Textured readings of the literary expression of workers in the era of big cotton


The rise of both the empire of cotton and the empire of fashion in the nineteenth century brought new opportunities for sartorial self-expression to millions of ordinary people who could now afford to dress in style and assert their physical presence. Millions of laborers toiling in cotton fields and producing cotton cloth in industrial mills faced a brutal reality of exploitation, servitude, and regimentation—yet they also had a profound desire to express their selfhood. Another transformative force of this era—the rise of literary publication and the radical extension of literacy to the working class—opened an avenue for them to do so.

Cloth and clothing provide potent tropes not only for physical but also for intellectual forms of self-expression. Drawing on sources ranging from fugitive slave narratives, newspapers, manifestos, and mill workers’ magazines to fiction, poetry, and autobiographies, Clothed in Meaning examines the significant part played by mill workers and formerly enslaved people, many of whom still worked picking cotton, in this revolution of literary self-expression. They created a new literature from their palpable daily intimacy with cotton, cloth, and clothing, as well as from their encounters with grimly innovative modes of work. In the materials of their labor they discovered vivid tropes for formulating their ideas and an exotic and expert language for articulating them. The harsh conditions of their work helped foster in their writing a trenchant irony toward the demeaning reduction of human beings to “hands” whose minds were unworthy of interest. Ultimately, Clothed in Meaning provides an essential examination of the intimate connections between oppression and luxury as recorded in the many different voices of nineteenth-century labor.

Sylvia Jenkins Cook is Emeritus Professor of English, University of Missouri-St.Louis.

“A powerful and timely contribution to U.S. literary studies and working-class studies. . . . Stylishly written, impeccably researched, and carefully argued, it presents a deft, textured analysis of the meanings of cloth and clothing in the writings of a diverse array of Anglo-American and African American authors.”
—Lori Merish, Georgetown University

- Lori Merish, Georgetown University

“Returns boldly to decade-long conversations about the literariness of African American writing. Cook includes a vast array of texts, from early slave narratives and novels to end-of-the-century writings by Washington, Chesnutt, and Du Bois to WPA interviews with former slaves.”
—Susan S. Williams, The Ohio State University

- Susan S. Williams, The Ohio State University

"The academic value and social currency of Cook’s research lies very much in her subsuming of personal stories and narrated retellings into a wider reading of the cotton industry and the American economy, contributing along the way a much-needed survey of the various mechanisms that have long perpetuated disenfranchisement and marginalization under the auspices of the desires of the everyday consumer."
Fashion Theory

- Kevin Alexander Su

"Cook’s analysis of these works provides an apt capstone to her impressive contribution to material culture scholarship. Essential."

- G. E. Bender

"Cook provides a new way of thinking about the writings of working people who were involved in the empire of cotton, drawing a line from Mississippi cotton fields to the New England textile mills, to the modiste studios of New York and Washington, D.C."
American Literary History

- Sarah E. Chinn

Honorable Mention: Modern Language Association (MLA) 2020 William Sanders Scarborough Prize

- MLA William Sanders Scarborough Prize

Featured in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education as a "Recent Book of Interest for African American Scholars" 

- Sylvia Jenkins Cook