Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Blackpool on the Picket Line: Hard Times Goes Viral in Nineteenth-Century America

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Blackpool on the Picket Line: Hard Times Goes Viral in Nineteenth-Century America

Article excerpt

A 2012 online news article reporting the decertification of a college administrative union engendered the following comment: "CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!! Unions have destroyed this country and the American product." This post received two replies: the first was a rather predictable ditto: "You said it!!!!" The second, in its length and detail, demonstrates a deeper understanding of the history of labor and political systems in America. It read:

Also, more on topic, if employees are going to trust administration[s,]
Good Luck with that! We have seen what the kindness of administrators,
law makers and management have garnered us over the last thirty-five
years going back to the reign of Ronald Regan [sic] and the air
controllers. Nonunion workers are just jealous of the unions. My wish
is that they get the Republican oligarchy that they vote for. (Wall)

This tension between public opinion and labor associations has a long history in America, stretching back to their first appearance in the mid-nineteenth century. As industrial capitalism transformed the social landscape, shifting labor from agrarian self-sufficiency to urban wage dependency, support for workers and unions was often tainted by fears of violence and class anxieties. This duality is reflected in the conflicting views of workers in nineteenth-century print culture. An 1873 New York Times editorial, commenting on the effects of an economic depression on the working class, noted that "our benevolent community must expect to assist the poorest of the working classes" ("Winter" 4). But in the same year the same newspaper, along with the Chicago Times and Iron Age magazine, characterized workers who attempted to organize as, respectively, "insane," "criminals," and "demagogues" (qtd. in Gutman 36).

School readers, those bellwethers of middle-class values, portrayed labor unrest not as democratic expression but as mob rule. One 1881 history textbook substituted "riot" for "strike" when discussing a work stoppage (Elson 249). While many Americans sympathized with the working class, most found it easier to merely acknowledge the problems confronting the working poor, and viewed any organized attempt to change their condition with suspicious hostility.

This confusion between sympathy for--and disgust and fear of--workers explains nineteenth-century America's long running engagement with Charles Dickens's 1854 novel Hard Times. Readers found in it a narrative that mirrored their indignation at the squalor and harsh conditions of the workers--and their wariness toward any overt action that smacked of the proletariat. Given this view of the working class, Stephen Blackpool, the doomed mill operative at the center of the novel, represented a model nineteenth-century American laborer. A safe, sanitized version of an honest mechanic, he exhibited the stoic resignation in the face of hardship that well suited America's intolerance of dissent. In particular, his negative attitude toward union action made him an especially attractive figure to middle-class American readers.

The initial American reviews mirror the modern view of Dickens as essentially conservative (1); one of the first reviews of Hard Times, in 1855, noted that "[c]apital and labor are but complements of each other, and are to be used in harmony rather than in discordance" (A. W. 367-68). However, by 1871 a change had occurred. An interpretative community that read with an eye focused on class issues had emerged. In line with the more politically activist movements of latter nineteenth-century America, Hard Times was singled out, in an article on Dickens from the 1871 edition of the reference book American Cyclopedia, for "its noble appeals for the rights of the working-classes against the tyranny of capital" ("Charles Dickens" 223). The Marxist discourse--"tyranny of capital"--in the pages of a mainstream publication (the Cyclopedia was published by D. Appleton, one of the major houses of the period) suggests a shift in attitude, a recognition that it was a system--capitalism--that was responsible for the plight of the workers. …

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