Tag Archives: inspiration

Kerouac’s Hometown Inspires Charles Dickens

23 Dec

p112sIllustration (not of Mill Girl, fyi) by Marcus Stone, R.A., from Charles Dickens’ American Notes for General Circulation

Many authors have penned Christmas stories, but perhaps the most celebrated is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which has spawned Broadway musicals, a Disney cartoon, a Muppet retelling, a United Nations special by Rod Sterling, a Star Trek version, among so many others.

Is it possible that the inspiration for this Victorian novella came from Jack Kerouac’s hometown?

Natalie McKnight, a dean at Boston University, conducted research with student Chelsea Bray that suggests Dickens was inspired by the stories of the Mills Girls when he visited Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1842.

On one of my trips to Lowell to research Kerouac, my friend George Koumantzelis had given me a stack of newspapers, magazines, and flyers to aid in my studies. Among these was information on UMass Lowell’s seven-month-long celebration of Dickens’ trip to Lowell. I had edited new editions of the British author’s stories including his work American Notes for General Circulation, about 1842 trip to America. About to turn thirty years old, he had traveled from Liverpool (later home to the Beatles!) aboard the RMS Britannia and arrived in Boston, where he then visited mental hospitals, orphanages, and prisons around the country and visited with President Tyler.

Among the dots on his map was Lowell … also known as Mill City. Lowell was founded about twenty years prior to Dickens’ visit, as a center for textile manufacturing. Dickens came about two years after the height of the Industrial Revolution, when there were about 8,000 women working in factories in Lowell. If Dickens was inspired by their stories, it should go without saying that their existence was one of strife. About 80 women were packed into a noisy room from 5 am to 7 pm, working under the direction of two men. However, Dickens actually seemed to think well of the mills.

Dickens wrote:

These girls, as I have said, were all well dressed: and that phrase necessarily includes extreme cleanliness.  They had serviceable bonnets, good warm cloaks, and shawls; and were not above clogs and pattens.  Moreover, there were places in the mill in which they could deposit these things without injury; and there were conveniences for washing.  They were healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women: not of degraded brutes of burden.  If I had seen in one of those mills (but I did not, though I looked for something of this kind with a sharp eye), the most lisping, mincing, affected, and ridiculous young creature that my imagination could suggest, I should have thought of the careless, moping, slatternly, degraded, dull reverse (I have seen that), and should have been still well pleased to look upon her.

The rooms in which they worked, were as well ordered as themselves.  In the windows of some, there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort, as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of.  Out of so large a number of females, many of whom were only then just verging upon womanhood, it may be reasonably supposed that some were delicate and fragile in appearance: no doubt there were.  But I solemnly declare, that from all the crowd I saw in the different factories that day, I cannot recall or separate one young face that gave me a painful impression; not one young girl whom, assuming it to be a matter of necessity that she should gain her daily bread by the labour of her hands, I would have removed from those works if I had had the power.

Though he clearly recognizes that the girls work long and hard, he describes the mills as well as the girls’ dorm rooms in a somewhat positive light, mentioning pianos and libraries.

It would seem that the mills girls were of a literary mindset. Beyond just mentioning the library, Dickens goes on to say:

Of the merits of the Lowell Offering as a literary production, I will only observe, putting entirely out of sight the fact of the articles having been written by these girls after the arduous labours of the day, that it will compare advantageously with a great many English Annuals.  It is pleasant to find that many of its Tales are of the Mills and of those who work in them; that they inculcate habits of self-denial and contentment, and teach good doctrines of enlarged benevolence.  A strong feeling for the beauties of nature, as displayed in the solitudes the writers have left at home, breathes through its pages like wholesome village air; and though a circulating library is a favourable school for the study of such topics, it has very scant allusion to fine clothes, fine marriages, fine houses, or fine life.

What Dean McKnight and Bray suggest is that Dickens lifted ideas from these girls’ stories. Kevin Hartnett at The Boston Globe writes:

Now, new research is suggesting that the book may have borrowed—quite liberally—from the amateur writings of the millworkers he visited.

