Sculpture in the iron mills: Rebecca harding Davis's korl woman

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Auckland Library]On: 18 October 2014, At: 17:15Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number:1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street,London W1T 3JH, UK

    Women's Studies: An inter-disciplinary journalPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gwst20

    Sculpture in the iron mills:Rebecca harding Davis's korlwomanMaribel W. Molyneaux aa Department of English , University ofPennsylvania , PhiladelphiaPublished online: 12 Jul 2010.

    To cite this article: Maribel W. Molyneaux (1990) Sculpture in the iron mills:Rebecca harding Davis's korl woman, Women's Studies: An inter-disciplinary journal,17:3-4, 157-177, DOI: 10.1080/00497878.1990.9978803

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00497878.1990.9978803

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    http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • Sculpture in the iron mills:Rebecca Harding Davis'sKorl woman

    MARIBEL W. MOLYNEAUX

    Department of English, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

    THE SUBJECT OF Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills (1861)is the industrial working class, a new subject in nineteenth-centuryliterature but one that had begun to be treated extensively in the Brit-ish industrial novels of the 1830s and 40s. At mid-century, however,American writers were more concerned with slavery and the threat ofwar than with industrial brutality; Ellen Moers writes that "no race ofmankind was so widely and commonly assigned to angry women [wri-ters] than the slave" (22), a subject Harding Davis herself would lateraddress in "John Lamar" (1862) and Waiting for the Verdict (1868). Butin 1861 Harding Davis directly identified herself with the problemsattending American industrialism, especially the plight of millworkerswho, in ways similar to slaves, were "victims of prejudice and oppres-sion" (Moers 22). Just as Harriet Beecher Stowe unmasks slavery'sdistortions of American democracy in Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852),Rebecca Harding Davis shows in Life in the Iron Mills that the indus-trial structure being put into place would come to be seen at century'send as the "new American wilderness" (Hesford 70).

    As much as Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848) or Dickens's Hard Times(1854), Life in the Iron Mills is an important social document. GertrudeHimmelfarb argues that British factory novels brought anonymousworkers, however fictionalized, to the attention of "an increasinglysensitive and vigilant social conscience" (405). If Mary Barton was, asMoers argues, the "first great [British] factory novel" (35), Life in the

    Women's Studies, 1990 1990 Gordon and Breach, Science Publishers, Inc.Vol. 17, pp. 157-177 Printed in Great BritainReprints available directly from the publisherPhotocopying permitted by licence only

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  • 158 M.W. MOLYNEAUX

    Iron Mills was, as Walter Hesford claims, a pioneer exploration of thefrequently unacknowledged social realities generated by Americanindustrialism (82). Despite the appearance of Melville's "The Paradiseof Bachelors, the Tartarus of Maids1' (1855) six years earlier, Life in theIron Mills, published anonymously in the Atlantic Monthly, was the firstmajor American work to represent in explicit detail the painful condi-tions of the American mill system.

    Industrial novels were, however, more than instruments of reform;while they gave fiction a new seriousness, the forms of physical laborthat underlay their narrative structures also functioned for writers asrepresentations of imaginative production. Not surprisingly, textile-making, Britain's largest nineteenth-century industry, was one of themost extensively used analogues for imaginative labor (Scarry 99). Theblind seamstress Margaret Jennings in Mary Barton, the sweatshoptailors of Alton Locke, Dickens's Stephen Blackpool at his loom, andCharlotte Bronte's juxtaposition of Caroline Helstone at her needlewith unemployed clothmakers in Shirley (1849) have come to representboth the dark underside of Britain's spectacular industrial growth andthe making and telling of stories. In America, Melville's "Paradise ofBachelors, Tartarus of Maids" extends the making of textiles into anindustry derived form clothmaking, the making of paper from rags;while Melville's tale indicts industrial mechanization and brilliantlydescribes the sexual division of labor, it also depicts the machine, asElaine Scarry argues, as a hauntingly beautiful image of the creativeprocess (100).

    Similarly, Harding Davis equates writing with both social actionand creative energy. Life in the Iron Mills is a serious attempt to influ-ence the larger cultural structure of which it is part. As the work of aself-taught woman artist who sees in the industrial oppression of mill-workers an analogue for the socio-economic and aesthetic oppressionof women, however, the tale also seeks to dissolve the disjunctionbetween what is perceived as "woman's work" and what womanperceives her work to be. Jean Pfeelzer writes that Harding Davis"identifies with the emotional suffocation of industrial poverty and thefactory worker's rebellion against it, suggesting [her] own discontentwith her arid intellectual and sexual life" (234-35). Anxiously seekingaesthetic recognition from a literary establishment that, despite thesubstantial achievements of a few women writers, was defined asalmost entirely male, Rebecca Harding Davis turns away from the

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  • SCULPTURE IN THE IRON MILLS 159

    domestic arena associated with "woman's work" and intrudes herselfinto an industrial workplace perceived as foreign to women. She takesas her subject one of the most potent images of worldly, "mysterious"male privilege and male work in the nineteenth century: the iron mill.

    In Life in the Iron Mills, iron-making in particular, the Bessemersteel-making process functions as both the overarching materialrepresentation of imaginative production and the object of socialcriticism. The story has at its center the physical and imaginativetransformations registered in the activity of work, the fundamentalactivity through which human beings recreate themselves as theycreate the world. Though the interaction between physical andimaginative labor may be more difficult to see in a task like iron-puddling than in spinning and weaving, forms of work richly asso-ciated with story-telling, Harding Davis routinely uncovers the totalityof that interaction in Life. In the mill's operations, the imagination iscredited as capable of conceiving a massive act of invention, the separ-ation of ore into pig-metal and the waste material called korl, yet thebulk and unwieldiness of ore convey the enormous physical exertionrequired to effect the process. In itself, the mill's operation is a benign,if an awesome, objectification of the human capacity first to imaginethe transformation of ore into pig-metal and korl, and then to transferthe imagined objects out of the mind and into material objects in theworld (Scarry 100).

