Life in the Iron Mills (American History Through Literature)
Published anonymously in the well-respected Atlantic Monthly under the editorship of James T. Fields in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis (1831910), ushered in American literary realism and at the same time launched a pathbreaking exposé of the effects of capitalism and industrialization, including the physical, spiritual, and intellectual starvation of immigrant wage earners. In fact, the novel is recognized as being the first literary work in America to focus on the relationships among industrial work, poverty, and the exploitation of immigrants within a capitalistic economy. It also contains elements of naturalism likened to that of later works by the French writer ile Zola and the American writer Frank Norris.
Life in the Iron Mills departs from the popular domestic women's fiction of the 1850s, known as the "feminine fifties" and dominated by authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Sedgwick, Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth, and Mary Jane Holmes, among others. Meant for middle- and upper-class readers, domestic fiction typically focused on virtuous heroines ("true women") who, despite trials and tribulations or competition from vain, shallow, fashionable coquettes out to snare wealthy husbands, find love and marriage and create happy homes as ideal wives and mothers. Some domestic novels, however, like Catharine Sedgwick's Married or Single? (1857), introduced feminist themes by questioning whether marriage and motherhood should be the goal of all women. Instead, greatly inspired by the moral darkness and dilemmas of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales, Davis chose to focus on the commonplace and common folk: the working class, slaves, freed slaves, and women. Indeed, Davis's realistic depiction of the gritty, hellish mills and the impoverished workers' lives is far removed from the material advantages of the upper classes often portrayed in domestic fiction. She also uses the vernacular and dialect skillfully to depict realistically her uneducated immigrant characters and to emphasize their lower-class status. Davis counteracts positive images of healthy, wholesome mill girls and mills as ideal places of work. Life in the Iron Mills challenges the optimism of transcendentalism by showing how industrialism fueled by greedy capitalists destroys the natural environment and the human spirit.
After Life in the Iron Mills was first published in the Atlantic Monthly, both Emily Dickinson and Nathaniel Hawthorne praised the work. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was also greatly influenced by Davis's Life in the Iron Mills and in 1868 published in the Atlantic Monthly "The Tenth of January," based on the 1860 fire at the Pemberton Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
DAVIS'S LIFE AND CAREER
Davis was born Rebecca Blaine Harding in Washington, Pennsylvania, to genteel parents, Rachel Leet Wilson and Englishman Richard Harding, who had immigrated to America. Her family lived briefly in Big Springs, Alabama, before moving in 1837 to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), on the Ohio River. Its iron mills and immigrant populations inspired the setting of Life in the Iron Mills. Rebecca Harding was educated at Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania, where she studied religion, heard the speeches of abolitionists (among them Horace Greeley), and graduated valedictorian in 1848, the same year the American feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and other agitators met at Seneca Falls. Thus, during her adolescent years, religious, abolitionist, and feminist reform was prominent.
Harding began her career as a writer for the Wheeling Intelligencer, in which she published reviews, editorials, stories, and poems. In December 1860 she submitted her manuscript of Life in the Iron Mills to the Atlantic Monthly and received acceptance of it in January. In 1863, at the age of thirty-one, Rebecca Harding married the abolitionist L. Clarke Davis, and they had three children, Richard Harding, Charles Belmont, and Nora. Like other prominent female authors, including Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Davis learned how to combine the roles of wife, mother, and author. Her body of workuch of it treating issues of race, class, and genderomprises more than five hundred publications, including short stories; satirical, realistic, and social protest novels; essays; juvenile fiction; and local color sketches. In 1904 Houghton, Mifflin and Company published Bits of Gossip, Davis's memoirs and last book. But despite a prolific writing career, her contributions to American literature were overshadowed by the achievements of her husband, who edited the Philadelphia Inquirer and Public Ledger, and of her son, Richard Harding Davis, who was lauded as a journalist and short story writer, even though his mother's writing abilities surpassed his. As a result, Life in the Iron Mills received little scholarly attention before it was resurrected in 1972 by Tillie Olson and published by the Feminist Press.
