There are two Harriets who are notable figures in the intellectual history of Lowell, Mass. Both were writers in the mid-nineteenth century and both are associated with the high tide of young women factory workers that flooded Lowell when the innovative textile mills linked up in a mile-long, multi-story red-brick wall along the Merrimack River. Harriet Curtis (1813-1889) is the focus here, written about by Harriet Hanson Robinson (1825-1911).
The reference to “then Dracut” suggests that Curtis lived in a part of the town of Dracut (where British immigrants had settled in the 1600s) that was later annexed by Lowell (founded in the 1820s) as the neighborhood called Centralville.
What interests me in the passage below is the way women writers formed a community, what we might call a network, around a literary magazine they produced. Dracut has a thin literary history as far as I know, so the existence of a “literary centre” intrigues me. Why is that? Because it makes a connection for me, and in a small way provides a footing or a piece of a footing for my attempt more than 100 years later. I grew up in Dracut from the mid-1950s through the 70s and did not know of any writers in town except for a newspaper reporter or two. I jumped into unknown water. I may not have said it in so many words, but I’m sure I had a sense that I was an unlikely writing candidate. We didn’t have major league baseball prospects being recruited in the town either.
With no literary tradition in the immediate town, I looked to the region, the river valley, where the tradition is almost intimidating in its greatness even as it inspires: Bradstreet, Whittier, Frost, Kerouac. Anthology regulars. American Literature names. World class authors. These were stars to steer by.
Gradually, after college when I was living in Lowell, I learned about contemporaries from Dracut doing the same thing and met some who are friends of mine now. Ann Fox Chandonnet, Jane Brox, Susan April, Sarah Sousa, and Jonathan C. Stevens stand out today as writers with Dracut roots. The late poet Bob Schaefer is another. I’m sure there are younger writers in the town whose names I don’t yet know.
Co-editor of The Lowell Offering magazine, novelist, and newspaper reporter, Harriet F. Curtis lived nearby in the town of Dracut, Mass., in the mid-1840s, even as she is more often associated with the peak years of the textile mill-era in Lowell.
In her memoir, Loom & Spindle (1898), Harriet H. Robinson writes: “I first knew Miss Curtis in about 1844, when she and Miss Farley lived in what was then Dracut, in a little house embowered in roses, which they had named ‘Shady Nook.’ The house was a sort of literary centre to those who had become interested in The Lowell Offering and its writers; and there were many who came from places both near and far to call on the editors, and meet the ‘girls’ who by their pens had made themselves quite noted.” There’s a letter by Curtis reprinted in the book with the heading: “Sunny Hill, Dracut, Jan. 7, 1849.”
Among Curtis’s novels are Kate in Search of a Husband, a Novel by a Lady Chrysalis; The Smugglers; Truth’s Pilgrimage, His Wanderings in America and in Other Lands (an allegory); and Jessie’s Flirtations. Another of her books was S.S.S. Philosophy. She co-edited the Lowell Offering for three years, edited the Lowell Casket for a year, and was associate editor of Vox Populi, a pro-labor newspaper in Lowell, in 1854 and 1855. Curtis’s articles were published widely, including in the New York Tribune, Home Journal in New York, Lowell American, and Lowell Journal. Web links point to sources of information about these women for those who are interested in learning more about them.