Date of Award

Spring 5-2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)





Committee Chair

Ellen Weinauer

Committee Chair Department


Committee Member 2

Jonathan N. Barron

Committee Member 2 Department


Committee Member 3

Sherita L. Johnson

Committee Member 3 Department


Committee Member 4

Jameela Lares

Committee Member 4 Department


Committee Member 5

Maureen Ryan

Committee Member 5 Department



Most scholarship on American protest literature tends to focus on the protest literature of specific, politically marginalized groups, such as black protest, women’s protest, or working class protest. My project redefines how we read nineteenth-century American protest literature by investigating the connections between the protest texts of these three marginalized groups. In particular, I argue that mid-nineteenth-century protest authors incorporate images of physical confinement and entrapment within their texts to expose to privileged readers the physical and ideological containment and control marginalized subjects encounter in their daily lives. Drawing from rhetorical theories of argumentation and audience engagement, and incorporating historical and cultural contexts, I analyze three protest texts that respond to the contentious debates of the 1850s—a decade marked by increasing tensions over issues of race, class, and gender: Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861), and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

Along with analyzing these authors’ use of images of physical confinement, I also study the use of direct address and reader engagement in protest texts in order to show how authors foster an empathetic connection between privileged readers and marginalized characters. I show how protest literature further uses these formal modes to critique and advocate for change within the status quo. By drawing attention to the rhetorical techniques of Wilson, Davis, and Jacobs, I advance beyond the current scholarly interests in genre to investigate how these authors forge connections among such movements as women’s rights, workers’ rights, and abolition.