Monday, June 22, 2015

Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis

Poverty as poetry
When one thinks of socially conscious realism in American literature, what usually springs to mind is the heyday of the “muckrakers”of the early 20th century. Before famous authors like Jack London, Upton Sinclair, or Frank Norris turned their attention to societal ills, however, the trail had already been blazed by a host of earlier writers now largely forgotten by the American public. One such author was Rebecca Harding Davis, a prolific writer for social change. Her novella Life in the Iron Mills, originally published in the April 1861 edition of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, is now considered a pioneering work in American realism. In the long run, however, ground-breaking works don’t always translate into enduring works, and Life in the Iron Mills has not passed the century and a half since its publication entirely unscathed.

As the title indicates, Davis’s novella describes the living and working conditions of laborers employed at an iron mill somewhere in the American South. Hugh Wolfe is a “puddler” at the mill. Despite the back-breaking toil of his occupation, Hugh has the mind of a dreamer and the soul of an artist. He lives with his father and cousin Deborah, who also works in the mill. Deborah, a hunchback, is in love with Hugh, though he offers no indication of reciprocal feelings other than friendly or familial kindness. Both are Welsh immigrants, and their dialogue is transcribed in their native accent, which is sometimes hard to decipher with its sprinkling of apostrophes and ubiquitous pronoun “hur” [you]. One day when Deborah brings Hugh his lunch at the mill, the laborers are visited by the mill owner and some of his higher class colleagues. At first they observe the iron workers much as if they were watching animals in a zoo. Then, as a conversation develops between Hugh and the visitors, Hugh’s mind is opened to the idea that his life could possibly consist of more than just slaving in the mills day after day.

For today’s reader, the problem with Life in the Iron Mills is that the perspective that Davis offers into the lives of the working poor isn’t markedly different from that of these upper class visitors to the mill. Unlike later depictions of similar subject matter such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Jack London’s “The Apostate,” or even Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, the reader never feels like he’s amongst the workers, sharing their experience of filth and toil. Instead, it feels like we’re looking down from above, as if they were subjects in an experiment. This is heightened by the language that Davis uses, which is overly flowery and poetic for her topic. Though she talks a lot about smoke and ash and sweat, you never really feel it, because it’s all expressed in a prose style better suited to describing some sylvan grove. Though Davis may have turned the corner into realism by tackling such gritty subject matter, her writing stye is still very much rooted in the romanticism of the past. Her attempts to introduce religious imagery, offering up Hugh as a modern-day Christ, feel forced and overblown. The ending is as gratuitously drawn out as any melodramatic opera. As later realists would come to learn, who needs all these dramatic and linguistic flourishes when the drama of real life is enough?

Life in the Iron Mills may have shocked in its day, but today’s audience is likely to find it a bit tame. Davis was decades ahead of her time with this attempt at naturalism, but it’s still just an attempt, and a precursor of better things to come.
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