“I never once thought of them” : retail workers in American department store fiction

Palmer, Ashley Elizabeth
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This dissertation focuses on an understudied category of turn-of-the-century American literature: texts that feature department stores and primarily highlight the position of the service workers who staffed them. In composing narratives situated mostly on the workers’ side of the sales counter, I argue, authors attempted to address perceived problems with consumer culture. Drawing upon the historical contexts of Progressive politics and women’s rights movements, this dissertation seeks a fuller understanding of how turn-of-the-century writers depicted the retail worker, responded to injustices of capitalism, and shaped popular opinions about consumer culture. Chapter 1 analyzes popular fiction by Lurana Sheldon and Rupert Hughes to investigate the ways both authors depict hardships of department store labor and envision different possibilities for reform at these sites of consumption. I show that despite both authors’ sympathy for the plight of the shopgirl, they look to business owners and consumers rather than the suffering shopgirls themselves to mend the problems of capitalism. Chapter 2 turns to works of fiction that portray the shopgirl’s hard-won ascent to professionalism (in the position of buyer) as an ambivalent climb to middle management. Readings of realist writer Edna Ferber and popular fiction author Charles Klein suggest that, whereas a work of realism takes a more pragmatic approach to the limits of professional success, popular fiction often employs an idealized marriage plot to complete the protagonist’s ascent. Moving away from the realm of popular fiction, Chapter 3 examines two ambitious literary undertakings: Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) and David Graham Phillips’ Susan Lenox (1917). Reading Carrie from the perspective of the shopgirl (and in comparison with Phillips’ Susan), I argue, can help us better appreciate the elisions and evasions that complicate the relationship Dreiser imagines between work and consumption. Moving briefly beyond 1920, a Coda considers Mary McCarthy’s The Group (1963) and Steve Martin’s Shopgirl (2000) to ask how we might better understand intersections of labor and consumption in our own moment. Finally, an Appendix provides an annotated bibliography that lists works of American department store fiction published between 1880-1920 as a resource for future scholarship.