Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States

Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States

by Lori Merish


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Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States by Lori Merish

In Archives of Labor Lori Merish establishes working-class women as significant actors within literary culture, dramatically redrawing the map of nineteenth-century US literary and cultural history. Delving into previously unexplored archives of working-class women's literature—from autobiographies, pamphlet novels, and theatrical melodrama to seduction tales and labor periodicals—Merish recovers working-class women's vital presence as writers and readers in the antebellum era. Her reading of texts by a diverse collection of factory workers, seamstresses, domestic workers, and prostitutes boldly challenges the purportedly masculine character of class dissent during this era. Whether addressing portrayals of white New England "factory girls," fictional accounts of African American domestic workers, or the first-person narratives of Mexican women working in the missions of Mexican California, Merish unsettles the traditional association of whiteness with the working class to document forms of cross-racial class identification and solidarity. In so doing, she restores the tradition of working women's class protest and dissent, shows how race and gender are central to class identity, and traces the ways working women understood themselves and were understood as workers and class subjects.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822363224
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 05/12/2017
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Lori Merish is Associate Professor of English at Georgetown University and the author of Sentimental Materialism: Gender, Commodity Culture, and Nineteenth-Century American Literature, also published by Duke University Press.

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Archives of Labor

Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States

By Lori Merish

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6299-9


Factory Fictions


Two popular texts supply a telling frame for my consideration of factory women's writings; each maps the unsettling presence of laboring women in urban space. The Mysteries of Lowell, a pamphlet novel published anonymously in 1844, is by the prolific Osgood Bradbury. An example of the literature of urban exposé initiated by the work of Pierce Egan and Eugène Sue, Bradbury's text devotes significant narrative attention to hidden crimes perpetrated by purportedly "virtuous" elite men. But in one passage Bradbury locates the primary mystery of Lowell in the very subjectivity of his protagonist, a millworker named Augusta Walton: "The greatest mystery is the female heart. ... Geniuses ... of the most brilliant powers of imagination, from Fielding to Eugene Sue ... [have] taxed their powers to the utmost ... [but] the female heart remains a great mystery. Scarcely the title page of this mysterious book is yet understood, and its contents are yet sealed up from the world" (10). Casting himself less as a knowing author than a baffled suitor, Bradbury figures the female heart as a sealed book that defies (male) literary disclosure, using a sensational rhetoric distinct from middleclass sentimental codes in which feelings are easily read on the body. Paradoxically, what renders Augusta's heart sentimentally illegible is, it seems, her spectacular publicity: Bradbury compares Augusta's arrival in the factory to "a comet [that] first makes its appearance in our solar system"; "observed of all observers," her beauty, on public display, draws admirers like a "magnet."

My second text is George Foster's New York by GasLight, a collection of sketches first published in 1850. For Foster uncontrolled female sexuality in the form of "public prostitution" is the steamy center of the urban underworld, and streetwalking's ground zero is the working-class (and interracial) neighborhood Five Points, "the very type and physical semblance ... of hell itself." Illicit female sexuality is an object of obsessive fascination, that which must be made visible and controlled by discourse. But it is also something alarmingly generative and potentially uncontainable. Foster's narrative aims are revealed in the opening: "To penetrate beneath the thick veil of night and lay bare the fearful mysteries of darkness ... the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder, the scenes of drunkenness and beastly debauch, and all the sad realities that go to make up the lower stratum — the underground story — of life in New York!" (69). Again we find a sexualized language of unveiling to denote urban mysteries, the same fantasy of penetration — though here the narrator's discoveries disgust and horrify as well as titillate. This ambivalence is legible in phrases like "festivities of prostitution" and the startling "orgies of pauperism"; signaling a new liberal consensus equating poverty with vice, Foster's metaphors yoke economic marginalization to images of pleasure and self-indulgence. New York's "lower stratum" is a realm of transgressive desire as well as class suffering; while paupers and prostitutes were cast as class victims in antebellum discourses of moral reform, Foster locates them in an urban carnivalesque. Prominent within this "underground story" of the "lowest type of human degradation" is the "public prostitute"; Foster warns his readers against the "frightful phalanx of female depravity" that is the "curse of an enfeebled and depraved civilization" (83).

