From the 1820s through the 1840s, debate raged over what Thomas Carlyle famously termed “the Condition of England Question.” While much of the debate focused on how to remedy the material sufferings of the rural and urban working classes, for three writers in particular—William Cobbett, Thomas Carlyle, and Benjamin Disraeli–the times were marked by an even more pervasive crisis that threatened not only the material lives of workers, but also the very stability of meaning itself. At the root of this crisis lay industrial capitalism, and its impact was not only economic, but also cultural, bringing the nation to the very brink of a precipice.
In his provocative new study of these three fascinating but often misunderstood writers, John M. Ulrich challenges the commonly held notion that Cobbett, Carlyle, and Disraeli reacted to the crisis of their times out of a facile nostalgia for an idealized past; instead, Ulrich argues that each writer’s response was remarkably sophisticated and highly self-conscious in its attention to the complex interrelation between textual signs and material conditions.
Signs of Their Times reveals how these three very different writers shared a common conviction that their labor was not merely a resistance to change, but an active force for change, as each sought to refashion the currently unstable signs of the times—history, labor, and the body—into mutually dependent guarantors of social stability and meaning.
William Scott’s Troublemakers explores how a major change in the nature and forms of working-class power affected novels about U.S. industrial workers in the first half of the twentieth century. With the rise of mechanization and assembly-line labor from the 1890s to the 1930s, these laborers found that they had been transformed into a class of “mass” workers who, since that time, have been seen alternately as powerless, degraded victims or heroic, empowered icons who could rise above their oppression only through the help of representative organizations located outside the workplace.
Analyzing portrayals of workers in such novels as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Ruth McKenney's Industrial Valley, and Jack London’s The Iron Heel, William Scott moves beyond narrow depictions of these laborers to show their ability to resist exploitation through their direct actions—sit-down strikes, sabotage, and other spontaneous acts of rank-and-file “troublemaking” on the job—often carried out independently of union leadership. The novel of the mass industrial worker invites us to rethink our understanding of modern forms of representation through its attempts to imagine and depict workers’ agency in an environment where it appears to be completely suppressed.
Lesjak demonstrates how the ideological work of the literature of the Victorian era, the “golden age of the novel,” revolved around separating the domains of labor and pleasure and emphasizing the latter as the proper realm of literary representation. She reveals how the utopian works of Morris and Wilde grapple with this divide and attempt to imagine new relationships between work and pleasure, relationships that might enable a future in which work is not the antithesis of pleasure. In Working Fictions, Lesjak argues for the contemporary relevance of the “labor novel,” suggesting that within its pages lie resources with which to confront the gulf between work and pleasure that continues to characterize our world today.
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