University of Missouri Research Board

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University of Missouri
Sylvia Cook

A Working Woman

Sylvia Cook, Professor, English, UM St. Louis

By Jacqueline Lampert

My present project comes directly out of the UMRB project, so there's an ongoing influence from the Research Board grant.

"It was a process of trial and error," comments Sylvia Cook about her latest book, Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration. (2007). “I had already written a couple of earlier books that dealt with poor people and poverty,” says the professor of English at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. This prior work treated poor people in the early twentieth century, especially those from the South. As a specialist in southern American literature, Cook decided to focus on the beginnings, that is, on the start of the 19th century, for her latest book. Her initial plan was to create a broad historical account of early American literature, but during the research phase the scope of her book began to change.

“When I went back to the 19th century," Cook recalls, "I discovered a magazine that the factory women had written called the Lowell Offering.” As a result of this discovery she developed a heightened interest in women workers, and decided to narrow her focus to concentrate on them rather than on “this huge umbrella of poor people.”

Her curiosity led her to Massachusetts, where many of the factories in which these young women once toiled are still preserved. Aside from the cramped living quarters, it was the overpowering sound of the machinery that struck Cook the most. “They give everyone earplugs to protect their ears," she recounts, "and they turn the machinery on for maybe three minutes and the whole place starts throbbing. It’s deafeningly loud.” But unlike the people merely touring the factories, the women who actually worked there did not have earplugs or any other kind of protection, a bad situation made even worse by the fact that the average workday was 12 hours long. As an escape from the excruciatingly loud machinery, Cook learned, these women created poems and invented stories. As she came to appreciate, they were in effect literary authors, and this insight provided the topic for her latest book. Unfortunately, says Cook, “not many books deal with these factory women as literary people, as authors, and in some sense inventing their own lives and developing a sense of themselves in that way.“ For that reason she hopes that her study enriches our understanding of early American working women.

Cook emphasizes how the UMRB grant made it possible for her to carry out this research and writing: “They gave me a semester away from teaching as I was coming towards the end of the project, just as I had this sort of patchwork of different subjects that I needed to somehow synthesize and make more polished.” She explains that although she loves teaching, preparing and teaching her classes requires a great deal of energy, sometimes at the expense of her research. The UMRB grant provided her with “pure, concentrated, uninterrupted time,” during which she could revise and finish a lengthy study that promises to have a significant effect on American literature, history, and cultural studies.

Her work with Literary Ladies also led Cook to her next project, which is presently in its early stages. As she puts it, “I’m still interested in these factory women, these working class women in the 19th century, and I’m still interested in the books that they read and how they wrote about themselves.” But in this new study she is focusing on what some people call the “F” word in literature, where “F” stands for fashion. “These women were very interested in clothes," she notes. "They had a little bit of disposable income for the first time in their lives. They write frequently about how they like to go shopping.” While walking through the boarding house rooms in Massachusetts, she perceived a correlation between what these women wore and what they read: “Living four and six to a room, mostly what they could own is books and clothes, and those clothes really meant a lot to them.”

Cook’s enthusiasm for her latest project also translates importantly to her teaching of American literature. For example, she notices herself talking more and more about dress, fashion, and style with her students in various courses. And their responsiveness and interest has increased, she reports. Sharing research in the classroom is important in two ways, she feels: “Some of my research is very much affected by what students say in the classroom. I get a lot of ideas from interacting with students; and I find teaching a great basis for research, and research a great basis for my teaching.”