Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills

Life in the Iron Mills and Other StoriesLife in the Iron Mills and Other Stories by Rebecca Harding Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This debut novella by Rebecca Harding Davis, first published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, is now a classic after its rescue from oblivion by Tillie Olsen and the Feminist Press in the 1970s. An early example of realism in American fiction, which had been in the mid-19th century dominated by variations of romance (e.g., Hawthorne) and sentimentalism (e.g., Stowe), Harding’s story has since earned comparison with Zola, Tolstoy, and Dreiser for its grim, detailed portrayal of laboring life. It is the tale of Wolfe, resident and worker in a milltown based on Davis’s native Wheeling. While Wolfe is subject to all the deprivations of his co-workers, who live in foul hovels and medicate their wounded souls with alcohol, he nevertheless stands out for being more educated and refined, an artistic soul in a hellish world, judged to be disablingly feminine by his peers as he devotes all of his free time to art:

In the mill he was known as one of the girl-men: “Molly Wolfe” was his sobriquet.…

For other reasons, too, he was not popular. Not one of themselves, they felt that, though outwardly as filthy and ash-covered; silent, with foreign thoughts and longings breaking out through his quietness in innumerable curious ways: this one, for instance. In the neighboring furnace-buildings lay great heaps of the refuse from the ore after the pig-metal is run. Korl we call it here: a light, porous substance, of a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge. Out of the blocks of this korl, Wolfe, in his off-hours from the furnace, had a habit of chipping and moulding figures,—hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely beautiful: even the mill-men saw that, while they jeered at him. It was a curious fancy in the man, almost a passion. The few hours for rest he spent hewing and hacking with his blunt knife, never speaking, until his watch came again,—working at one figure for months, and, when it was finished, breaking it to pieces perhaps, in a fit of disappointment. A morbid, gloomy man, untaught, unled, left to feed his soul in grossness and crime, and hard, grinding labor.

One night, the mill-worker’s son brings an entourage through the iron-works, and they discover one of Wolfe’s sculptures. This leads them to a philosophical discussion of what should be done given that industrial society needs laborers—mere “hands”—even though said laborers have talents and abilities that could lift them above their impoverished life. One of those touring the factory is Mitchell, the “man of culture,” in whom Wolfe recognizes his kin in aesthetic sensibility. Mitchell, a reader of “Kant, Novalis, Humboldt,” recognizes the genius in Wolfe’s sculpture—the “Korl Woman” of the novella’s alternate title—because he sees the spiritual aspiration and soul-hunger in the represented woman’s features. Following the German Romantic ideas Mitchell is familiar with, Davis demonstrates through a brilliant allegory how aesthetics may be the common ground of humanity, manifesting across differences of class and culture the universal spirit of reason, a spirit insulted when men and women are immured in poverty and labor. The story is at its best in the scene in the factory, where the interplay of powerful physical description, philosophical dialogue, and aesthetic beauty is indeed reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, which Davis perhaps inevitably alludes to.

The second half is less original and compelling: it traces Wolfe’s downfall after Deborah, his hunchbacked cousin who loves him unrequitedly, steals some of Mitchell’s money in the hopes that it will allow Wolfe to escape the town; the blame for the theft falls mostly on him, and he commits suicide in prison after realizing that he will never have the opportunity to develop the spiritual powers revealed in his art. This chronicle of doom foreshadows, in its pessimism, the naturalist novels that will dominate the end of the nineteenth century, even if Davis sugars the pill by introducing late in the story a Quaker woman who bears all the values of Christian charity excluded from the mill-town.

Ideologically, the story is somewhat confused, pushed and pulled among Dickensian sentimentalism (shown by the portrayal of the indefatigably loyal Deborah and the Quaker woman, as well as the narrator’s persistent Christian allusions); proto-naturalism (as when Davis depicts individual development as wholly determined by environment); and Romanticism (communicated by the korl woman’s status as an aesthetic object that has the potential to heal the riven community). This last element is most interesting to me, because it goes beyond what one tends to find in Dickens’s or Stowe’s ultimately Christian and anti-aesthetic portrayals of “life among the lowly” and unites Davis’s story to the concerns of the American Renaissance writers, especially to Hawthorne’s fears about the fate of art in Puritan and materialist society (cf. “The Artist of the Beautiful”).

