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Fictions and Frictions of the "Panama Roughneck": Literary Depictions of White, US Labor in the Canal Zone

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Abstract

This essay expands the critical conversation on race, labor, and literature in the Panama Canal Zone by foregrounding the portrayal of white, U.S. workers in two popular texts, Harry A. Franck’s Zone Policeman (1913) and John Hall’s Panama Roughneck Ballads (1912). While existing scholarship has detailed the legal and economic policies that shaped the United States’ racialized form of labor management, the “gold and silver system,” in the Zone, it has largely ignored the literary discourse that emerged in response to the system’s incongruous values. This essay argues that literary depictions of white, American canal workers as hyper-masculine and hyper-productive “Panama roughnecks” rhetorically rationalized the gold and silver system’s privileging of white, US workers, while also producing narratives that destabilized its hierarchies of race, nationality, and skill set. These narratives also engendered new forms of identification that evaded or reimagined normative American understandings of race, genealogy, and national affiliation.

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