Clothed in Meaning: Literature, Labor, and Cotton in Nineteenth-Century America

by Sylvia Jenkins Cook


Cloth and clothing provide potent tropes not only for physical but also for intellectual forms of self-expression. Drawing on sources ranging from fugitive slave narratives, newspapers, manifestos, and mill workers’ magazines to fiction, poetry, and autobiographies, Clothed in Meaning examines the significant part played by mill workers and formerly enslaved people, many of whom still worked picking cotton, in this revolution of literary self-expression. They created a new literature from their palpable daily intimacy with cotton, cloth, and clothing, as well as from their encounters with grimly innovative modes of work. In the materials of their labor they discovered vivid tropes for formulating their ideas and an exotic and expert language for articulating them. The harsh conditions of their work helped foster in their writing a trenchant irony toward the demeaning reduction of human beings to “hands” whose minds were unworthy of interest. Ultimately, Clothed in Meaning provides an essential examination of the intimate connections between oppression and luxury as recorded in the many different voices of nineteenth-century labor.

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Sylvia Jenkins Cook






Cotton, Enslavement, US