- Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States by Lori Merish
Lori Merish's Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States supplements and joins two recent streams of scholarship on capitalism and women's place in it. Merish adds gender to the so-called new capitalist history that has recently re-narrated United States capitalism, mainly from the point of view of black and white producers and workers. Her recovery of literary narratives by and about female textile workers, factory girls, Mexicana mission workers, prostitutes, and domestic servants also buttresses recent scholarship by social reproduction theorists like Lise Vogel and Tithi Bhattacharya, who have shown the centrality of women's work, waged and unwaged, in producing society. Merish's book provides a rare literary portrait of women's labor, one that includes California in the age of the imperial conquest of Mexico. As such, it might also be thought of as part of the new western history movement ongoing in the academy.
Merish's thesis is that antebellum working-class women writers "address ways in which the female worker was positioned to represent the condition of class exploitation, subjection, and economic suffering" (p. 8). This argument is a historical materialist rendering of what has been called sentimentality in prevailing scholarship. Merish argues that the social position of women as the gentler sex both facilitated and masked their [End Page 455] exploitation. Both gender and sex, she demonstrates, were inscribed on working-women's bodies as part of the political economy of their work. As she writes, "poor and working-class women were expected to bear the 'burden of poverty' both culturally and socially: they were tasked with representing forms of 'social suffering' associated with poverty, excessive labor and bodily violation, physical compulsion (including sexual compulsion), and abuse" (p. 8).
Her argument is convincingly made through close-reading and meticulous archival recovery. Of the two, the latter is most exciting and useful for scholars. Her first three chapters excavate writings by Lowell mill women and seamstresses. Where important anthologies like Oxford's American Working-Class Literature (2006) have recovered for publication poetry and letters by these workers, Merish shows how to read and decode their meanings. She also successfully reads backwards to the antebellum period's important tropes like "proletarian grotesque," used by scholars to describe Depression-era literature of the twentieth century (p. 84). Her book builds a continuous and durable arc of working-class women's writing in the United States.
Merish's third chapter, "Narrating Female Dependency: The Sentimental Seamstress and the Erotics of Labor Reform," performs the critical task of giving class dimension to the bourgeois and managerial sexualization of female working bodies. Merish finds #MeToo moments, for example, in T. S. Arthur's 1843 novel The Seamstress: A Tale of the Times. The notorious male gaze of feminist theory becomes here the supervisory and disciplinary optic of capital. Merish thus persuasively reads women's literary efforts at narrative workplace reform as charged with resistant desire and a claim on female sexual autonomy. Her book looks interestingly forward and backward to the "dialectics of sex" and capitalism in work by feminists like Shulamith Firestone, who argued for a "sex class system" as an object of feminist critique.1
Merish's last three chapters all comport with scholarship asserting that capitalism generates race and racial meaning through the production process. Most valuable in these chapters is her analysis of how black and Mexican women workers were rendered competitive bodies in the labor market under slavery and during United States settler-colonization of California. Merish gives an entirely original reading of this theme in Harriet Wilson's well-studied Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859). She excavates another gem from history, E.D.E.N. Southworth's 1859 novel The Hidden Hand, a best-seller here turned into a textbook of working-class performativity...