As a rhetorical critic, I am constantly questioning the texts I read and attempting to understand how and why an author’s techniques work (or do not work) to move the reader to action, conviction, or persuasion. This approach is a natural one to take when analyzing protest literature because this literature is, at the core, rhetorical: protest authors want their readers to do something, whether that is to change their minds, vote at the polls, or take to the streets.
My dissertation, “‘Out of the dark confinement’: Physical Containment in Mid-Nineteenth Century Protest Literature,” examines images of physical containment and techniques of social reading instruction in protest literature in the years leading up to the American Civil War. During the 1850s and early 1860s, protest authors deployed images of physical containment in their works to engage their readers to reconceptualize notions of freedom in mid century, a time period marked by paradigmatic tensions over issues of race, class, and gender.
While most scholarship on nineteenth century protest literature tends to categorize texts by social movements and genres, my project shifts this focus by concretely investigating the ways in which protest authors forge connections between genres and social movements in the years leading up to the Civil War. Combining methodologies of historical studies, cultural studies, and literary analysis, I redefine how we look at protest literature as a field by focusing on rhetorical devices that span movements—like abolition, workers’ rights, and women’s rights—and genres—like novels, novellas, and autobiographical narratives. By drawing attention to the rhetorical moves of authors like Harriet Wilson, Rebecca Harding Davis, and Harriet Jacobs, and focusing closely on the cultural contexts within which these authors were writing, this project explores the rhetorical power these texts had in calling for material change in mid century. Further, I identify the ways that these works were inextricably linked to but also in contest with American cultural productions and paradigmatic ideologies of the time period.
I ultimately propose that authors writing protest texts in the nineteenth century found in images of physical containment a valid way in which to engage their readers, most of whom would be members of the middle- or upper-classes, and prompt those readers to identify with oppressed subjects, thereby creating a more sympathetic and engaged citizenship. My project, further, paves the way for more expansive studies on the rhetoric of physical containment as the technique continues into protest literature of the mid twentieth century, rendering it an established technique of audience engagement.