- Between Bodies of Knowledge there is a Great Gulf Fixed: A Liberationist Reading of Class and Gender in Life in the Iron Mills
Critics have recognized Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills as “radical”—calling it “a startling new experiment in literature and a pioneering document in American literature’s transition from romanticism to realism.” 1 Davis’s tale was first published in the April 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, during a period variously identified as Victorian, Romantic, or Sentimental. 2 By the time of the Civil War, after Transcendentalism’s heyday and before the rise of the Social Gospel Movement, the popular moral ethos was something of a stew. If the roots of Puritan orthodoxy had been pretty much boiled away, and the orthopraxis emphasized by the social gospellers was yet to appear, then right feeling, or “orthosentimentum” was the distinguishing flavor. The mix still betrayed ingredients of Puritan and Romantic notions of individualism, intuition, and symbolism, but was now accompanied by a generous new dose of social conservatism. Distasteful hints of doctrine were sweetened by just the right amount of religious feeling. The radical utopian attempts of the Transcendentalists had been buried, but their view of the self as emotional subject lived on in Romantics such as Whitman, and was appropriated in the sentimentalism of popular culture as well. 3
In this context, the bleak, gritty story of industrial laborers and capitalists emerged not only as anomalous, but also as antagonistic to [End Page 113] Romantic and sentimental literary modes. Davis’s voice is one of confrontation against what Ann C. Rose characterizes as the prevailing “mood of acquiesence to the ills of industrial capitalism, mixed with pride in its visible achievements.” 4 Since conservative literary forms are complicit in this acquiesence, Davis’s rejection judges them as well.
Scholars have generally found it difficult to reconcile Davis’s radical form with the religious, specifically Christian, features of her tale. Two critics who have attempted to address this tension come to quite different conclusions. Sharon Harris reads the work as a critique of “passive Christianity,” but her study of irony fails to address adequately the remaining constructive or stubbornly spiritual elements of Life in the Iron Mills. 5 William H. Shurr, on the other hand, reads the story as a conversion narrative. While his approach highlights more of the ambiguities in Davis’s religious rhetoric, it depends upon a dichotomy between the political and the spiritual which does not do full justice to Davis’s text either. 6 Harris’s reading emphasizes the text’s religious elements as an aspect of form that the political content ironically undoes, whereas Shurr tends to undermine the social aspects of the tale through his religious form criticism.
The challenge which remains, then, is to read Davis’s novella in a way that takes seriously both its sociopolitical and religious critique as well as its spiritual vision. Because Life in the Iron Mills begs to be read toward both political and personal transformation, it does not neatly categorize as realist, reformist, or religious. I will argue instead that the principle of “liberation” opens up the complexities of Davis’s text in unique ways. The biblical cry for liberation can be heard in Davis’s novella, which also prefigures developments by twentieth-century theologians in other contexts of class, race, and gender oppression. I will thus attempt a “religious reading” 7 which allows for the interplay and intertextuality of the political and spiritual, the critical and visionary in Davis’s text—a tale that is radically political yet particularly Christian in its lineage and historical trajectory.
The story of one tragic night in the life of an iron mill laborer forms the core of Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills. Hugh Wolfe is a Welsh immigrant who carves images in the scrap-iron “korl.” His cousin Deb, gnarled and hunchbacked from her own labor in a cotton mill, harbors a secret love for Hugh, who is grateful for her domestic care but repulsed by her disfigurement. On the night in question, several bourgeois visitors appear to inspect the mill where Hugh is working [End...