiled the Wheaton’s first library catalog in 1857.

Larcom became assistant editor of the Boston magazine, Our Young Folks, in 1865. Becoming editor-in-chief only a year later, Lucy conducted the magazine until 1874, and also contributed regularly to St. Nicholas Magazine. Her works were published in many other leading periodicals of the time, such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine and New England Magazine

Larcom remained a life-long friend of Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, and wrote Wheaton Seminary: A Semi-Centennial Sketch in 1885 on the occasion of Wheaton’s semicentennial.

After leaving Norton due to failing health, Larcom pursued her writing career, publishing poems and newsletters in newspapers and compiling anthologies of her own, Whittier’s and others’ works, co-editing journals, lecturing and, occasionally, teaching.

Larcom’s independent lifestyle 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 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 issue 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.”

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-grandniece Lois Larcom Horn 1928 and her classmates.