After reading an obscure literary journal published by Lowell textile workers and comparing it to Dickens’s novella, a Boston University professor and student are arguing that some of the most memorable elements of Dickens’s story—the ghosts, the tour through the past, Scrooge’s sudden reconsideration of his life—closely resemble plot points in stories by the city’s “mill girls” that Dickens read after his visit.

They propose that the ghost trope of A Christmas Carol stems from several selections in The Lowell Offering. Comparing the Mills Girls’ stories with Dickens’, they have found several parallels that they believe go beyond mere coincidence or literary tradition.

Their research has created quite a stir online, and they haven’t even written their paper yet, let alone published it.

It’s well worth visiting The Mill Girls and Immigrant Exhibit at the Morgan Cultural Center to find out more about the fascinating lives these factory workers led.

The Morgan Cultural Center also happens to be where one of Kerouac’s typewriters reside. While Kerouac began writing about a hundred years after Dickens’ visit, he too was inspired by the Mill Girls. He didn’t want to be a mill rat. He wanted to get out of Lowell, to do something more with his life. As a struggling writer, he did eventually end up working for a short time at a mill in America, but he continually worked on his writing. While Dickens had come over to Boston by ship from Liverpool, Kerouac went to Liverpool as a merchant seaman. Like Dickens, Kerouac toured America, writing his own travelogue full of social commentary.

 

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

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Character Growth in “On the Road”

27 Aug

A friend of mine told me he was reading On the Road and couldn’t figure out what the point of the novel was.  He was only partway through and wanted to know if the characters ever grow.

I thought it was such a fascinating question!

As I’ve posted before, I do believe that the narrator, Sal Paradise, grows.  He is exceedingly complicated.  He’s zigzagging across America, refusing to conform to society.  And yet he keeps stating that’s what he so desperately wants.  He wants the house and the wife.  Likewise, he’s Sal Paradise—oh what a name!—is out cavorting with a car thief, and yet he’s constantly thinking about God and heaven and the holy.

I guess I can kind of relate to Sal Paradise a bit, and maybe that’s why I feel like the whole notion of whether his character grows is a complicated one.  I so often feel torn between two things that don’t seem to fit together.

I don’t know if it’s an American thing or a contemporary reader thing, or both, but it seems like we have this notion that characters have to change, grow, evolve.  We want them to become people by the end of the story.  …I guess that’s because we want that for our own lives.  We like inspirational stories—be they self-help books or Hollywood movies.  We think if this lowly character can overcome this-or-that, maybe we can too.

But how often does life play out like an inspirational book or movie?  Isn’t it more often the case that life is pretty mundane?  That we continually struggle with the same issues over and over again?  Aren’t we always searching for meaning?  Significance?  Trying to understand ourselves better?

I suppose if I’m honest, I do want to like the characters I read about, and I do want them to grow.  But I don’t think they have to.  I think part of what I love about On the Road has more to do with the language.  I’m not a huge fan of Kerouac’s poetry—though I do enjoy a few of his haikus—but I love the poetry imbued in On the Road.  I love reading his novel because of how sensual, visual it is.  I feel like I’m looking out the car window with him.  I don’t really care whether he’s in California or Mexico, whether he’s picking cotton or hitchhiking.  It’s all just so beautiful.

Writer on Pinterest

27 Feb

I’m involved in social media at the publishing house in which I work, and we’re obsessed right now with Pinterest.  Have you heard of it?  It’s basically a virtual corkboard to “pin” ideas to, an inspiration board.

Galleycat has a great (and ever-evolving) write up on it called Pinterest Tips for Writers.

I decided to get in on the action and have signed up for Pinterest as a way to create boards based on the different characters and settings I write about.  I created boards based on Beat-related imagery as well as imagery related to my memoir.  I also made a board called Lit Life, which features books, glasses, desks, typewriters, wine!, you know … delicious imagery associated with reveling in writing and reading.

One of my favorite Pinterest boards to create was one called My Sixteen-Year-Old Self.  It’s got a lot of photos of bands I used to listen to (remember Green Day before they were on Broadway?!), the fashion I wore (or at least wished I had been brave enough to wear – hello, baby-doll dresses and combat boots!), and the things I did (walk up and down the railroad tracks).  Although my memoir mainly focuses on my twenties, there’s a bit of a bildungsroman feel to it—I’m a late bloomer—and to understand my twenties, you have to understand my youth.

