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Title page for ETD etd-07222016-175654

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Higgs, Stephanie Erin
URN etd-07222016-175654
Title Invisible Threads: Fictions of Cotton in the Anglo-Atlantic Triangle, 1833-1863
Degree PhD
Department English
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Jay Clayton Committee Chair
Catherine Molineux Committee Member
Colin Dayan Committee Member
Rachel Teukolsky Committee Member
  • production
  • race
  • gender
  • class
  • labor
  • cotton factory
  • cotton plantation
  • consumption
Date of Defense 2016-06-30
Availability unrestricted
With a series of technological innovations in cotton cultivation and production, a booming transatlantic cotton economy sprang into life in the early decades of the nineteenth century, an economy that depended on the forced labor of slaves in the cotton fields of the American South and the alienated labor of textile workers in the factories of Northern England and New England. The industry thus comprised a network of race- and class-based exploitation on an unprecedented scale, and so its perpetuation depended too on the ability of consumers to justify purchasing its products. This justificatory logic and the omissions necessary for it to work are the focus of my study. Despite its material omnipresence, cotton is conspicuously absent from the canonical literary efforts by which the cultures of the plantation South, New England, and Lancashire produced themselves. I trace the representational strategies by which this pattern of omission was managed.

I take the British Abolition Act of 1833, and the transatlantic debates about slave versus wage labor that it spawned, as my starting point; as the legal counterpart to the Abolition Act in Britain, the American Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 serves as my endpoint. Between these dates, I examine a wide variety of texts, many of which are little known and understudied, in order to arrive at new understandings of the three Cotton Cultures. Ranging from Southern plantation novels like John Pendleton Kennedy’s Swallow Barn (1836) and Caroline Lee Hentz’s The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854) to a periodical publication by Massachusetts mill women, The Lowell Offering (1840-45), to British industrial novels like Frances Trollope’s Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy (1839-40) and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-5), the texts I consider reveal as much as they conceal about cotton cultivation and production. Understanding how the material realities of the cotton economy were mitigated or suppressed in the cultural consciousness at a time when the scope of the industry was transatlantic can illuminate the similar mechanisms by which we in the first world maintain our ignorance in today’s global textile economy.

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