Another fascinating element of the story is its nameless narrator, who stages his or her own narration as coming from within the former house of Wolfe, where his korl woman still sits behind a curtain. (Most likely, in a grim irony, it is Mitchell who narrates the tale.) The narrator essays and exhorts and preaches, sometimes tiresomely, but his or her dense, allusive, poetic prose lifts the story above reportage and gives it a tragic resonance uncommon in realistic short stories:

The road leading to the mills had been quarried from the solid rock, which rose abrupt and bare on one side of the cinder-covered road, while the river, sluggish and black, crept past on the other. The mills for rolling iron are simply immense tent-like roofs, covering acres of ground, open on every side. Beneath these roofs Deborah looked in on a city of fires, that burned hot and fiercely in the night. Fire in every horrible form: pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames writhing in tortuous streams through the sand; wide caldrons filled with boiling fire, over which bent ghastly wretches stirring the strange brewing; and through all, crowds of half-clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire. It was like a street in Hell. Even Deborah muttered, as she crept through, “looks like t’ Devil’s place!” It did,—in more ways than one.

This story very much deserves its newfound place in the American canon.

Tillie Olsen’s long biographical essay places “Life in the Iron Mills” in the context of Davis’s life and times. Olsen has an interesting case to make: that Davis’s literary career was thwarted by the domestic responsibilities she took on when she married and had children. This is a more difficult argument than it seems, because Davis was productive, writing fiction and non-fiction until her death and earning a living through her work. She was not “silenced” in the conventional sense. But Olsen argues that none of her subsequent work lived up to her early promise, that in fact “Life in the Iron Mills,” written when she was thirty and living with her parents in Wheeling, isolated from literary life and from the social scene, remains her greatest masterpiece. The pressures of domesticity and the consequent need to write potboilers for money combined to warp Davis’s gift, so that she never produced the great novels one might have expected from the author of such a brilliant first novella. The contrast is to women writers who did not have children and who either never married or were lucky enough to find supportive spouses: Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf. Olsen’s implicit politics are Marxist-feminist, in that freeing up mothers to be great writers would necessarily involve a revolution in the economic and familial order.

Olsen does not do as much textual analysis or intellectual biography as one might wish; I was disappointed to see no discussion at all of Dickens’s potential influence on “Life in the Iron Mills,” since the story seems almost like a programmatic reply to—and advance upon—the characterization of Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times. I do admire Olsen’s lack of special pleading for the bulk of Davis’s work, which she admits does not bear re-reading or merit rediscovery:

But Proust is right. There are no excuses in art. Including having been born female in the wrong time/place.

Such a clear assessment of reality, such a forthright admission that poverty and deprivation make people worse and not better, is a great improvement on the dominant Left perspective today, mired as it is in a strange belief that oppression is something like a superpower, granting magical powers of accurate perception to the oppressed that the privileged do not have.

On that note, the most interesting story about Davis’s life related by Olsen involves the young author’s entry into the literary society of Emerson’s New England. As a writer from the Pittsburgh lower middle class (not too far from Wheeling) who has also spent a lot of time negotiating the culture of the intellectual/academic left, I have to say that I identified with Davis in this passage:

Emerson came shortly thereafter. Her tongue was “dry with awe” (“I went to Concord, a young woman from the backwoods, firm in the belief that Emerson was the first of living men”). It loosened, after listening the entire morning, along with Emerson and Hawthorne, to Alcott’s “orotund” sentences

paeans to the war, the “armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before.”

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps, the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women, the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums.

Rebecca found herself tartly, though tremblingly, saying substantially the above.

This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done [as a child] in my cherry tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders, debouching in the misty fields.

Alcott’s orotund sentences went right on, till Hawthorne “rose lazily to his feet, and said quietly: ‘We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner,’ and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.”

Her dislike for Alcott, “that vague, would-be prophet,” is unconcealed and sometimes vitriolic. She found Emerson’s deep respect for him “almost painful to see.”

For all Emerson’s flattering and receptive attention to her, his “exquisite courtesy,” she felt he regarded her not as Rebecca Harding, writer, human being, but as some kind of specimen.

Davis, like Hawthorne, was ambivalent about the Civil War, wishing for an end to slavery even as she recoiled from the carnage and corruption and feared for the future of the nation. Such ambivalence is never welcome; to query the Civil War as a good war at all is to apologize for slavery, they say, just as to question that World War II was an even better good war is to apologize for Nazism, and to oppose the Iraq War was to support Saddam Hussein. And to be sure, he who wills the ends wills the means; but to be glad that slavery and fascism were defeated should not involve denying the disasters of war and should not be used to silence questions about the necessity of war in the present and future, however unavoidable we may judge it to have been in the past. Fiction writers, who have to keep their eyes on details and on individual stories, will inevitably notice the cost of bloodshed in even the most just cause, and will prefer the naming of facts to the recitation of abstractions. But I digress…

Hawthorne, Olsen notes, was the nicest to the young Rebecca Harding of all the New England literati; he has a bad reputation among feminists for his notorious remark about “the damned mob of scribbling women,” but he was disparaging commercial fiction when he wrote that. He knew the real thing when saw it, and “Life in the Iron Mills” is certainly the real thing.

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