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  • Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States by Lori Merish
  • Susan M. Ryan (bio)
Archives of Labor: Working-Class Women and Literary Culture in the Antebellum United States. By Lori Merish. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. Pp. 312. Paper, $26.95.

Lori Merish's Archives of Labor offers a nuanced and thoroughly researched analysis of antebellum American working-class women's engagement with literary culture—not only as figures represented within various texts, but as readers, writers, and purchasers of printed matter. "Antebellum workingwomen's subjectivities and desires," Merish argues, took on "complex, often contradictory forms" (10). Even as working-class and poor women came to represent economic exploitation and suffering—poverty's downward spiral—in mainstream discourse, through such figures as the prostitute, the seamstress, the widow, and the factory operative, female labor activists and other working-class women authors, [End Page 200] Merish shows, "crafted languages of class and versions of class identity that remain visionary and politically generative" (11).

Archives of Labor works from two key premises: first, that class status and class relations are necessarily both gendered and racialized; and second, that working-class women intervened in crucial, if understudied, ways in the antebellum era's most significant conversations—those on cultures of domesticity and reform, to be sure, but also on such matters as slavery, sexuality, and imperial expansion. In doing so, the book incorporates an impressive—indeed, sometimes overwhelming—range of documents, including poetry, novels, polemics, periodical literature written by and for working women, and testimonios (autobiographical narratives) by domestic workers of Mexican descent who endured the economic and social dislocations attending the United States' annexation of California. While Merish devotes significant attention to the ubiquitous figure of the Lowell "mill girl," whose whiteness and much-vaunted contentment proved so central to American industrialists' self-serving propaganda, she emphasizes texts that undermined—and sometimes blatantly ridiculed—those myths. Later chapters move well beyond New England's native white and Irish immigrant workingwomen, focusing instead on southern and western sites and on African American and Latina figures.

Though attentive to political, social, and economic circumstances, Archives of Labor is most invested in revising scholarly conceptions of the antebellum era's literary cultures. To that end, Merish offers astute commentary on such literary modes as sentimentalism, sensationalism, and melodrama, while attending to a range of popular genres, including true-crime narratives; pamphlet novels featuring seduction, abandonment, and forced abortion, among other trials; and stories of pale, suffering seamstresses who embodied worthy (and feminized) poverty. Aside from brief readings of Herman Melville's "Tartarus of Maids," whose silent factory "girls" signify both economic exploitation and sexual repression, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of the Seven Gables, whose class politics align femininity with "the law of property and the course of social reproduction" (19), Merish eschews the hypercanonized authors that dominate much scholarship on antebellum U.S. literature. The best-known works that are treated in depth here are relatively recent additions to the canon: Harriet Wilson's Our Nig, E.D.E.N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand, and Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton's two novels, The Squatter and the Don and Who Would Have Thought It? The result is a [End Page 201] fresh take on mid-nineteenth-century print culture, one that foregrounds works that relatively disempowered people authored and read, and that attends to the inequities of race, class, and gender that have structured the formation and availability of the archives themselves.

Merish's final chapter, "Writing Mexicana Workers: Race, Labor, and the Western 'Frontier,'" perhaps best exemplifies this commitment to a more capacious archive than we typically encounter in literary studies. The two testimonios analyzed here—narrated by Apolinaria Lorenzana and Eulalia Pérez and recorded (with what degree of fidelity we do not know) by oral historians in the 1870s—were collected and archived by Hubert Howe Bancroft, but have received little attention, at least among literary scholars. Their accounts of their working lives across a period of political and economic upheaval, rife with land grabs and realignments of racial and class status, add much to Merish's polyvocal and multiracial...


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pp. 200-202
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