Archives of Labor

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

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 7 illustrations Published: April 2017

Author: Lori Merish

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism

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.


"[Archives of Labor] is a remarkable feat of original research and suggests routes for further study – not least on formal innovation and tone in antebellum literature." — Stephanie Kelley, TLS

"In the depth and range of her arguments, as well as in the important questions about methodology that her work implicitly raises, Merish opens up new debates and issues for feminist working-class recovery projects in the antebellum period and beyond it. . . . Future scholars and activists can build on Merish’s imaginative and resourceful study." — Francesca Sawaya, American Literary History

Archives of Labor is a marvel of archival recovery. Exploring many previously unknown and understudied texts, Merish focused not just on novels and poetry, but also on radical labor periodicals, pamphlet novels, periodical literature, theatrical melodrama, the testimonios of Mexican mission workers, and other literary ephemera. . . . An important interdisciplinary contribution to feminist history and literary scholarship.” — Ana Stevenson, Australasian Journal of American Studies

"Powerful, groundbreaking. . . . Archives of Labor makes an important and decisive contribution to the vocabulary of class in American literary studies." — Andrew Lawson, Legacy

"Exciting . . . Lori Merish has written a book about how feminists, scholars, and workers can commemorate their own struggles for emancipation by giving gendered particularity to memory itself." — Bill V. Mullen, Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature

"Lori Merish’s Archives of Labor offers a nuanced and thoroughly researched analysis of antebellum American working-class women’s engagement with literary culture. . . . Archives of Labor is a remarkable book that merits the close attention of historians and literary scholars alike, both for its argument and its methods." — Susan M. Ryan, Journal of the Early Republic

"[Merish] addresses the complex composition of the working class and conveys the plurality of female occupations by analyzing them in separate chapters with distinct literary tracts. . . . An accomplishment both in literary interpretation and historical analysis . . . An essential read for anyone interested in working-class women's history, literary culture, and the intersection of race and class in the antebellum period." — Kelly Morgan, Gender Forum

"The book’s broad literary scope is one of its truly great pleasures. . . . Merish anchors her brilliant analyses of these works in the often paradoxical, critical challenges which these women leveled against the 'romance' of labor, the 'moralization' and sentimental eroticizing of 'virtuous' seamstresses, and the middleclass privatizing of sympathy and domesticity." — Xiomara Santamarina, Nineteenth-Century Contexts

"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." — Russ Castronovo, author of Necro Citizenship: Death, Eroticism, and the Public Sphere in the Nineteenth-Century United States

"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." — Glenn Hendler, author of Public Sentiments: Structures of Feeling in Nineteenth-Century American Literature


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

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.

Table of Contents Back to Top
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
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6322-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6299-9
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