Boycott: Literary Interventions in the American Marketplace, 1820-1880

Conrad, Jessica
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University of Delaware
This dissertation investigates the ways in which nineteenth-century activists marshaled print culture to materially interrupt and reconstruct the marketplace in order to accomplish political ends. Reading literature such as abolitionist boycott poetry or domestic thrift treatises or temperance tracts forces us to recognize consumer resistance as a major mode of dissent, especially for disenfranchised or politically marginalized groups. In an effort to flesh out the relationship between consumer resistance, disenfranchised groups, and literary production over the nineteenth century, this project asks how, for whom, and to what ideological purposes writers staged interventions in the nascent free market. In four chapters I look at the ways in which theories of conscientious consumption and ethical labor were posited by domestic economy (chapter one), rhetorically employed in sentimental fiction and poetry (chapters two and three), and run aground in fictionalizations of utopian communities (chapter four). Overall, I trace how literature of diverse genres and authors of diverse backgrounds theorized the ills of the marketplace, how they rejected actual goods seen as contaminated and contaminating, and, finally, how such literature imagined resistance to an entire economic system that had come to define lived existence. Set between the market revolution of the 1810s and the conspicuous consumption of the Gilded Age, my dissertation recovers literature from the dismissively labeled “crackbrained”[1] abolitionist boycott movement, Free Produce; it explores understudied texts by important activists, such as African American poet and novelist Frances Harper; it adds non-fiction texts to literary criticism, such as domestic economy manuals; and it reframes conversations on canonical texts of the American renaissance by reading them for their treatment of material culture in a material economy. My dissertation seeks to recover this literary movement of American consumer resistance for the purposes of deepening our understanding of how authors from radically different backgrounds affiliated literary form with modern market practices and the moral valuation of work and goods. I argue that when we read nineteenth-century consumer resistance literature, we are really reading about early approaches to the free market, a collective effort to define exchange value in terms of morality and ethics, and the ever-hopeful and long-denied quest for political autonomy. – [1 ]In Ruth Nuermberger’s Free Produce Movement (1942), she dismisses the movement as a “crackbrained” scheme (3).
American literature , Boycott , Consumer resistance , Consumption , Reform , Women