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Matthew Pethers (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) will discuss the indentured servants and felons who were transported to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their role and representation in an emerging tradition of American working-class literature.
This talk considers some of the earliest surviving texts dealing with the lives and concerns of American working people. A significant number of early white settlers in British America were indentured servants and convicted felons, generally of “lower” class origins, who arrived to work plantations under highly restrictive contracts. Most of these transported laborers were only marginally literate and have not left extensive records but those who did write of their experiences offer us remarkably rich insights into the formation of a modern class-consciousness. Riven with tensions between individuality and solidarity, these “transportation stories” represent an important, but often overlooked, phase in America’s always complex relationship with the dream of upward mobility. Concentrating on the poems, memoirs, and pamphlets that transportees produced, whilst also acknowledging the relatively substantial body of fictional texts which feature these figures – most famously Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) – this talk will offer a genealogy of the sometimes competing and conflicting literary genres that shaped early understandings of an American “working class,” as well as tracing their shared concerns with economic agency, moral redemption, and the increasing racialization of the American workforce.
Matthew Pethers is an Assistant Professor of American Intellectual and Cultural History at the University of Nottingham. He has published widely on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American literature, print culture, and science. He is currently working on a book about social mobility, the circum-Atlantic novel, and America class formation between 1688 and 1776.