By Marie Donovan
LOWELL -- When he made the first of his two visits to America in 1842, then 29-year-old Charles Dickens was such a mega-celebrity as the pre-eminent literary star of his era, crowds lined the streets hoping to catch a glimpse of him.
What's that you say? Bah humbug?
Sure, they went gaga when Paul McCartney and company crossed the pond for the first time over a century later, too. But Dickens didn't just tour the states, he actually visited the Mill City -- one year before writing about Scrooge in A Christmas Carol -- and it made quite an impression on him.
"He called it his most pleasant day in the country," said UMass Lowell Associate Professor of English Diana Archibald.
This year, on the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, UMass Lowell is going all out to honor the author and his two visits here, as the key sponsor of "A Celebration: Dickens in Lowell" featuring an exhibition called Dickens and Massachusetts: A Tale of Power and Transformation that is being co-curated by Archibald and David Blackburn, chief of Cultural Resources and Programs at Lowell National Historical Park.
"We have 75 different programs planned. The crown jewel is the exhibit at the Boott Gallery, A Tale of Power & Transformation. We have everything from a puppet show to a one-act farce written by Dickens. It's a wonderful way of promoting literacy ," Archibald said.
"It's going to be fascinating not only for residents of Lowell, but for residents of Massachusetts, because Dickens had this special relationship with the state. He formed his strongest attachments with people he met in Massachusetts and he felt most at home in Massachusetts," exhibition spokeswoman Beth Brosnan said.
In other states, the author said he was moved by "the scourge of slavery," but apparently the Lowell mill girls of the era made a favorable impression on Dickens, who, according to the exhibition's website, wrote "were all well dressed and healthy in appearance, many of them remarkably so, and had the manners and deportment of young women, not of degraded brutes of burden."
The programs, most of which are free and open to the public, begin March 30 and continue through Oct. 20, with most events scheduled the first and last weekend and the weekend of July 13-15, when UMass Lowell hosts the International Dickens Society's annual symposium and the Revolving Museum hosts the Steampunk Project, with a downtown mural dedication and a steampunk mill girl fashion show.
In addition to the Revolving Museum, the university has partnered with the Lowell National Historical Park and its Tsongas Industrial History Center, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Charles Dickens Museum of London for the exhibition and related performances, speakers and family and community programs exploring Dickens' life, work and travels in America.
Events scheduled also include Victorian era parlour games, a talk with the Dickens Museum director, a tea with an actress portraying the author's wife, Catherine Dickens, displays of Victorian fashion and quilts, and the National Park Service' Dickens Walking Tour.
The exhibition has received generous financial support from the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation and the UMass President's office, Archibald said.
The Tsongas Industrial History Center at the Boott Cotton Mills is hosting the Dickens on the Line Interactive Workshop, where students get to work on a simulated assembly line and are taught about child-labor issues during Dickens' time and now. The exhibition at the Boott Gallery also features a portrait of Dickens from 1842, in its first public display in more than 30 years, plus a collection of rare Dickens artifacts on loan from the Dickens Museum, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, The American Antiquarian Society, The New York Public Library, The Fellman Collection at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and The Perkins School for the Blind, which includes the Boston Type edition of The Old Curiosity Shop donated by Dickens to the school in 1868.
The Pollard Library and the 119 Gallery are hosting films based on the Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Middlesex Community College's Black Box Theatre will host a one-act play, while the the city's principal museums are also all involved in the festivities.
From March 30 to Oct. 20, the American Textile History Museum hosts an exhibit on clothing and costume in Dickens' America. The New England Quilt Museum has a patchwork quilts display incorporating themes from The Pickwick Papers and other novels. The Whistler House Museum has Dickens enthusiast Marc Napolitano performing an all-ages interactive puppet show with characters from Dickens' novels, which also include Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, The Old Curiosity Shop, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Check out a photo gallery from the day's event.
Some of Lowell's immigrant communities are planning their own reinterpretations' of the tales.
"The Angkor Dance Troupe is creating their own musical version of Oliver Twist," Archibald said.
The Nigerian Association of the Merrimack Valley is also planning a performance.
"They bring a fresh perspective," Archibald said.
For more information on programs, go to www.uml.edu/dickens.