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All Play and No Work
American Work Ideals and the Comic Plays of the Federal Theatre Project
Gagliardi, Paul
Temple University Press, 2024
Many of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) plays Paul Gagliardi analyzes in All Play and No Work feature complex portrayals of labor and work relief at a time when access to work was difficult. Gagliardi asks, what does it mean that many plays produced by the FTP celebrated forms of labor like speculation and swindling?     

All Play and No Work directly contradicts the promoted ideals of work found in American society, culture, and within the broader New Deal itself. Gagliardi shows how comedies of the Great Depression engaged questions of labor, labor history, and labor ethics. He considers the breadth of the FTP’s production history, staging plays including Ah, Wilderness!, Help Yourself, and Mississippi Rainbow.

Gagliardi examines backstage comedies, middle-class comedies, comedies of chance, and con-artist comedies that employed diverse casts and crew and contained radical economic and labor ideas. He contextualizes these plays within the ideologically complicated New Deal, showing how programs like the Social Security Act straddled progressive ideals and conservative, capitalist norms. Addressing topics including the politicization of theatrical labor and the real dangers of unchecked economic con artists, the comic plays of the FTP reveal acts of political resistance and inequality that reflected the concerns of their audiences.
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Around Quitting Time
Work and Middle-Class Fantasy in American Fiction
Robert Seguin
Duke University Press, 2001
Virtually since its inception, the United States has nurtured a dreamlike and often delirious image of itself as an essentially classless society. Given the stark levels of social inequality that have actually existed and that continue today, what sustains this at once hopelessly ideological and breathlessly utopian mirage? In Around Quitting Time Robert Seguin investigates this question, focusing on a series of modern writers who were acutely sensitive to the American web of ideology and utopic vision in order to argue that a pervasive middle-class imaginary is the key to the enigma of class in America.
Tracing connections between the reconstruction of the labor process and the aesthetic dilemmas of modernism, between the emergence of the modern state and the structure of narrative, Seguin analyzes the work of Nathanael West, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, John Barth, and others. These fictional narratives serve to demonstrate for Seguin the pattern of social sites and cultural phenomenon that have emerged where work and leisure, production and consumption, and activity and passivity coincide. He reveals how, by creating pathways between these seemingly opposed domains, the middle-class imaginary at once captures and suspends the dynamics of social class and opens out onto a political and cultural terrain where class is both omnipresent and invisible.
Aroung Quitting Time
will interest critics and historians of modern U.S. culture, literary scholars, and those who explore the interaction between economic and cultural forms.
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By the Sweat of the Brow
Literature and Labor in Antebellum America
Nicholas K. Bromell
University of Chicago Press, 1993
The spread of industrialism, the emergence of professionalism, and the challenge to slavery fueled an anxious debate about the meaning and value of work in antebellum America.

In chapters on Thoreau, Melville, Hawthorne, Rebecca Harding Davis, Susan Warner, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass, Nicholas Bromell argues that American writers generally sensed a deep affinity between the mental labor of writing and such bodily labors as blacksmithing, house building, housework, mothering, and farming. Combining literary and social history, canonical and noncanonical texts, primary source material, and contemporary theory, Bromell establishes work as an important subject of cultural criticism.
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Domestic Georgic
Labors of Preservation from Rabelais to Milton
Katie Kadue
University of Chicago Press, 2020
Inspired by Virgil’s Georgics, this study conceptualizes Renaissance poetry as a domestic labor.

