- "A true woman's courage and hopefulness":Martha W. Tyler's A Book without a Title: or, Thrilling Events in the Life of Mira Dana (1855-56)
Estranged from an abusive husband and separated from her children, Martha W. Tyler's heroine, Mira Dana, relies upon "a true woman's courage and hopefulness" to endure (151). These strengths had sustained her through many challenges, including leading a strike in the Lowell, Massachusetts, textile mills. That Tyler's autobiographical novel includes the first known representation of a strike in American fiction has long remained an obscure item of literary history. In the century and a half since its publication, several librarians and scholars have preserved this rare text, long out of print but recently made freely available in Indiana University's Wright American Fiction, 1851-75, online collection.1 Piecing together clues of the author's identity and experience reveals that the text indeed represents an actual strike, the 1836 "turn out" (as strikes were called at the time) of Lowell mill women.
While some strike accounts have survived, the identity of the female participants, with the notable exception of Harriet Hanson Robinson, has remained a mystery. This largest, most prolonged U.S. strike of its time, involving some three thousand women and several hundred men, set a powerful precedent for the organizers of the first women's rights convention in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. The women's movement, in turn, must have inspired Tyler to write and publish her novel. The recovery of Tyler's writings and biography restores some of the strike's lost history, including a leader's rare viewpoint.
Although A Book without a Title has received little sympathetic scholarly consideration, it deserves attention for its importance to women's history and labor literature, particularly for its representation of working-class true womanhood.2 The text also includes early treatment of marital discord, wife abuse, and feminism. This essay recovers Tyler's life experience and novel, contextualizing the text among neglected traditions of antebellum labor literature in which notions of womanhood differ markedly from the genteel cult of true womanhood. Unlike the covert power of domestic heroines, such as Ellen Montgomery in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), who tearfully prevails by practicing submission, such working-class heroines as Mira Dana manifest independence, toughness, humor, and willingness to openly defy unjust male authorities. This is not to suggest that Tyler was immune from influence by domestic and other popular traditions. Her forthright yet melodramatic relation of a wife's suffering was preceded by E. D. E. N. Southworth's representations of wronged wives, as well as by the era's widely [End Page 17] circulating divorce trial pamphlets, such as Sarah Jarvis's case against her eminent cleric husband. Published in late 1854, Fanny Fern's Ruth Hall, with its representation of a woman wronged by her family winning her way in the world, strongly anticipates Mira Dana's bold response to mistreatment by mill management, her husband, and her brother.
A Book without a Title represents the heroine's attempts to rectify injustices perpetrated against women with conditions of respect and love. Despite its utopian aims, it is an angry book, presented in the 1855 author's preface as a "gallows" (iv). Tyler takes justice into her own hands, as did Southworth in Retribution (1849) and The Deserted Wife (1849). As Southworth unmasks cruel, unfaithful husbands, so Tyler compares her exposure of brutal men to the "retributive act" used to punish murderers. She represents herself as compelled to produce her novel, for which she claims no "literary merit," by the urgent need to expose "men, who have neither the fear of God or the love of woman in their hearts" (iv). Besides seeking justice, Tyler reveals that she hopes to earn profits from book sales, so she can provide her children a home, since she and her husband have separated (1855: 249). While she failed to win child custody, she did succeed in telling a path-breaking woman's story.
In Mira Dana, Tyler represents her exemplary true woman, one rooted in working-class culture and traditions...