Just Teach One

Prison Boys Read The Factory Girl

Rachel Boccio
University of Rhode Island

I taught The Factory Girl to a select group of advanced students at John R. Manson Youth Institution, a maximum-security correctional facility for adolescence males in Cheshire, Connecticut. The “boys” of my title are part of a larger reading group I began facilitating in 2013 with former English students (those who’d graduated from our high school or credit diploma program). Typically we meet a few times a semester to read and discuss texts in the prison literature canon. Often these texts invite an engagement with topics of interest to Early Americanists: the origins of the penitentiary, authenticity and canonicity, and race and slavery.

Eight students joined me in reading The Factory Girl.

I suspected they would be bored (if not irritated) by Mary’s religiosity and the didacticism of the text. To guide their reading, I asked them to think about the way Sarah Savage positions institutions at a critical moment of nascence. I reminded them that the US emerges in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in tandem with the institutionalization of, among other things, the middle-class nuclear family, wage labor in factories, and the American public school system (all of which find their way, to varying degrees, into the novel). Recently, we read Caleb Smith’s The Prison and the American Imagination (New York: Yale UP, 2009) and discussed at length how institutions of the period became tasked with (re)producing—biologically, ideologically, and economically— a particular fantasy of citizen-subjectivity (one highly racialized, gendered, and classed). It thought we might extend this thinking into our reading of Savage’s novel.

On the morning we met, students were coming off of a three-day facility lockdown. They were cranky, eager to vent the small and large violations and disruptions (to time, to body, to property) that these unannounced procedures involve. We lost one of our students, transferred to administrative segregation for possessing contraband material. Boredom was on their minds, and The Factory Girl was an easy target. The students ranted about Mary’s “absurd” morality: a favorite example came from the scene where Mary gently chastises her friend Nancy for “laying in bed” in the early hours before the factory bell calls her to work. In addition, the students were bothered by what they saw as the cliché treatment of the novel’s characters and the division of individuals into good and bad. To this criticism, I suggested that Mary’s great aunt, Mrs. Holden, though called “selfish and irascible,” throws the novel’s pietistic aspects into relief and is never truly included with (or punished as) the novel’s cast of misbehaving characters. This prompted a discussion of William: In general, they agreed (much to my amusement) that William makes “a good choice” in breaking his engagement to Mary (however cowardly his behavior). Furthermore, they thought it unlikely that a young man attracted to a girl because of her virtuous values and conduct would later abandon a sick wife and young child in poverty. I cover the sentimental mode in my American literature survey course, and a number of the students who read The Factory Girl have knowledge of figures like “the rake” and of the penalty of abandonment for frivolous and coquettish girls. Even so, I thought their point compelling. A long discussion ensued regarding the implications of William’s “honest intentions” toward Mary, by which they meant his desire to marry not seduce her.

Returning to the point about institutions, I had students draw overlapping circles depicting the “institutions” (ideological, social, and economic) through which Mary moves, works, and finds mission. Accepting the didacticism of the text, I asked students to identify the lessons or values that Savage’s novel inculcates (or at least attempts to) through its evoking of these institutions and their logics. I was particularly interested in how the home, the factory, and the school serve as sites of reproduction. Students astutely arrived at the following list of values: usefulness, employment, industry, and duty and saw Mary’s work with the factory children and later with her nieces and nephews as examples of the way virtuous people pass on these principles. I encouraged them to think about what is at stake when a language of economic exchange and production (one lifted from the capitalistic logics of the factory) becomes the primary mode through which “virtue” and its attendant practices and attitudes of benevolence, charity, piety, and self-control are imagined. Though I did not assign the article, my inquiry was prompted by reading Thomas B. Lovell’s “Separate Spheres and Extensive Circles: Sarah Savage’s ‘The Factory Girl’ and the Celebration of Industry in Early Nineteenth-Century America” (Early American Literature 31.1 1996: 1-21), cited by Duncan Faherty and Ed White in their introduction, in which Lovell considers the conflation of virtue and economy in early pro-industrial discourse. I wanted students to think about identity construction and selfhood as it relates to capitalistic institutional life, a subject about which they have intimate knowledge. In general they were reticent to engage with me on this, seeing little similarities (despite my prodding) between their lives and Mary’s.

One student raised the issue of Mary’s depiction of factory work as “neither difficult nor laborious.” Most students assumed this to be an inaccurate portrayal of working conditions in the factory setting. Pausing at this moment in the novel (where Mary is first hired by Mr. Crawford), I asked them to consider what other kinds of labors (maybe of a more laborious variety) are suggested by the cotton factory and also by Mary’s desire that her grandmother enjoy the “little luxuries” of a “tea-table,” presumably adorned with sugar. The students were quick to identify slavery. This allowed me to remind them of the ways in which slavery served as an economic engine underpinning northern metropolitan economic development and the ideology of republican virtue, which Mary and her friends clearly represent. One perceptive student recalled a passage in which William is discussed as a kind of slave: “Whatever was new, captivated his imagination, and kept him in bondage, till another novelty unbound the chain, only to make way for new fetters.” This led to a broader conversation of captivity in the novel—to discussions of the moral strictures imposed by religion and of the strict and regimented notions of time intrinsic to factory and school life. (Page 16 of Faherty’s and White’s edition has a lengthy passage excellent for examining the language, notion, and practice of modern temporality. I had wanted to contrast this section with notions of seasonal time in the novel. Alas, “time” did not allow.)

For a group of students who identify as readers of “Street Lit” and prefer the novels of Omar Tyree, Sister Soulijah, and Teri Woods to nearly anything I might include on a standard syllabus, The Factory Girl was a stretch. Earlier in the year, when I met with students to explain the project, the willing few were heartened by the title’s implicit guarantee that I’d just teach them one. In the end, none of my students claimed to have “liked” the novel (all agreed they’d never recommend it), and yet they were surprised by the dynamic conversations it opened up and settled on the view that participation had been worth the trouble. Victory!

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