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THOMAS B. LOVELL By Dint of Labor and Economy: Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, and the Salutary View of Wage Labor Literary accounts of slavery, perhaps more than any other set of texts, bring issues of labor and compensation for effort into clear focus, and the opponents ofslavery who author many of these accounts possibly have the greatest interest in what we might call the salutary view of wage labor. In this view, labor is seen as an organic expression of the selfand the primary and necessary means ofestablishing a conception of selfhood.1 A person's ability to act as an agent, and so the very conception ofselfhood, is grounded in the performance ofeconomically valued work, a context in which the worker's self-construction is reflected and validated by the payment provided for labor. In this view, the compensation given to the worker provides the foundation for a conception ofselfhood in which a person can negotiate contracts, choose among a range of alternatives, and act as an agent within a market economy. From this perspective, a person's ability to lay claim to the benefits of self-ownership and agency depends on her participation in a well-regulated economic system. While some version of this view has long been associated with male slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, who escape to the North and participate in capitalist forms oflabor, the connection between nineteenth-century African-American women and this view has been overlooked. Often, critics have instead focused on texts written by these women primarily to examine their relation to the sentimental tradition ofwhite women during this period. Because they adhere to a view of sentimentalism that sees a strict separation between Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 3, Autumn 1996 Copyright© 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Thomas B. Lovell the arena ofproductive work and the domestic sphere, these critics tend either to argue for the existence of such a separation and celebrate the creation ofa presumably autonomous sphere for women, or they lament the absence of this distinction and reveal the corruption of the domestic by the principles of the commercial sphere. As my readings of the narratives of Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Wilson will show, however, their appeal to the sentimental tradition is grounded in a different understanding of the relationship between domesticity and market economics : Jacobs and Wilson consistently argue that outside ofa properly organized wage system, the practice of the moral principles associated with sentimentalism is impossible. That is, the ability of a woman to perform her duty as a mother and a woman within a sentimental framework depends on her status as a worker. In asystem ofpayment for labor that adequately conforms to the ideals of the salutary view, the wage accurately represents the worker's time and skill, and this representation operates in a system ofexchange in which dollar values reflect sentimental , moral values. For Jacobs and Wilson, only when dollar values and moral values correspond in this way can the elevation ofdomesticity and motherhood that sentimentalism advocates be fully achieved. Wilson and Jacobs, of course, are not the first to make this connection between economic practice and sentimental thought. As the career ofAdam Smith suggests, the two realms are closely associated from their initial appearance in the eighteenth century. Smith's first major work, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, appears sixteen years before his other and better known project, The Wealth of Nations. While scholars have discussed the apparent discontinuity between the apparently liberal Smith of The Theory and the economically conservative Smith of Wealth of Nations almost since the time of the books' publication,2 the first sentence ofThe Theory indicates that, for Smith, sentimentalism and economics are inseparable, and discussing one necessarily invokes the other: "How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others" {9). The appearance of terms here that will dominate the thought ofWealth ofNations (selfishness, interest, and fortune) suggests that the sentiments have an economic basis, and Smith's initial focus on the "propriety of affections" provides further evidence of this association. In other words, the discourse of sentimentalism does not...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-32
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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