Labor (American History Through Literature)
In the antebellum United States, labor and literature were so entangled with each other that one cannot be understood without consideration of the other. These were the years of America's celebrated "literary declaration of independence" from the European past, of that extraordinary outburst of creativity known later as the American "renaissance." Yet, these were also the years when Thomas Jefferson's dream of an America populated by independent yeoman farmers yielded to the inexorable pressures of industrialization, to its concomitant divisions of labor, and to the drawing of sharp class distinctions based on the different kinds of labor men and women performed. Industrialism not only threatened some of the traditional republican values espoused by Jefferson and many others but called into question the work ethic itself: After all, if industrialism was transforming the work many Americans performed into mindless drudgery, how could these Americans be persuaded that hard work was a critical constituent of their moral personhood?
Nor were working-class men and women the only ones to feel the changes wrought by industrialism and the spread of a market economy. The widening separation of middle-class men's and women's "spheres" increasingly made work both a signifier and a creator of gender identity. Not only were certain kinds of work deemed suitable or unsuitable depending on one's gender, but one's very success in being a man or woman depended more and more on successful performance of gender-appropriate work.
These challenges to the nature and organization of work had profoundly unsettling consequences. Americans in the antebellum years were forced to rethink their understanding of labor and to reassess which kinds of labor had value, and for whom, and why. Writers found themselves fully engaged in this process of reevaluation. Indeed, they did not merely observe their society's deep uneasiness about the ways the nature and shape of work seemed to be changing; nor did they merely represent the labor they witnessed in the world around them. Highly self-conscious about the social status, political consequences, and gender implications of their own work of writing, they understood that it was not just a medium for representing labor but a kind of labor itself. Literature was not just about labor. Literature itself was labor.
IMPACT OF INDUSTRIALISM
When industrial mills began to spread throughout eastern Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the second and third decades of the century, neither owners nor operatives (as the factory hands were called) foresaw the extent to which they would change the way men and women worked. Until that time the farm had been the primary unit of economic organization in the colonies and in the newly created nation; likewise, the individual family working a farm was the prevalent unit of organized labor. The work performed by the farmer and his family was regarded as a noble callingndeed as the life most suited to a republican society with a republican form of government. The independence of the farmern independence secured by his ownership of his property and his possession of all the knowledge and skills required to farm that propertyas thought to be the indispensable foundation of republican citizenship. In theory, the independent farmer's vote could not be bought or sold; nor could economic pressure render him subservient to political factions and other concentrations of power.
The work of the independent farmer was also thought to produce moral qualities along with these political virtues. These qualities sprang in part from the farmer's close ties to the soil and the landscape, from the fact that the rhythms of farmwork were in harmony with the seasonal rhythms of nature itself. Farmwork also produced a model family working together in a spirit of cooperation under the benevolent and protective eye of the paterfamilias. While men and women performed many separate tasks on farms, they also shared a good deal; the rigid distinction between work suitable for men and work suitable for women had not yet been established. Children grew up learning work from both of their parents and living in a world in which work and life were largely coextensive. Work was not an activity carved out as a separate domain of life, taking place only in certain hours and at particular locations; work was woven into the patterns of everyday life, and life itself was inextricably connected with work.
Before the arrival of the factory system, the work of many artisanshoemakers, printers, carpenters, and the likeas likewise characterized by personal independence and patriarchal family structure. Master artisans were the lords and masters of their workshops and were able to exert a good deal of control over the scope and pace of the work performed therein. Their rhythms of work were established by custom, not regulated by the impersonal mechanism of the clock. The master and his journeymen and apprentices usually took their meals together, and the master's role was modeled on that of a father; the master was held responsible for the training and the general well-being (including the moral rectitude) of his workers. Moreover, there was also a considerable degree of social mobility built into the artisanal organization of labor. In theory, at least, an apprentice would become a journeyman after he had served his years of indenture; eventually, a hardworking and skillful journeyman could set himself up as an independent artisan in his own workshop. Artisans could also control much of the production process. They bought their raw materials, they designed their products, and they oversaw the production process from start to finishrom sheets of hide to finished shoes, from iron ore to horseshoes and nails.
The combination of authority and independence that made farm and artisanal labor perfectly congruent with the principles of republicanism was immediately jeopardized by the new factory system. Industrialism's production process could be undertaken with little regard for the seasons, and work rhythms were strictly governed by an abstract sense of time measured out by clocks. Operatives in the factory exercised very little control over the production process; instead, they had to adapt their labor to the requirements of the factory's machinery. This loss of control was exacerbated by industrialism's division of labor, which split the production process into separate units, each performed by individuals working repetitively and exclusively on their one part of the whole. Whereas the village blacksmith had overseen his work from design to finished product, the factory operative merely worked on one part of patterns others had designed; he or she had little responsibility for the finished product and proportionately less pride in it. Work was transformed into drudgery.
