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Farm Labor, Environment, and Race in Nineteenth Century American Literature: The Georgic, Henry Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass

Daniel D Clausen, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


This dissertation examines the georgic mode as a way to narrate the relationship of labor and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. It surveys the history of the development of the georgic mode as a vehicle for agrarian political ideology and suggests this mode and ideology offer current ecocritics useful tools for recovering a history of environmental justice that includes working relationships to the environment. Writers from the colonial period to after the Civil War were invested in democratic agrarianism as a harmonious system of political economy and expressed these visions in didactic narrative literature. Drawing on ecocritical scholarship and the philosophy of Hannah Arendt regarding labor, work, and action, I explore American narratives about farm labor, environment, and race to uncover their radical potential. In the first chapter I examine popular georgics’ portrayal of labor and use of accounting, focusing especially on The Farmer’s Almanack and The American Agriculturist. These publications attempted to adapt a pre-industrial political role of farmers to a mass-market society, seeking both retreat from the economy and successful participation in it. The second chapter looks at how Henry David Thoreau—who sold subscriptions to The Agriculturist—adapted this discourse of labor and its accounting in Walden to create a subversive georgic that ironically resisted attempts to reduce labor to merely market economics. Finally, the third chapter shows how the biographies of Frederick Douglass build upon agrarian Free Labor discourse to expose the injustice of American racial thinking, while his Reconstruction oratory points toward a broadening of environmental concerns to include racial justice, reform of property rights, and a transhuman natural rights discourse.

Subject Area

African American Studies|American literature|Environmental Justice

Recommended Citation

Clausen, Daniel D, "Farm Labor, Environment, and Race in Nineteenth Century American Literature: The Georgic, Henry Thoreau, and Frederick Douglass" (2019). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI13861231.