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Lowell exhibit celebrates Charles Dickens’s one-day visit in 1842

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2012
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LOWELL - Charles Dickens took this city by storm on Feb. 3, 1842. Now he is returning for a longer stay.

The wildly popular British author was already the talk of Boston on his first trip to the United States, and his high-profile one-day visit to Lowell found him touring mills and factories, a boardinghouse and a hospital, and lunching at the Washington House and Tavern.

Dickens’s triumphant, months-long American tour resulted in his controversial book “American Notes for General Circulation,’’ which attacked slavery and cast a sharp eye on other facets of the national character. But Dickens, who spent part of his childhood working in a grim London boot-polish warehouse, was actually impressed by the conditions in Lowell’s workplaces.

“Dickens said that his day in Lowell was the happiest day he spent in America, and I think that was in part because he saw a vision of reform here that appealed to him,’’ said Diana Archibald, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and one of the organizers of Dickens in Lowell, the lengthy celebration of his brief visit.

“He saw a factory model that was different from the ‘great haunts of desperate misery’ of England - that’s his quote in ‘American Notes,’ ’’ Archibald said. “And he was charmed by the female workers, the mill girls as we call them, and by seeing a fresh, young city.’’

As part of worldwide celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth, the author of “Great Expectations’’ and “A Christmas Carol’’ will be feted in Lowell with a museum exhibit, a mural, speakers and performances, a citywide readalong, and a series of steampunk festivities.

The centerpiece is the exhibition “Dickens and Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation,’’ which opens Friday in the Boott Gallery in the Lowell National Historical Park and runs through Oct. 20.

Cocurated by Archibald and David Blackburn, chief of cultural resources and programs at the national park, the exhibit focuses on how his time in the Bay State affected Dickens.

It features some key artifacts. Constantly busy, Dickens sat for only one painter during his 1842 visit, Francis Alexander of Boston. That portrait has not been exhibited in Boston in three decades, but the Museum of Fine Arts is loaning it for this exhibit.

Also on display, thanks to the Charles Dickens Museum in London, is a pencil drawing of the then-four Dickens children by British artist Daniel Maclise. Catherine Dickens, the writer’s wife, had been reluctant to leave the children behind to come to America, and the cherished picture was displayed in all their American lodgings to remind them of home.

The exhibit will also include a replica dress of one of the mill girls who so impressed Dickens with their lively spirit.

At the end of the exhibit is an area where visitors can sit down on modern furniture, take a breather, and read a bit of the author’s work.

“We’re trying to show Dickens in a modern context. It’s not a Victorian sitting room, presupposing Dickens is something from the past and no longer relevant,’’ Archibald said.

The opening weekend also includes a talk by Florian Schweizer, director of London’s Charles Dickens Museum, a Dickens farce performed by Theatre KAPOW, and Dickens walking tours of Lowell, led by national park rangers.

The Lowell activities are as varied as a Dickens cast of characters, including a scholarly Dickens Society Symposium July 13-15 at the Tsongas Industrial History Center. The Girls Inc. enrichment program has used the celebration to spur local girls’ interest in literacy - by cooking a Catherine Dickens recipe and creating modern manga art based on Dickens.

October performances offering reinterpretations of Dickens by new immigrant cultures will feature the Angkor Dance Troupe and the Nigerian Association of Merrimack Valley.

The Pollard Memorial Library is using “Great Expectations’’ to kick off a Lowell Reads program that is hoped to be the start of an annual community reading program.

“I think ‘Great Expectations’ has a lot of potential to reach a lot of people, in that it is episodic. It’s told the way HBO shows are told now,’’ said community planning librarian Sean Thibodeau. “He wrote it in a serial form . . . with a lot of cliffhangers.’’

The Revolving Museum is also hosting a series of steampunk galas and art activities celebrating Dickens via the subculture that bridges the Victorian and the futuristic.

“The chances that one of the kids who walks through the door of the Revolving Museum is a Dickens fan are very, very slight,’’ said museum executive director Mauricio Cordero. “So if we can make Dickens exciting to them, and they can create something original and expressive that’s from their point of view but informed by one of the greats in literature . . . then I think that sets them up for creating really compelling art in the future.’’

Time has marched on since Dickens’s one-day visit, in good and bad ways.

“The Washington Tavern has been demolished. It’s a Dunkin’ Donuts now,’’ Archibald said with a rueful chuckle. “The carpet factory that he visited is now the national park visitors center, though, and the starting point for our walking tour.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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