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  • "There is a secret down here":Physical Containment and Social Instruction in Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills
  • Allison Tharp (bio)

Published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1861, Rebecca Harding Davis's novella Life in the Iron Mills responds to the contentious decade leading up to the Civil War, a decade marked by heated sociopolitical debates over the role of women in public life, the problem of slavery, and most pressing for Davis's novella, the deplorable conditions of working-class life in America. In the novella, Davis's unnamed narrator recalls a pivotal moment in the lives of Hugh and Deb Wolfe, Welsh immigrants who worked in the iron mills in a Virginia factory town thirty years earlier.1 The novella is, at the core, a protest text, and Davis uses the story of Hugh and Deb as a means of social instruction for her readers. In telling this story, Davis makes often implicit and sometimes explicit arguments about mid-century American working-class conditions and the complicity of middle- and upper-class citizens in perpetuating those conditions. However, in order for protest authors to move their audiences to persuasion and action, they need an audience that is amenable to change and responsive to the problem represented. The audience's favorable reception of the arguments in the novella is the greatest challenge for Davis. As we will see in more detail below, Davis views her audience—the readers of The Atlantic Monthly—as tending to view the world and its societal problems with a generalized mindset unamenable to material change. Davis's success in protesting [End Page 1] working-class conditions and calling for such a change depends largely on her ability to alter her audience's outlook on oppression so that readers may understand the lack of freedom in the same way that an oppressed working-class industrial laborer understands it. Only after this change would the audience aim for specific material change in the world.

In the decades since the Feminist Press's 1972 republication of Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, critics have noted the reformist and revisionary nature of the novella, calling it "a startling new experiment in literature and a pioneering document in American literature's transition from romanticism to realism" (Harris 4). Nonetheless, critical analysis of the novella has been far from uniform. Scholars have approached the novella from a variety of lenses, analyzing its shifting genre, its attention to the working classes and women in the mid-nineteenth century, its use of Christianity and the conversion experience, and its relation to cultural movements and thought patterns of its time period.2 In recent years, critics have devoted significant attention to Life in the Iron Mills, with particular focus on reader engagement with the text and the position that Davis advances by means of this engagement. Such critics as Andrew Silver, Jill Gatlin, and Kimberly Drake have been particularly influential in advancing the argument that Davis endeavors to manipulate her audience to a change in perspective about working-class laborers in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. While Silver analyzes Davis's novella as a revision of the popular travel-narrative genre, claiming that Davis promotes a new, more understanding, form of travel narrative, Gatlin posits that Davis's images of environmental pollution push readers to reframe their response not only to pollution, but also to working-class individuals. Both critics focus on the ways in which Davis interacts with her readers through the literary techniques that she incorporates into her novella, resulting in what Drake describes as readers' "sense that their usual reactions to portrayals of poverty will not suffice" (10). In a brief mediation on Life in the Iron Mills, Drake notes that the relationship between text and readers "asks [readers] to step outside the bounds of the novel and enter the real world of poverty with the goals of compassion and connection, not bourgeois reform" (10).

In this article, I seek to advance the conversation begun by Silver, Drake, and Gatlin by examining how, through the form of her novella, Davis produces the grounds of empathy for her readers, readers who [End Page 2] would...


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