Charles Dickens Returns to Lowell

I remember quite well when Charles Dickens made his famous tour of America. Not that I was there, mind you — this was the mid-1800s. But being a kid growing up in drug-ravaged, crime-ravaged New Haven in the 1970s and 1980s, one thing you always learned in school is that Dickens came to the Elm City, pronounced it as “a fine town” in his book American Notes, and called Hillhouse Avenue the most beautiful street in America. At a time when the present was grim, these were welcome huzzahs for a kid proud of his hometown (still am) but wondering what happened to its noble past. Decades later, that’s why I snapped to attention when hearing that the city of Lowell was taking part in the worldwide celebration of the bicentenary of Dickens’s birth.

Like New Haven, Lowell has made great strides after decades of hard knocks, and it’s only fitting that England’s patron saint of hardscrabble city life is being heralded in this Merrimack Valley town. By 1842, when Dickens visited, he had already written such seminal works as Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickelby, and he was like a Victorian-era Bruce Springsteen: wealthy, successful, and world-famous for writing about the poor and unheralded working-class. He shed some glaring spotlights on the underside of the Industrial Revolution, and such insights would have resonated in textile titan Lowell as in London or Manchester.

After visiting Lowell, he devoted much of a whole chapter of American Notes to the city and its factories. He calls it “a large, populous, thriving place.” If anything, it seems a little raw, unfinished, but Dickens is obviously impressed by the order of the factories. Though he says he has “carefully abstained from drawing a comparison between these factories and our own land,” he does exactly that and Lowell comes out on the positive end. Dickens says so in the bluntest, broadest terms: “The contrast would be a strong one, for it would be between the Good and Evil, the living light and deepest shadow …. But I only the more earnestly adjure all those whose eyes may rest on these pages, to pause and reflect upon the difference between this town and those great haunts of desperate misery …”

Yup, Lowell showed those Limeys a thing or two, and now it’s celebrating Dickens for seven months, starting today. For starters, UMass Lowell and the Lowell National Historical Park have teamed up to curate the exhibit Dickens and Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation, on display at the park’s Boott Gallery through October 20. It’ll feature rare Dickens artifacts on loan from the Dickens Museum of London, and also from stateside institutions as the MFA, the New York Public Library, and the American Antiquarian Society. The highlight should surely be the portrait of a 30-year-old Dickens by Bostonian painter Francis Alexander. After all, it was painted in 1842, so you can see what the man looked like himself when he traveled by road, river, and rail through our region.

Aside from that flagship exhibit, Lowell’s going all-out, with the widest and weirdest array of events, from wine-tastings to a steampunk fashion show. You can learn how to play Victorian parlor and lawn games, watch puppet shows or Dickens’s one-act comedy or screenings of Dickens-influenced films, take a school group to learn at industrial-line workshops, and see how Dickens gets updated by manga artists (that’s one mash-up exhibit I’m quite curious to see). And then, of course, for the more academically inclined, they’ve lined up many speakers and discussion panels covering topics from how Lowell impressed Dickens enough to influence his later work and the role Catherine Dickens played in her husband’s life.

It’s wonderful to see the city join in such a celebration with cities in countries all over the world, from the UK to France and Germany to Australia and New Zealand to Pakistan and China. Dickens’s role in your town is something to be proud of, and by taking on a mind-boggling schedule like this, it looks like Lowell will be doing Dickens proud as well.