Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


English Language and Literatures



First Advisor

Leon Jackson


The Hands of Labor explores representations of literary labor in nineteenth-century America through an analysis of one culturally important family's portrayal of themselves engaging in their work at a time in which the middle class's formation made self-fashioning accessible to the public. The overarching goal of this dissertation is to determine how cultural and familial circumstances, labor ideologies, gender, and public ideas about work influenced authors' creations of themselves in print. Specifically, my project examines work and authorial labor in light of gender, class, race, and economic conditions as well as brings together one of the most interesting families of the antebellum period: the Willis family, and especially author Fanny Fern, her brother Nathanial Parker Willis, and his servant, ex-slave Harriet Jacobs.

While N. P. Willis portrayed the work of writing as an effortless task, depicting himself jotting down lines in ease and comfort, Fern equated writing with physically demanding labor that required strength and perseverance. For Jacobs, social convention, racial assumptions, her employer, and her editor masked and mediated her authorial labor, forcing her to adopt an abolitionist rhetoric that appealed to her middle-class audience. These three authors and their wider circle, which included Lydia Maria Child, Walt Whitman, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, performed authorship in ways that resulted in a blend of labor ideologies based on personal experience and familial interactions.

In examining those depictions we can see that authors were not only responding to the conditions of the time but that they also were participating in the shaping of class values and behaviors. Taken together, the Willis family reveals a story of loyalty and family ties that provides a lens for viewing American culture, authorship, and networks of influence. While this project looks at small instances of individual practice, it engages with larger questions about the representation of work, the work of authorship, and self-creation in antebellum society and shows us the instability of class, despite authors' efforts to offer a model to be adopted.


© 2009, Michelle Renee Cooper