Are you on Pinterest?  How are you using it for your writing?  What do you think of it in terms of how it affects the reader experience?  Does getting snippets of imagery make you curious about an upcoming book or does imagery ruin your opportunity to imagine the characters and the scenes in a book for yourself?

 

PS: Don’t forget I’m also on Twitter!

Writing Wednesday: Your Taste Is Killer

23 Nov

For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good.  It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.  And your taste is why your work disappoints you. …It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. 

~ Ira Glass

via A Lovely Being

Tasty Tuesday: Visual Inspiration in Your Cupboard

25 Oct

While I was browsing through all the wonderful posts on Black Eiffel the other day, I came across one that I just had to share with you.  In “Method,” graphic designer Rachel Jones reveals that she pins up food articles and recipes on a hidden wall in her kitchen.

It got me thinking that the inside of the pantry cabinet is the perfect place to tape up photographic inspiration for recipes.  I’m kind of a creature of habit when it comes to cooking.  I forget that I know how to make all sorts of delicious foods, and instead cook up a rotation of angel hair with sauce, fried eggs with onions and tomatoes, rice and beans, and pierogis.  Maybe if I tape up a few magazine cutouts of some new recipes or even just of foods I know how to cook but never think of making, there will be a little more variety to my meals.  I’ll see the inspiration every time I reach for a box of pasta in the cabinet, but the magazines will still be hidden away so I have that nice, streamlined look to my kitchen.

So much easier than poring over my cookbooks, searching for something—anything—to inspire a meal when I’m already hungry!

Writing Wednesday: Who Is the Patron Saint of Your Writing?

23 Mar

Detail of Turf One's painting "Holy Ghost."

“Who is the patron saint of your writing?” my lit instructor inquired.

I’m taking a class that looks at how classic works of literature inspire contemporary works.  We look, for example, at how Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge informed Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.  It seems natural that great authors would inspire other great writers to write either in the same style or the same theme.  And yet, my instructor’s question has had me thinking for days.

I’ve never thought of my own writing as being inspired by another writer.  I don’t try to write like my favorite authors, though I’m sure I must’ve done it subconsciously many times.

In a way, this rejection of sameness is reflective of my life in general.  I was the English major in undergrad who hung out with all the premed students.  I was the Greek kid in middle school with all the Korean and Japanese friends.  It never occurred to me to hang out with people who had my identical interests and culture, and it never occurred to me to try to write like another writer.

Except maybe Gregory Corso.

When I was 22 I wrote an homage to Corso’s “I Am 25.” It was pretty much a rip off of Corso’s poem, but it was meant to be.  Corso writes about stealing the poems of Shelley, Chatterton, and Rimbaud, and I more or less swapped out the names of these “old poetmen” for those of Corso, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.

Along those Beat Generation lines, one of my favorite writers is Jack Kerouac.  Read these lines from On the Road:

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

“The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death.”

It pains me how beautiful these words are.  While so much has been made of Kerouac’s subject matter and improvisational style, I find that it is his lyrical descriptions and, yes, the rhythm of his prose that captivate me the most.

I have zig-zagged across the country, visiting places Kerouac visited, and I’ve written short travel articles, but I don’t write road-trip novels.  I would like very much to write about America, though.  I’ve written about Kerouac, sure, but I haven’t (consciously) attempted to write in his style.  I love punctuation rules too much.

I would probably choose Jack Kerouac to be the patron saint of my writing, but in reality, my writing voice comes out more like Sue Monk Kidd or, as my mom has pointed out, Donald Miller and Anna Quindlen.

Others tell me to read David SedarisHe’s Greek!  He writes about his family! And indeed, I do see his humor sometimes creeping into my personal essays.  One time, right after reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, I will confess I conjured up his style for an article I wrote, but I fear that was only similar to off-key humming of a song that just played on the radio.

Must I choose just one patron saint?

I admire great writers, and I love to reference them and turn other readers on to them, but I don’t think I could ever choose just one to be my patron saint.  I’m way too much of a schizophrenic writer for that.

Who is your patron saint of writing?