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