Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Daniel Mark Fogel

Second Advisor

Carl Freedman


This dissertation examines how late nineteenth-century American realist and naturalist narratives defuse the working-class drive for class self-determination and political power. The texts examined are Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills" (1861), Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Silent Partner (1871), Henry James's The Princess Casamassima (1886), William Dean Howells's A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900). Each work is examined in the context of a specific proletarian insurgency that was taking place at roughly the same time, and sometimes the same place, in which the author was writing. Each text bears the impress of specific attempts by proletarians to represent themselves through activism and mass action. These proletarian attempts at self-representation become historically knowable to the extent that they at once resist and abet literary representation. Thus, while each literary text attempts to denature the emergent working-class presence in the body politic, that presence persists, often as a kind of absent or negative image of itself. Working-class presence inspires disruptions in the usual realist time-order narration, for instance, and it deeply affects plot, setting, characterization and metaphor use. Further, because realism and naturalism define themselves in the literary marketplace through rendering empirically precise, objective pictures of society, these texts cannot simply erase workers from the narrative. Working-class presence certainly poses a threat to the class privileges of the middle-class authors and readers of nineteenth-century fiction, but it also provides an opportunity for those writers and readers to carve their niche in the emerging power structure of consumer capitalism. Thus instead of eliding working-class presence, realist and naturalist narratives at once depict it and imaginatively manage the threats it poses to the status quo. Realist and naturalist writings are at once drawn to and repulsed by the scenes of proletarian insurrection that marked the late nineteenth century. The resultant writing-under-erasure of workers and worker power deeply determines American literature.