Art Versus Capital

Rebecca Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills

Many an artist have understandably taken stabs, with varying degrees of skill and success, at indicting capitalism and all its execrable effects. Rebecca Harding Davis’ short story, or novella, if you like, Life in the Iron Mills (1861), is one of the first, certainly one of the best and, given its mastery, one of the most overlooked.

A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?

Thus we’re addressed by the narrator of Life … It’s the story’s opening line, and it serves to prepare the reader for exposure to an alien environment. Namely, the type inhabited by mill-hands in the middle of the nineteenth century. We’ll be led by Davis, in other words, down a steep descent into hell—a starkly real and graphic one that sticks in the mind long after the story’s bleak ending.

In her memoirs, Davis argued that a writer’s responsibility is to offer “not the story of his own life, but of the time in which he lived,— as he saw it,— its creed, its purpose, its queer habits, and the work which it did or left undone in the world.”

This sums up her approach to Life …—socially and aesthetically. We have here, after all, a seminal work of narrative art widely credited with heralding the realist tradition in American literature. It was Davis’ response to — and rejection of — romanticism; it helped usher in a new tack for American literary artists: authentic, corporeal, often brutal portraits of life as experienced by the rank and file of humanity.

Returning to that opening line, it also constitutes a warning. Cloudy days are dreary, but have you viewed one from the perspective of an antebellum mill-hand? Through Davis’ language we see it with vividness. Take this description, from the third paragraph:

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 cauldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body.

And here’s another excerpt, an extension of that warning issued by the first line:

Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you.

You can see from those samples that there’s no space for the sublime in Davis’ vision. What we meet with when we go down into the “nightmare fog” is Dickens minus the levity, coincidence and cheery ending, plus a tougher style that anticipated Twain, Crane, Sinclair and London, through to Dos Passos, Hemingway and the other modernists, from whom today’s literature chiefly derives.

To drive this point home, and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll note that Life… prefigured The Jungle by forty-five years and The Grapes of Wrath (a much overrated book, incidentally) by seventy-eight. Think of it as the American realist equivalent of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

As to plot, Life … tells of the fall, and further fall, of Hugh Wolfe, an impoverished mill-hand who happens to be a genius sculptor. Using “the refuse from the ore after the pig-metal is run,” he “had a habit of chipping and moulding figures,—hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely beautiful …”

Notably, there is no thought behind Hugh’s art; only feeling. His sculptures function as a sort of surrogate language, articulating what he can’t express through words.

Hugh’s lot in life is a mystery to him. The circumstances underpinning his own misery escape his understanding. It isn’t until five wealthy men (including the mill-owner’s son) visit the mill, touring it as they might a zoo, that Hugh is made to appreciate the extraordinary power of money. Armed with this revelation, he enacts a small rebellion, which the system promptly crushes without mercy.

Its not so much its themes as the uncompromising fashion in which Davis presents them that places Life … among the most searing indictments of capitalism ever written. Which is to say nothing of the exquisite quality of Davis’ prose.

One last point. As a rule, overtly political art, aka propaganda, is a drag. It is, after all, the artist’s province to show us something; it is not his or her province to tell us how to feel about that something. Leave that to the clergy.

There are exceptions, though. Some writers manage to have it both ways. Orwell is perhaps the most obvious example. These authors get away with their didacticism because what they show is so repellent that it can only be construed, by a balanced mind, in one direction—yet they’re throwing original light onto a universal truth about the human experience, with emotional resonance and inimitable style.

Rebecca Harding Davis was one of those rare authors, and Life in the Iron Mills is her proof.

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.