HISTORICAL AND LITERARY CONTEXTS
The story of the Wolfes that the narrator of Life in the Iron Mills tells takes place in the 1830s, a time when the Industrial Revolution was well underway. Until the 1840s well-to-do entrepreneurs established new mills and factories through their own finances because banks usually did not invest in industry or make loans to manufacturers. Industry thrived until the panic of 1837, originating in Britain, affected investments in the United States, resulting in the bankruptcies of both British and American manufacturers and extensive unemployment. The American economy fell into a depression from which it did not emerge until 1843. By the 1850s iron manufacturing was doing especially well, and by 1860 it was the nation's leading industry. Cotton production was another major industry. Investors profited significantly at the expense of workers.
Industry depended greatly on immigrant laborers. Approximately four million Irish, German, and British immigrants moved to the United States between 1820 and 1860. Most of them were unskilled peasants, laborers, and farmers who found employment in factories, on construction sites, at warehouses and docks, and in private homes. As depicted in Life in the Iron Mills, the living conditions for many immigrants were poor, indeed not much better than what they had experienced in Europe. Lacking enough money to buy food, many suffered from malnutrition and from diseases like cholera, smallpox, and consumption (tuberculosis), with which the main character, Hugh Wolfe, is afflicted.
As Davis shows, the Industrial Revolution also brought with it class distinctions clearly exhibited by the material wealth of capitalists and industrialists who possessed the means to build lavish homes with elaborate architecture. In contrast, factory workers and other unskilled laborers often lived in crowded boardinghouses and small apartments. Because they lived in such deplorable and disorderly conditions, held such lower-class status, and faced the stress and uncertainty of work, many wage earners indulged in alcohol consumption. Davis effectively captures these problems in Life in the Iron Mills.
In the decades prior to the 1861 publication of Life, several reform movements were established, and they were still flourishing when Davis wrote her story. Beginning in the 1830s, the Quakers Angelina Grimké and Sarah Grimké agitated for both women's rights and antislavery. During the 1840s and 1850s, educational reform provided opportunities for women to be educated as teachers. In the 1840s the woman's rights movement gained prominence. Members of the business elite and middle class, many with Congregationalist or Presbyterian connections, formed benevolent and moral reform societies in an attempt to establish social order and discipline in the lives of common farmers, laborers, and factory workers. In her story, Davis raises the possibility of religious reform and benevolence to improve the lives of the working class.
SYNOPSIS AND MAJOR THEMES
Treated as either a long short story or a novella in the genre of local regionalism, Life in the Iron Mills begins with an epigraph composed of lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson's popular poem "In Memoriam A. H. H." (1850), clearly signaling the bleakness of the story:
Is this the end?
O Life, as futile, then as frail!
What hope of answer or redress?
The narrator, whose gender is never clearly identified although many scholars assume the narrative voice is female, draws in the reader with the question, "A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?" (p. 11). From a window of her residence she describes the sights, sounds, and smells of the polluted industrial atmosphere of the setting based on Davis's hometown of Wheeling, Virginia: "drunken Irishmen . . . puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes" (p. 11); smoke rolling "sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys of the iron-foundries, and [settling] down in black, slimy pools on the muddy streets" (p. 11). In a passage reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau's observation of masses of Concord men leading lives of quiet desperation in Walden (1854), the narrator observes
masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling caldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body. (P. 12)
This stifling setting and the social ills associated with it clearly establish the movement away from an agrarian economy and idyllic lifestyle often exalted in Romantic literature toward an increasingly industrial-based economy and the deadening lifestyle it inflicts upon its workers. The narrator also notes in her room a dirty caged canary, a reminder of the use of caged birds in mines to alert miners to dangerf the birds died, the air was toxicnd signifying the caged existence of mill workers whose lives can also be sniffed out by poisonous industrial toxins.
After establishing the slimy, stagnant setting absent of "green fields and sunshine" (p. 12) and devoid of beauty, the narrator invites the readerhom she labels an amateur psychologist and an "Egoist, or Pantheist, or Arminian" (p. 14), thereby suggesting self-aggrandizement, and whom she views as being a member of a higher social classo hear the story of Hugh Wolfe. The narrator now inhabits the house where Hugh and his family lived thirty years ago. She predicts hope for the future and suggests the possibility of "a secret, underlying sympathy between that story and this day" (p. 14).