    But if the mill is on the one hand a benign image of the humancapacity to create, this "city of fires" (20) is conversely a demonicimage of both imaginative and economic exploitation of the workerswho operate it. While the owners and managers of the mills alignedthemselves with the inventive aspects of steel-making in the nineteenthcentury, they sought to deny or to extinguish the imaginative capacit-ies of the iron-puddlers whose physical labor was required to completethe process. Metal, whether represented explicitly as pig-metal orimplicitly as money, is everywhere in Life in the Iron Mills a counter forwhat Harding Davis saw as male values and male power; the produc-tion of pig-metal and korl is analogous to the production of class divi-sions. In the same way that pig-metal gets lifted away from korl in themill's Dantean landscape, the money and economic profit that pig-metal signifies in the industrial economy gets lifted away from the"ghastly wretches" who make it. Writing at a time when steel-makingrequired the mills to operate around the clock, Harding Davis draws

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  • 160 M.W. MOLYNEAUX

    an analogy between millworkers and slaves by describing the mill'soperations as a "vast machinery of system by which the bodies ofworkmen are governed" (19), a system in which waged workers wereincreasingly dehumanized by a rapidly expanding manufacturingeconomy that saw them not as full human beings but as so manyexpendable "hands." Millowners rated workers, as Stephen Blackpoolgloomily notes in Hard Times, as "so much power, [regulated] as ifthey was figures in a soom [sum], or machines" (116). In Life in the IronMills, the mill's overseer, Clarke, lists "hands employed, twelvehundred" alongside economic assets such as coal facilities and theannual sinking fund (28). Kirby, son of the millowner, argues that itwould be a "kindness" if the workers "who do the lowest part of theworld's work [were] machines" (34); Harding Davis illustrates justsuch a process of human mechanization in Deb Wolfe. Deb works in atextile mill as a "picker," a word that designates both the machine andthe worker who tends it, making worker and machine "linguisticallyone" (Pfaelzer 240); as in "Tararus of Maids," where Melvilledescribes the silent maids as "cogs to the [machine's] wheels," humanlabor becomes an anonymous function of the machine.

    The reduction of waged workers to disembodied statistics ormachines in the entrepreneurial imaginations of the men who employthem is perhaps the most rankling of industrialism's impersonalrelationships and the one closest to Harding Davis's own sense ofanonymity. Like Manchester's textile workers, the iron-puddlers shedescribes are a presence willfully forgotten by a man like Kirby who,when he visits the mill, "lookfs] curiously around, as if seeing the facesof his hands for the first time" (27). Harding Davis was acutely awarethat the anonymity and uniformity required of industrial millworkerswas only one element of a larger social reality that expected a similardocility from women. As is equally evident in Bronte's Shirley,however, where Hollow's mill and Hollow's cottage register the ambi-guities of a single socio-economic structure, or in Stowe's Uncle Tom'sCabin, where marketplaces and kitchens revolve around each other inunceasing narrative dialogue, Harding Davis understood that the"public" world of historical change and the seemingly unrelated "priv-ate" lives of middle class women are inseparable. In a sense, she foundherself writing from the borders of both the intertwined worlds presentin Life, making marginality and its opposite, the dissolution of bound-aries, significant issues in her story. As the daughter of a prosperous

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  • SCULPTURE IN THE IRON MILLS 161

    businessman, she wrote from the margins of Life's world of grindinglabor, a narrative position she repeats in Margret Howth, first publishedas A Story of Today (1862): "I write from the borders of the [industrialworkplace], and I find in it no theme for shallow argument or flimsyrhymes" (3). As a woman who did not fit into (was, in fact, acutelydistressed by) the class and gender stipulations of the privileged worldinto which she was born, however, Harding Davis also wrote from themargins of her own.

    Conscious that the conventional perception of marriage and moth-erhood as women's only goals extended into a belief that romanticand domestic fiction was the special sphere of women writers, Hard-ing Davis perceived her portrayal of industrial brutality to be a radicalact for a woman of her privileged class. Less sure of herself than Stowe,who was an experienced writer by the time she wrote Uncle Tom'sCabin, Harding Davis not only wrote in secret but chose anonymousauthorship and the use of a male hero in order to enter literary andindustrial realms she perceived as otherwise hostile to her. She makesthe trepidation she felt at entering male strongholds explicit in MargretHowth, in which the narrator claims to have found the story in an oldtextile mill's account book, a "ledger . . . kept by a woman" (8). Whatthe narrator perceives in Margret's "book" is a woman writer trembl-ing with apprehension as she begins to record the mill's "story" ofindustrial greed and worker distress; she writes, "I am sure thewoman's hand trembled as she took up the pen . . . for it was a new,desperate adventure for her, and she was young, with no faith inherself (9).

    In some ways, Harding Davis's insecurity seems puzzling. TillieOlsen argues that the 1850s were good years for women writers: the"upswelling women's rights movement had created an atmosphere, achallenge, an interest" in serious writing by women (82). The AtlanticMonthly, one of America's most prominent and respected literary jour-nals at mid-century, openly courted new writers in particular,women writers and new kinds of writing. Yet Wheeling itself wassomething of a literary backwater because of its regional isolation fromplaces like New England and New York, America's literary centers.Worse, Harding Davis was unable to discuss her aesthetic interestseven within her own family. Unsympatheti...

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