In New York by Gas-Light the ambiguously racialized working-class female body comes to define what Foster terms the "lower stratum" of social life, the object of obsessive fascination and equally obsessive repudiation. As I argue in chapter 2, that prominence was registered in discourses about popular literature itself: the antebellum era's rapidly multiplying body of popular literature — "common" literature — was routinely described as a metaphoric extension of the prostitute's body, spreading its noxious, contaminating influence and the "infection" of illicit desires throughout the body politic. The "class horror" generated by this literature (and that body) had political motivations and referents; the languages of popular literature were reproduced in and at times drawn from political discourse. Sensational narratives of working-class labor and life, like the shocking parliamentary reports (Blue Books) discussed by the British feminist Anna Jameson, often "teem[ed] with graphic narratives and discoveries of horror." Foster portrays urban prostitutes as a "frightful phalanx of female depravity," a reference to Charles Fourier's socialist model of sociosexual organization; female sexual disorder and economic upheaval are here — as elsewhere — explicitly conjoined. The compulsive cultural interest in working-class women's sexuality, voiced by Bradbury and Foster, could articulate Malthusian anxieties about working-class female reproductive power (and debates about birth control were ongoing in the U.S. radical workingmen's press), or it could connote general anxieties about urbanization — the teeming life of cities and seeming impenetrability of urban spaces.

In this chapter I unpack the gendered class fantasies evident in Foster's and Bradbury's texts, situating them in antebellum discourses of class. The sensational construction of female working-class subjectivity and desire, I argue, registered the very real challenge working-class women presented to an increasingly dominant formation of gender and class. The inscrutably desiring working girl in Bradbury's text, like the prostitute in Foster's, creates a sensation because she stands for a particular kind of "gender trouble": she troubles the distinction between erotic or affective activity and the economic life central to the emerging liberal definition of separate spheres.

I focus my first two chapters on mill women for several reasons. One is the abundance and availability of textual materials, itself an index of the class politics of literary production and archive formation; because of the national(ist) import of the Lowell experiment, a substantial amount of writing about Lowell, some of it by factory women themselves, was published and preserved in and as the national archive. A highly visible symbol of the reorganization of economic life, the factory was a "concentrated metaphor for hopes and fears about the direction and pace of industrial change." And depending on one's perspective, the factory could represent antebellum gender trouble or a benevolent institutionalization of male authority and female virtue; it could signify the harmonious workings of a well-oiled machine or a dangerous subversion of social order. Such meanings were forged in a transatlantic discourse in which Manchester, England, signified the unnecessary evils of industrialization, while the virtuous American "mill girl" emblematized industrialism's ambiguous promise. Most early American manufacturers visited Manchester, while English and European visitors interested in social questions flocked to Lowell. Transnational industrial tourism fueled an awareness of Lowell as public spectacle, a showcase mill town, informing a particular industrial aesthetic that developed around Lowell, one operatives would vigorously contest. That aesthetic involved policing factory women's racial identification, stabilizing the precarious whiteness of poor and laboring women; as we shall see, part of the function of the aestheticized mill girl was to manage the racial intimacies of the cotton textile trade, the social proximity of female factory workers to the institution of slavery that produced the raw materials of industrial production. For Marx the collectivized nature of factory work both served the optimization of capitalist exploitation and enabled the evolution of the social: the socialization of labor in the factory could foster class consciousness and the formation of a collective laboring subject. Fears as well as hopes about the latter are envisioned in the writings I discuss.

The spectacle of female labor at Lowell was in a dialectical relation with emerging configurations of both class and gender. Judy Lown writes that factory debates in England took place largely between manufacturers and landowners, with some input from working-class men, over "who should control women and what form this control should take." As many foresaw, industrialization could profoundly transform social relations, including gender relations; new technologies could undermine the supposedly natural difference (in bodily stature and physical strength) between the sexes, a distinction upheld in much Enlightenment social thought. Owenites and other utopian thinkers (and Marx himself) understood that mechanization could profoundly transform the social body. However, Perry Anderson notes, "the early capitalist mode of production inherited and reworked [the] millennial inequality [between the sexes], with all its myriad oppressions, at once extensively utilizing and profoundly transforming it."

