"Laboring, Loafing, and Languishing": Work and Identity in Antebellum American Literature (Panel)

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Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA) Hartford, CT March 17-20 2016
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In 1784, Benjamin Franklin writes of Americans "[we] do not inquire concerning a stranger, what is he? But, what can he do?" When the first Europeans settled the shores of what is now the United States, hard work was necessary for the very survival of the small communities, yet since then, the notion of hard work and a strong "work ethic" has passed into American consciousness as a (if not the) defining virtue of both an individual's identity and of national identity. This panel seeks papers exploring what literary work produced in "Antebellum America" (roughly 1820-1861) has to say about this idea of hard work as the primary shaper of both individual and national identity. How is the centrality of work as relates to individual identity and agency challenged by 19th century texts? How does the institutionalized forced labor of slavery conflict with work as national virtue? How does the increasing transition in parts of 19th century American society from an agrarian rural culture to an industrial culture centered in an urban landscape transform the relationship between work and identity? As the conflation between who one is and the work one does is no less relevant and timely for present day Americans, how might we, as teachers of American literature, work through this relationship in the classroom?
Please submit 250-500 word abstracts by September 30, 2015. Visit nemla.org, and follow the instructions there to create an account and submit the abstract directly to the session. The direct link to the session is https://www.cfplist.com/nemla/Home/S/15847

Panel Chair: Jessica H Gray, University of Rhode Island