Hugh Wolfe, along with his father, a Welsh immigrant, and cousin Deborah, live in two cellar rooms of the house, rented to six families. Hugh and his father are puddlers, working for low earnings at Kirby & John's mill making iron for the railroad, while Deborah works as a picker in a cotton mill for a lower wage. The story centers on Hugh and Deborah and their impoverished existence, which represents the lives of all downtrodden mill workers. Concealing her unrequited love for Hugh, Deb, "almost a hunchback" (p. 17), delivers to him every night a supper of bread, salt pork, and ale. Her most basic needs not being met, Deb's deformed body hungers for food, but more importantly, her soul starves for love and spiritual sustenance. Not physically beautiful as are most heroines of popular domestic fiction and feeling unworthy to attract a suitor, Deb believes that Hugh abhors her appearance and that he yearns for beauty and purity. She is convinced of his attraction to the much more appealing Little Janey, a young Irish girl who lives with the Wolfes while her father is in jail.
At Kirby & John's mill, the monstrous furnaces that Hugh tends are like the pits of hell or Dante's Inferno. The work has caused him to lose his manly strength and vigor and to become feminized: "his muscles were thin, his nerves weak, his face (a meek, woman's face) haggard, yellow with consumption" (p. 24). Many a nineteenth-century heroine, including Edgar Allan Poe's Ligeia, succumbed to this disease. Considering Hugh a girl-man, the other mill workers have named him Molly Wolfe. Unlike the other workers, Hugh has received some education. What really sets him apart from the other mill workers, however, is his longing for beauty and his artistic talent. Out of the korl, the refuse from the ore, "a light, porous substance, of a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge,"
Several visitors arrive at the mill and, noticing a korl statue of Hugh's in the shape of a woman, discuss the plight and exploitation of the immigrant workers. The visitors include the overseer, Clark; the son of the mill owner Kirby; Dr. May, one of the town's physicians; a reporter writing a review of leading manufacturers; and Mitchell, one of Kirby's brothers-in-law, who, not being familiar with the city, is "spending a couple of months in the borders of a Slave State, to study the institutions of the South" (p. 29).
Class difference creates a notable division between the impoverished, powerless workers and the powerful, well-to-do businesspeople and professionals. Young Kirby admits that his father coerces his mill workers to vote for certain political candidates, indicating that the immigrants are exploited not only as laborers but also as voting citizens. Wolfe notices the well-bred manners, dress, and speech of the men, especially Mitchell. His observations are described in words suggestive of the artist. As Mitchell "knocked the ashes from his cigar, Wolfe caught with a quick pleasure the contour of the white hand, the blood-glow of a red ring he wore. His voice, too, and that of Kirby's, touched him like music,ow, even, with chording cadences" (p. 29). "More and more like a dumb, hopeless animal," Wolfe listens to Kirby, May, and Mitchell and observes their refinement, compared to his "filthy body, his more stained soul" (p. 30). He realizes the huge gulf that lies between them.
Mitchell suddenly starts at the sight of Wolfe's korl statue, "a woman, white, of giant proportions, crouching on the ground, her arms flung out in some wild gesture of warning" (p. 31), a self-portrait of its creator whose manhood and art are called into question. Recognizing the statue as a working woman, Dr. May assumes she desires food, but correcting him, Wolfe says she hungers not for meat but for something to make her live. Mitchell asserts that the korl woman asks questions of God, indicating spiritual deprivation and crisis. When May suggests that Kirby should nurture Wolfe's talent, Kirby refuses, claiming that the Lord will take care of the workers and that in America opportunities to climb the social ladder are open to all. Lacking any moral conscience, Kirby is not concerned with any social problemsslavery, caste, white or black" (p. 35). Mitchell and May debate whether the "degraded souls" (p. 39) of the mill workers can be reformed and redeemed. After the men discuss whether money is the answer to improving the lives of the working-class poor, Kirby throws Deborah some money. Doing good for the community is not a priority for these men, suggesting that benevolent reform is waning.
Believing money to be the answer to their problems, Deb gives Hugh money she stole out of Mitchell's pocket. Tempted to keep the stolen money, Hugh attends a church meant for the upper classes and hears a Christian reformer's sermon. Davis is suggesting that perhaps Christian salvation is the answer to the social ills of the common workers, but the preacher, having used exalted language meant for cultured and well-educated church members, fails to reach Hugh, who is later arrested and sentenced to nineteen years in prison for grand larceny. Deb is sentenced to three years as his accomplice.