The widely publicized experiment at Lowell emphatically made gender what the labor historian Ardis Cameron calls a "component" of industrial organization. The factory was organized to subordinate the workforce in general and women in particular: men managed the payroll, bossed the floor, supervised the "hands"; deference was expected from every worker, but from women it was expected "sooner and in greater quantity." At the point of production, women confronted a world that promoted a "specific psychology of female subordination," enhancing men's "ability to define [the women's] womanhood and to control their labor power." Simultaneously, however, women were positioned to experience "contradictions between the reality of female economic importance and worth and shop floor policies" that devalued their labor and expected their "feminine" compliance with male overseers and superiors. The factory and boardinghouse engendered sites of subterfuge, autonomous social spaces where women could foster alternative socialities and develop an independent sense of worth. In the antebellum decades the Lowell mill girl, with her (reputed) feme sole status, famed bank account, and well-publicized labor protests and walkouts (prompting at least one commentator's fears of "gynecocracy"), represented a visible instance of the feminization of economic independence and the political autonomy that might usher from it.

What I describe in chapter 2 as the "sensationalizing" of the Lowell mill woman — specifically the association of female wage labor with nonnormative affect and illicit sex — is one sign of the gender trouble she generates. The factory girl constituted a highly visible challenge to the particular, state-sanctioned model of capitalism under formation in the 1830s and 1840s and organized around the heterosexual nuclear family; specifically, she posed a challenge to the normalization of "domestic desire" and the constriction of love associated with the rise of the middle class. Tied to the increasingly hegemonic cult of domesticity, this model of capitalism was transmitted and reinforced through the family wage; as what Alice Kessler-Harris calls a "social rather than theoretic construct" that contains a "system of meanings" that influence both "expectations" and "behavior," the family wage is a primary means through which this new political economy of gender touches the bodies of individuals and (re)produces its norms of desire. The gendered and sexualized meanings of the wage are emphasized in the Lowell seduction narratives, examined in chapter 2, where the wage appears as a tool of seduction, an image that crystallizes the interpellative force of the wage, its power to engender subjects and organize erotic life. Intensifying domestic affect, the family wage especially narrowed a sense of kinship, curtailing feelings of social responsibility toward those outside the nuclear family and limiting sympathy for nonfamilial dependents.

That the wage is a means of erotic regulation was an idea handed down from none other than Adam Smith, progenitor of classical economics. Smith asserted that the market in free labor was entirely compatible with the customary dependencies of the household. "Especially in the lower ranks," he writes, the wife owed her "maintenance ... intirely to her husband, and from this dependance it is that she is thought to be bound to be faithfull and constant to him." Tellingly merging the language of bondage and the language of "constan[cy]" and love, Smith baldly presents economic dependency as affective and erotic discipline (engendering the "bonds of love") and envisions economic dependence as that which produces feminine virtue, especially among the "lower ranks." The gendered wage structure endorsed by Smith, it would seem, helped underwrite the shift, often noted by scholars, from the conception of female carnality and excess so prominent in American Puritan writings to the view of white women as maintainers of piety and morality widespread in Victorian America. Smith identifies the hireling as "free" because the sale of his labor ensures his property in his domestic dependents, and he defines this proprietorship (enabled by the wage's gender dimension) as that which distinguishes wage worker from slave. Sanctioned by the family wage, domesticity here serves a fortified whiteness, a means of policing what Martha Hodes calls the "mutability" of poor and working-class women's racial identifications and desires.