When is literary production more menial than inspired, more like housework than heroics of the mind? In this revisionist study, Katie Kadue shows that some of the authors we credit with groundbreaking literary feats—including Michel de Montaigne and John Milton—conceived of their writing in surprisingly modest and domestic terms. In contrast to the monumental ambitions associated with the literature of the age, and picking up an undercurrent of Virgil’s Georgics, poetic labor of the Renaissance emerges here as often aligned with so-called women’s work. Kadue reveals how male authors’ engagements with a feminized georgic mode became central to their conceptions of what literature is and could be. This other georgic strain in literature shared the same primary concern as housekeeping: the necessity of constant, almost invisible labor to keep the things of the world intact. Domestic Georgic brings into focus a conception of literary—as well as scholarly and critical—labor not as a striving for originality and fame but as a form of maintenance work that aims at preserving individual and collective life.
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Dreams for Dead Bodies
Blackness, Labor, and the Corpus of American Detective Fiction
M. Michelle Robinson
University of Michigan Press, 2016
Dreams for Dead Bodies: Blackness, Labor, and  the Corpus of American Detective Fiction offers new arguments about the origins of detective fiction in the United States, tracing the lineage of the genre back to unexpected texts and uncovering how authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Pauline Hopkins, and Rudolph Fisher made use of the genre’s puzzle-elements to explore the shifting dynamics of race and labor in America.
 
The author constructs an interracial genealogy of detective fiction to create a nuanced picture of the ways that black and white authors appropriated and cultivated literary conventions that coalesced in a recognizable genre at the turn of the twentieth century. These authors tinkered with detective fiction’s puzzle-elements to address a variety of historical contexts, including the exigencies of chattel slavery, the erosion of working-class solidarities by racial and ethnic competition, and accelerated mass production. Dreams for Dead Bodies demonstrates that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature was broadly engaged with detective fiction, and that authors rehearsed and refined its formal elements in literary works typically relegated to the margins of the genre. By looking at these margins, the book argues, we can better understand the origins and cultural functions of American detective fiction.
 
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Hands
Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work
Zandy, Janet
Rutgers University Press, 2004
 What are two hands worth?

In linking forms of cultural expression to labor, occupational injuries, and deaths, Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work centers what is usually decentered--the complex culture of working-class people. Janet Zandy begins by examining the literal loss of lives to unsafe jobs and occupational hazards. She asks critical and timely questions about worker representation--who speaks for employees when the mills, mines, factories, and even white-collar cubicles shut down? She presents the voices of working-class writers and artists, and discusses their contribution to knowledge and culture.

This innovative study reveals the flesh and bone beneath the abstractions of labor, class, and culture. It is an essential contribution to the emerging field of working-class studies, offering a hybrid model for bridging communities and non-academic workers to scholars and institutions of knowledge.
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Idleness Working
the Discourse of Love's Labor from Ovid through Chaucer and Gower
Gregory M. Sadlek
Catholic University of America Press, 2004
Inspired by the critical theories of M. M. Bakhtin, Idleness Working is a groundbreaking study of key works in the Western literature of love from Classical Rome to the late Middle Ages.
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Labor's Text
The Worker in American Fiction
Hapke, Laura
Rutgers University Press, 2000
Labor's Text charts how the worker has been portrayed and often misrepresented in American fiction. Laura Hapke offers hundreds of depictions of wage earners: from fiction on the early artisan "aristocrats" to the Gilded Age's union-busting novelists to the year 2000's marginalized, apolitical men and women. Whether the authors discussed are pro- or anti-labor, Hapke illuminates the literary, historical, and intellectual contexts in which their fiction was produced and read.
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Signs of their Times
History, Labor, and the Body in Cobbett, Carlyle, and Disraeli
John M. Ulrich
Ohio University Press, 2001

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.

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Troublemakers
Power, Representation, and the Fiction of the Mass Worker
Scott, William
Rutgers University Press, 2012

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.

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Working Fictions
A Genealogy of the Victorian Novel
Carolyn Lesjak
Duke University Press, 2006
Working Fictions takes as its point of departure the common and painful truth that the vast majority of human beings toil for a wage and rarely for their own enjoyment or satisfaction. In this striking reconceptualization of Victorian literary history, Carolyn Lesjak interrogates the relationship between labor and pleasure, two concepts that were central to the Victorian imagination and the literary output of the era. Through the creation of a new genealogy of the “labor novel,” Lesjak challenges the prevailing assumption about the portrayal of work in Victorian fiction, namely that it disappears with the fall from prominence of the industrial novel. She proposes that the “problematic of labor” persists throughout the nineteenth century and continues to animate texts as diverse as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s Felix Holt and Daniel Deronda, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and the essays and literary work of William Morris and Oscar Wilde.

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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