As these changes in the nature and scope of work became known, they sparked an intense debate in which writers and intellectuals figured prominently. Advocates of industrialism hailed the efficiency of the new factories, whereas critics deplored what they saw as an alarming dehumanization of work. A wide range of writers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882), Henry David Thoreau (1814862), Herman Melville (1819891), and Rebecca Harding Davis (1831910) took the side of the critics. In "The American Scholar," Emerson complained that the original unity of man "has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things" (p. 54). In Walden (1854), Thoreau asks: "Where is this division of labor to end? and what object does it finally serve?" (p. 44). Melville's story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" is a scathingly satirical depiction of the way factory labor usurps human sexuality, and Davis's Life in the Iron Mills (1861) bitterly condemns its extirpation of man's creative energies.
But not every writer's response to industrialism was so unequivocally hostile. While Walt Whitman (1819892) celebrated artisanal labor and the independence it fostered, he was surprisingly untroubled by the factory system and in "Song of the Exposition" (first written in 1871 and later revised in 1876 and 1881) sang its praises:
Mark the spirit of invention everywhere, thy rapid patents,
Thy continual workshops, foundries, risen or rising,
See, from their chimneys how the tall flame-fires stream.
The Lowell Offering, a magazine purportedly written wholly "by factory operatives," included in its 1842 edition a "Song of the Spinners" with the lyrics "And now we sing, with gladsome hearts / The theme of the spinner's song / That labor to leisure a zest imparts / unknown to the idle throng." Yet one wonders whether this song genuinely expressed the feelings of the factory operatives: Just a few years earlier, in 1836, striking female mill workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, had sung a quite different tune.
Oh! Isn't it a pity, such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?
Oh! I cannot be a slave, I will not be a slave,
For I'm so fond of liberty,
That I cannot be a slave.
As the industrial manufacturing process increasingly separated skilled from unskilled labor, labor itself was increasingly understood in terms of a sharp distinction between manual and mental activities. To many observers it seemed obvious that some men and women worked with their hands only while others worked with their minds. Because this distinction rested on deeper dualisms in which mind and spirit were favored over body and matter, manual labor was soon represented as being utterly devoid of meaning and unworthy of the respect it had once enjoyed. For example, when Edward Everett (1794865), formerly a distinguished professor of literature at Harvard and the editor of the North American Review, discouraged working men from organizing themselves into a political party and urged them to accept a subordinate position in society, he based his argument on a presumed superiority of spirit over matter. It is surely "the reasoning soul" which "makes man superior to the beasts that perish," he said, "so it is this, which, in its moral and intellectual endowments, is the sole foundation for the only distinctions between man and man, which have any real value" (p. 31). Similarly, the political economist Theodore Sedgwick (1811859) could bluntly assert that "the more a man labours with his mind, which is mental labour, the higher he is in the scale of labourers; all must agree to that" (p. 272).
Sedgwick's "must" was doubtless aimed at the laborers and labor advocates who at that very moment were trying to reclaim for the factory workers some of the autonomy and social respect they had formerly enjoyed as independent artisans. The tactics of these advocates varied. Some claimed that factory labor was not itself incompatible with mental and spiritual qualities. The literary productions of the Lowell mill girls was implicitly such a claim, and more explicitly so when they titled one of their volumes Mind among the Spindles. More typically, though, attempts to claim rights for factory workers took the more radical step of asserting the value of manual labor in terms of the value of the body, thereby running directly counter to their culture's long-standing belief that the mind and spirit had more intrinsic worth than the body and matter. The Philadelphia shoemaker and labor advocate William Heighton, for example, argued that the "fountain" of a nation's wealth "consists of the marrow and the bones, the blood and muscles of the Industrious classes . . ." (p. 10) and that by contrast, the "Trading class . . . are UNPRODUCERS; with their own hands they shape no materials, erect no property, create no wealth" (p. 11).
Situated in this debate over the relative worth of manual and mental labor, writers at the time were pulled in two directions. On the one hand, because the presumed mentality and spirituality of their own work was what gave it much of its social value and respect, they were reluctant to call that principle into question. On the other hand, they tended to recoil from the antidemocratic, or inegalitarian, consequences entailed by that principle. Their most characteristic response, therefore, was to collapse the distinction between body and mind and to figure their work as being both mental and corporeal.
This effort found expression in many ways and reached a fever pitch in the late 1830s and 1840s. In 1840 Orestes Brownson published "The Laboring Classes" in The Boston Quarterly Review. In April 1841 Theodore Parker published his essay "Thoughts on Labor" in The Dial, arguing that "Things will never come to their proper level, so long as Thought with the Head and Work with the Hands are considered incompatible" (p. 515). That month also saw the establishment of the Brook Farm community, described by its founder George Ripley as an attempt "to combine manual and mental labor," or to "unite the thinker and worker as far as possible in the same individual" (quoted in Frothingham, p. 307). One visitor to Brook Farm was Horace Greeley, the founding editor of the New York Herald Tribune. Strongly sympathetic to Ripley's project, Greeley was also an investor in a Fourierist community in Red Bank, New Jersey, called the North American Phalanx. With his eye on all these developments, in 1852 Charles Eliot Norton went so far as to suggest that "the distinguishing characteristic of the literature of the present age is the attention it bestows to that portion of society which is generally called 'the lower classes'" (p. 464).
