Rebecca Harding Davis' Life in the Iron-Mills:
Note hours, wages, working conditions, living conditions, and "the law." What does “Man cannot live by work alone” mean? What is the original saying? Could things have turned out differently? How?
Life in the Iron-Mills describes long hours and terrible conditions. Deborah works a twelve hour shift at the "spools" and when she goes in search of Hugh with food she finds that he is still working. Wages are paltry—not enough to save, only to subsist in very poor conditions: "Their lives were like those of their class: incessant labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms, eating rank pork and molasses, and drinking—God and the distillers only know what..."
"Man cannot live by work alone" is a twist on "man cannot live on bread alone"—it points to the fact that the workers were deprived of more than just simple sustenance; they were deprived of everything but the long hours of work that filled their waking hours. They had no opportunity of escape, and little to support dreams for the future.
As for whether things could have turned out differently, that's for us to decide for ourselves as readers. Sometimes it does feel like the characters could have made different choices. But on the other hand, what other options did they really have? Many believe this was Ms. Davis's point: that the workers were utterly and completely trapped in poverty without the opportunity for advancement no matter how hard or how long they worked. As long as people like the visitors to the ironworks continued to believe it was possible to achieve the American Dream if one just wanted it badly enough (and was willing to work hard enough), there was no hope for people like Hugh and Deborah.