By the 1840s industrialists and workingmen shared an investment in "feminizing" women workers; both rhetorically constructed a factory girl whose independence as worker was undercut by the "natural" dependency of gender and a primary identity as domestic being. In various ways Lowell women challenged this construction; wage labor offered possibilities of economic autonomy and what Margaret Fuller terms female "self-dependence" that unsettled feminine dependency and domestic norms. Those possibilities are envisioned, narrated, and sometimes foreclosed in political representations and popular fiction about Lowell women.


The American factory system was initially confined to a few locales in one region, New England, and employed a small proportion of America's labor force. But given the numerous advantages to the capitalist, there was good reason to expect that the merchant princes of Boston — the Cabots, the Lowells, the Appletons, the Jacksons, who had invested their commercial fortunes in the creation of New England factories and factory towns — would soon have innumerable imitators. Advocates of Henry Clay's "national system," political economists, and factory owners were optimistic about practically every aspect of the new system; they anticipated great benefits, including the improved lot of labor by lowering prices and increasing demand, stimulating production and reabsorbing temporarily displaced labor into the economy. A small minority of men would become rich, but the "standard of living of the mass" would rise simultaneously.

While early endorsers of manufacturing such as Tench Coxe celebrated the new mechanical technology as a sublime invention, workingmen saw things differently. Most understood the course of English industrialism in terms drawn by Dickens and Carlyle, Engels's Condition of the English Working Classes, and the parliamentary investigations of the Sadler Committee and Lord Shaftsbury; they saw factories as "dark, satanic mills" in which laborers of all ages and both sexes were shamelessly overworked and underpaid under abysmal conditions. The British factory debates were reported in labor periodicals throughout New England, and their imagery was reiterated by British labor radicals, such as the Chartists who immigrated to America during this period to escape criminal prosecution and were active in the American labor movement. Convinced that the grim situation in England was industrialization's inevitable result, male labor leaders countered the rhetoric of American exceptionalism, depicting Lowell, Waltham, and Fall River in language associated with English industry.

Gender figured prominently in industrial discourse. The years of labor activism in the United States leading up to the economic crisis of 1837 have been identified as a period when workingmen were "open in new ways to solidarity with women," their sexist distrust of women workers momentarily relaxed. Yet if workingmen at times saw women as partners in a shared struggle, their rhetoric drew heavily on melodramatic imagery of female inferiority and passivity, recycling representations of helpless, dependent factory workers

in Pittsburgh broke down fences and factory walls to expel strikebreakers, the Pittsburgh Journal called them "factory Amazons" and portrayed their victory in an extended military metaphor. Activist factory women themselves recognized the growing public concern about their agitation, proudly declaring, "Our influence" — a force distinct from the celebrated moral influence of middle-class women — "[is] felt and feared." But depictions of factory women as industrial victims were widespread, generating stereotypes to which women workers necessarily responded.


Excerpted from Archives of Labor by Lori Merish. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
1. Factory Fictions: Lowell Mill Women and the Romance of Labor  33
2. Factory Labor and Literary Aesthetics: The Lowell Mill Girl, Popular Fiction, and the Proletarian Grotesque  73
3. Narrating Female Dependency: The Sentimental Seamstress and the Erotics of Labor Reform  113
4. Harriet Wilson's Our Nig and the Labor of Race  153
5. Hidden Hands: E.D.E.N. Southworth and Working-Class Performance  180
6. Writing Mexicana Workers: Race, Labor, and the Western Front  219
Postscript. Looking for Antebellum Workingwomen  247
Notes  251
Works Cited  285
Index  303

What People are Saying About This

Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States - Russ Castronovo

"Lori Merish reminds us that when it comes to thinking about gender and race, the factory was as important as the home. She also dissolves any lingering notions that literature produced by and about working people, especially working women, lacks complexity or social and psychic depth. Archives of Labor recovers a compelling archive while providing insight into the gendered conditions of labor in the antebellum United States."

Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature - Glenn Hendler

"An extraordinary achievement, Archives of Labor uncovers and compiles a rich, deep, and complex body of working women's writings, arguing passionately and persuasively about why this archive matters for understanding popular fiction, labor history, women's history, and literary history. Lori Merish's spectacular work makes a major contribution."

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