Precisely because the split between manual and mental labor rested on assumed ontological distinctions between body and mind, and matter and spirit, writers who sought to undo that split often did so with no explicit reference to the lower classes, or to the factory system, or to the division of labor. Take, for example, the last words of the long, elaborately wrought first sentence of Walden: "and lived by the labor of my hands only" (p. 3). At first glance one might think that Thoreau is referring here merely to his labor of hoeing beans and chopping wood; but when his words are placed next to Sedgwick's and Heighton's one can see that he is also intervening in the argument between them. His sentence can be read as subtly asserting that the spiritual quest he undertakes by the shores of the pond is perfectly compatible with the manual labor he performed there. Furthermore, he might even be suggesting that his work as a writer is in crucial ways the labor of the "hands" and the body, not just of the mind and spirit. If so, Walden can be read as Thoreau's solitary and idiosyncratic response to the Brook Farm experiment and as an indirect but powerful contribution to a vigorous cultural debate of which Thoreau was well aware. Walden is far from unique in this respect. The tension between a traditional commitment to the spirituality of artistic and literary labor and a new interest in the corporeal aspects of their labor informs the work of many ante-bellum writers. This tension appears also in a number of slave narratives, in which embodiment is understood both as a source of one's oppression and as the foundation of one's community.
PROFESSIONALIZATION AND THE SEPARATION OF SPHERES
Antebellum cultural anxieties about work triggered by industrialism were intensified by two other sources of unease. One was the professionalization of forms of middle-class work that had traditionally been considered vocational, including literature and the ministry. William Charvat and Michael Gilmore, among others, have shown how the emergence of a mass reading audience transformed literature into a commodity and subjected writers to the new and often discomfiting pressures of a literary marketplace. Likewise, the rise of professionalism in this period, along with competition from Evangelical denominations, transformed the traditional New England ministry from a genteel calling into an increasingly competitive struggle for survival. To be a man of letters now was to be a professional and thus a worker.
The separation of men's and women's "spheres" was another cause of anxiety about workn anxiety that created a booming market for advice manuals and textbooks, especially works that instructed women in how to be wives, mothers, and domestic managers. Catharine Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) was perhaps the best known of these. Other works included Lydia Maria Child's The Mother's Book (1831), Maria J. McIntosh's Woman in America: Her Work and Her Reward (1850), and Mrs. A. J. Graves's Woman in America: Being an Examination into the Moral and Intellectual Condition of American Female Society (1847). Even as these books sought to train women to "regulate" their homes with maximum efficiency, they were also disciplining the women themselves, explicitly exhorting them to conform to emerging standards of "true womanhood."
This discourse on domesticity was intimately connected with other kinds of literary production. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) was Catharine Beecher's sister; she assisted Catharine in the composition and revisions of the Treatise, she later wrote her own popular advice columns (later collected as Household Papers and Stories, 1876), and she incorporated her beliefs about the value of domestic labor in her fiction, most notably perhaps in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851852). Lydia Maria Child (1802880) was also an accomplished author of fiction and poetry and an abolitionist best known today for her preface to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). Concerns about the nature and worth of women's domestic work also permeated the popular fiction written by what Nathaniel Hawthorne notoriously called "that damned mob of scribbling women." The Wide, Wide World (1850) by Susan Warner (1819885) is just one of many novels that trace the fortunes of a motherless girl who must learn for herself what being a good wife and mother entails. The confluence of literary and domestic labor was no accident. As the historian Mary Kelley has argued, women authors wrote about private, domestic life in part because their choice of this subject legitimated their commitment to the public work of an author, work that was supposed to be the province of men: "The literary domestics could enter man's world because they had not left behind women's work" (p. 287).
Conversely, a number of male writers in the ante-bellum period worried that their own work of authorship was not sufficiently masculine because it was performed within the sanctuary of the home and spared the harsher work environment deemed suitable for men. Several of Emerson's lectures and essays, for example, and some of Hawthorne's and even Melville's fiction, voice insecurity about the gender dimension of literary labor. And Thoreau's claim to have lived by the labor of his "hands only" and Whitman's bold assertion of his identity as a working man, or "one of the roughs," take on new meaning when viewed against the backdrop of this intense cultural investment in work as a crucial determinant of one's femininity or masculinity.
As all of these examples suggest, antebellum anxieties about work crossed class lines and troubled middle-class proprietors and professionals as much as working-class men and women and their spokesper-sons. Antebellum works of literature reveal how complex these anxieties were and how deeply they reached into the values and outlook of the period. Certainly antebellum writers were keenly aware that their interventions in the debates about work and labor were partisan, not neutral; they understood that what was at stake was not just the cultural value of the work being performed by factory hands, bankers, artisans, mothers, and so on, but the worth of the work being performed in their own studies, at their own desks, by their own hands guiding a pen across a sheet of paper.
See also Banking, Finance, Panics, and Depressions; Factories; Immigration; Life in the Iron Mills; Lowell Offering
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