In labor her best teacher: Nineteenth-century women's work as a Transcendentalist Bildungsroman
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“In Labor Her Best Teacher: Nineteenth-Century Women's Work as a Transcendentalist Bildungsroman ,” examines the synthesis of Transcendentalist theories of self-development in relation to women's labor from the 1860's and 1870's. The dissertation analyzes Louisa May Alcott's Work (1872), Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861) and “The Yares of Black Mountain,” (1875), and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps The Silent Partner (1871), tracing the maturation processes of female protagonists who enact Transcendentalist principles of self-development through their encounters with class and gender oppression. Informed by recent labor historians such as Sean Wilentz, Christine Stansell, and Mary Blewett, the dissertation argues that the novels draw from both historical contexts and the legacies of Transcendentalism. Their protagonists mature through work by forming cross-class, cross-racial alliances, testing received ideas, and creating vocational niches within the context of diverse communities. The dissertation concludes with Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain , a 1997 novel that expands upon the central nineteenth-century themes of female development through work, while at the same time adding an eco-centric inflection. This dissertation locates these bildungsromans as sites of new knowledge about women's work experiences because they depict in detail the meeting grounds between idealistic aspirations about self-development and the realities of labor oppression. Because the authors use realism in their depictions of women's work, they are a bridge between antebellum idealism and late nineteenth-century literary movements concerned with determinism. Previous scholarship has tested the characters' choices against the litmus of collective resistance to labor oppression, such as organized labor, or set up a polarity between masculinist individualism and the women-centered collectivity explored by the characters. My intervention challenges these polarities by demonstrating that nineteenth-century working women characters enacted both individualism and community. The protagonists move in and out of alliances with individuals and groups as they test their own skills and create specific vocational niches; from those niches, rather than form any specific political identification, they work for social change.