Shackled at the ankles because of two attempted escapes, Hugh still tries to flee, but he is weak and bleeding at the lungs from consumption. From his cell, Hugh watches peoplehites and blackshopping on market day and enjoying the freedom to walk the streets. He recognizes that even a dog or slave or servant woman has more freedom. Believing he will never be free and in his caged state unable to connect spiritually with anyone on the outside, not even the lamplighter Joe, Hugh slashes his wrists ironically with "a dull bit of tin, not fit to cut korl with" (p. 57). At the end he lies dying with arms extended, suggesting a Christlike stance and his role as a martyr for the working class, his death allowing for Deb's redemption and rebirth.
But in his death, not all have forsaken Hugh. A Quaker woman acting as a Good Samaritan arrives to retrieve Hugh's body for burial in the hills where she lives. She invites Deb to come live there with her. Years later, as the narrator tells the reader, Deb has found Christ's love and a place among the Quakers, a community of Friends who truly and actively practice Christian reform and agitate for human rights for all. Both Deb and Hugh are freed from the confining and corrupt urban and industrial environment.
Kept hidden behind a curtain, Hugh's korl woman statue remains, now in the possession of the narrator. Her arm reaches out beseechingly and her pale lips appear to question, "Is this the end?" (p. 64). Perhaps this question is answered when the narrator notices a cool gray light pointing to the Far East, the East serving as a metaphor for Christ, where "God has set the promise of the Dawn" (p. 65). The narrator mentions another art object in her room, "a little broken figure of an angel pointing upward from the mantel-shelf; but even its wings are covered with smoke, clotted and black" (p. 12). Thus, while the angel has not triumphed over despair, perhaps the korl woman, symbolic of working-class souls, will be awarded salvation. The korl woman's "wild gesture of warning" (p. 31) may also prophesy a possible revolution by the working classes, as indicated by Hugh's statement that "the money was his by rights, and that all the world had gone wrong" (p. 51).
CRITICAL INTERPRETATION AND DEBATE
Primary areas of scholarly debate concern the role and identity of the narrator and the meaning of the ending of Life in the Iron Mills. Most scholars assume the narrator is female because of support for the cause of benevolence. In opposition to this assumption, another scholar argues that nineteenth-century readers probably believed the narrator to be male and that Mitchell is the narrator. Critics have also noted the narrator's deliberately antagonistic stance toward the story's audience, the function of which is to both repel readers and draw them in.
The principle controversy surrounds the purpose and meaning of the ending. Does Davis offer a solution for alleviating the capitalistic exploitation and oppression of immigrant industrial laborers, whose condition, Davis may be suggesting, is worse than that of chattel slaves? If so, what is the solution? Some critics interpret the ending as instilling hope and argue that it probably satisfied James T. Fields, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and its readers, who would have supported Christian benevolence and charity. Furthermore, a Quaker woman as the Good Samaritan motivates her readers to lobby for change on behalf of the oppressed and exploited working class. Since Quakerism sanctions social causes like abolitionism and prison reform, the unnamed Quaker woman is a logical role model for Davis's readers to emulate. But one privileged person alone cannot agitate for reform. Individuals of the upper classes must unite and actively practice a Christian ethic to initiate reform. Passive Christianity is not the answer to the problem of America's working-class poor, and as suggested by the broken wings of the angel figure, which preclude flight, the ending also dismisses transcendence as the solution for escaping oppression and poverty. Opposing more optimistic interpretations, other critics conclude that the narrator fails to answer the question posed by the korl woman statue because, like the "true woman" of sentimental fiction, she is confined by her domestic space, her gender, and her middle-class status.
While Life in the Iron Mills did not have the same degree of impact for inciting reform as Stowe's antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), it nonetheless alerted readers to the devastating effects of industrialization on working-class immigrants and on the environment. It also debunked the myth of the American Dream, that opportunity for success awaits all. Most importantly, it introduced American literary realism and at the same time provided the first scathing critique of industrial capitalism by showing the price a nation pays for depending on technology in the name of progress.
See also Factories; Immigration; Labor; Manhood; Quakers; Reform; Technology
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Jane E. Rose