Thursday, November 21, 2013

Writing and Work: The Lowell Offering as example

Before I got into graduate school, I worked at a glass factory. Pint glasses, beer mugs, wine goblets, coffee cups—we made everything.  It was tough work that kept you moving. And at the end of the day, your body ached so that when you got home, you craved simple comforts: a hoppy beer, a plate of cheese fries, a hot bath.
I did not like this job.  Two things (other than the money) kept me coming back. 1. It was temporary. 2. It required little brain space. The work was not mindless, no, I don’t mean that.  What I mean is that once you got into a rhythm, a groove, it became rote: you could execute the tasks with minimal thought. This meant you could think. About writing, about stories, imagined or real. And at lunch you could read: that stack of neglected New Yorkers, whatever short story collection you’d plucked from the library. Reading and thinking (and not the academic, scholarly kind thinking, but the fantastic, imaginary sort of thinking) were luxuries I valued immensely.
At the factory I worked in Northern Kansas, not many people read. Not just at work, in the break room, as I did, but at all. The stack of books I hauled around was an anomaly. So when people saw me reading my tattered paperback of “Cannery Row” at lunchtime, they commented.
“Why are you reading? School project?”
This is not to say that the people I worked with were illiterate. No, they were not that. They were smart. They were smart but when they thought of reading they thought of school work, of paper work, of something they didn’t have to do anymore.  This is not surprising. A fourth of the country fails to read a book a year. And most Americans read on average four books a year. And so it goes.
Sometimes it’s hard to imagine another America. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, an America where factory workers read voraciously. It’s hard to imagine an America where factory workers organize improvement circles and literary societies where women talk about poetry and write essays on weather, friendship, life and work. I’m talking about the Industrial Revolution. In particular, I’m talking about Lowell Massachusetts: The City of Spindles.
In 1840, American factory life produced an odd thing: the Lowell Offering, a quasi literary magazine that published poetry and prose written by workers, all of them women. According to its own tagline, the Lowell Offering was “a repository of original articles written by females employed in the mills.”
The women writers—the stitchers, doffers, spinners, spoolers and weavers ages 10 to 35—did not imagine themselves as great writers, or even, sometimes, competent ones. But they wrote nonetheless, sometimes peppering their prose with defense statements, such as the one Betsey Chamberlain gives us in her article “A Letter About Old Maids:” 
I shall care little what opinions are entertained or expressed in relation to the style of the composition, if the moral be remembered and regarded.”  But careful perusal of the publication shows us that the style of the composition was thoughtfully rendered: precise word choice, skillful cadence.  In an essay on the evolution of the Offering, one of its writers, Harriet Farley, speaks of her own admiration of the journal—“They appeared to us as good as anybody’s writings. They sounded as if written by people who had never worked at all,” she writes. And what strikes me about the sentence is the mere assumption, perhaps a national lingering one, that workers and writers are two different things. That those who write only do so because their hands are free to pick up the pen.
Every writer dreams of getting away, of finally having time. Time to write, to think, to read, to dream, to rewrite. But this assumption that you have to step out of life in order to write well is a fallacious one.  It ignores the fact that it’s out of life that art emerges.
One must isolate to produce art, yes, but this isolation mustn’t be prolonged. I think of Kafka, who kept a job throughout his literary career. At times the job diminished the frequency of his literary productions, but I can’t help but think it also fueled and shaped them in meaningful ways. Examples abound: Borges was a librarian; Joseph Heller, wrote promotional copy for an ad agency, penning the first chapter of “Catch 22” during downtime at work; William Carlos Williams worked as a doctor and his best short story (essay), “The Use of Force” is about his job.
I do not mean to glorify work or glamorize life at Lowell.  Factory standards were not ideal, I know: Women worked 12 hour days, more than 70 hours a week with meager living conditions. And even the “Lowell Offering” was not a purely harmless product; factory owners recognized its potential as a PR tool, inspiring such articles as “The Pleasures of Factory Life.” But it’s an interesting artifact nonetheless. It’s notable for the portrait it paints of America during the Industrial Revolution, and for the window it gives us into the blossoming of feminist thought. But it also provides a valuable glimpse into the lives of a group of workers who found the time to write.
I think some of our best writing emerges from a place of yearning. And sometimes that yearning is a product of wishing you were somewhere else. I think of “A Merrimack Reverie,” a short burst of an essay that printed in volume two of the Lowell Offering. In “Reverie” the narrator falls asleep at work and dreams of turning into a mermaid—“I began to sail up the stream,” she writes. The journey takes her into Lake Winnipisseogo, where she admires the beauty of the water and the shores and the bay and harbors. After time, she knows she must return to work, to the City of Spindles. She begins to “leisurely retrace (her) course.” We get the sense that the narrator doesn’t want to return.
Knowing she must, the narrator thrusts all of her energy into a meditation on the ocean: “…We see the whole human race embarked on the restless stream of time, driving with rapid current towards the vast ocean of eternity—now tossed by the billows of passion and folly which threaten every moment to dash them against the rocks of contention and strife, or to swallow them in the whirlpool of vice and dissipation.”   

The excitement of the essay tamps down once the narrator realizes she’s at work. The prose loses steam. Everything becomes peaceful. The narrator had imagined the entire reverie while at work, her location has not changed, but her imagination is no longer aloft.  Her head fills with the sounds of the factory, which she tells herself are pleasant noises—“the machinery in our room rattling away merrily as ever.”  But the reader knows to distrust this: it was the machinery and its “merrily” rattling that had sent her into fantasy, into thought, about writing, about stories, imagined and real. 

Chansi Long is a former journalist who spent a stint working at a glass factory. She's an MFA candidate studying at the University of Iowa. 

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