Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910)
Contributing Editor: Judith Roman-Royer
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Problems in teaching Davis include: dialect, allusions, confusing dialogue,
hard-to-identify speakers, vague frame story, religious solution, and the
juxtaposition of sentimental language with religiosity and realism. To
address these problems consider the following:
1. Explain the dialect (see the footnotes).
2. Try to ignore the allusions; most are not important to the heart
3. The names of characters, their jobs, the speakers, and their roles
need to be clarified.
Kirby, son of Kirby the mill owner--He is aware of the problems of the
workers but sees them as insoluble; he takes the attitude of Pontius Pilate.
Dr. May, a town physician--He is idealistic, sympathetic to the workers,
but naive about reality and thus unintentionally cruel to Hugh.
"Captain"--The reporter for the city paper.
Mitchell, Kirby's intellectual brother-in-law, visitor to the South--He
is cold, cynically socialistic.
4. Discuss the frame story. Careful readers will find inconsistencies
in the frame narratives that explain the narrator's perspective. Early
in the story, the narrator "happens" to be in the house, apparently
a visitor, but at the end of the story, the house and statue of the korl
woman seem to belong to her. The story of the Wolfe family is said to be
set thirty years in the past, so how did the narrator come to know it in
such intimate detail? One of my students suggested that the narrator may
be Janey, who has somehow risen above her environment and become a writer,
a solution that is provocative but unsubstantiated by the text.
5. Show how Davis is ambiguous about religious solution. She espouses
it, but her realistic picture of the problem is so vivid that it seems
impossible to the reader that just Quaker kindness will solve the problems.
6. The swing between romanticism and realism is at the heart of this
Some students find this work depressing, but some like it. They can
be asked to compare the situation of the poor today, especially the homeless
and uneducated and today's immigrants. Students can also be interested
in a discussion of religion's role in comforting and/or silencing the poor.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
"Life in the Iron-Mills" is an accessible text that can be
assigned and discussed in a single class meeting. Many students reject
the "naturalistic" view inherent in the story that the characters
could do little to help themselves. Contemporary students, educated to
believe in the Alger myth, are eager to protest that Hugh could have lifted
himself out of his poverty or moved to the city to become an artist.
Perhaps a greater problem may be students' unwillingness to see the
feminist subtext of the story discovered by Tillie Olsen. The story deals
quite openly with the life of an iron-worker; how, then, do we find in
it the story of a thwarted "spinster" fiction writer? To make
this reading credible, students will need to know something of Davis's
life story (see headnote); the position of unmarried women in society (their
dependence on their families, the lack of socially acceptable ways for
a woman to earn a living, and the impossibility of living alone); and the
incredible isolation of writers who lived anywhere in America outside of
Boston and perhaps New York at this period. In the context of a traditional
American literature survey, Davis's frustration could be related to that
of writers like Cooper
and the sense
of the U.S. as an artistic wilderness that prevailed early in the century.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
As far as style, many would have found the work oppressively realistic
and unpleasant. The Hawthornes used words like "gloomy" and even
"mouldy" to describe Davis's writing.
The work was written for an upper-middle-class and upper-class audience,
the readers of the Atlantic
, who were the elite of the country at
the time. Many had familiarity with languages and the literary allusions
in the work as well as intimate knowledge of the New Testament. Most were
"liberal" Christians and although some were social reformers,
virtually all believed the individual Christian had a responsibility to
people like Hugh and Deb. The audience was highly receptive to Davis's
The difference in the audience now is that college students come from
a broader spectrum of society. This has two effects: First, some of them
may have worked in factories or come from blue-collar families and have
experience closer to that of Hugh and Deb; second, the language of the
text is apt to be more difficult for them. The excess of punctuation is
an impediment. The sentimental exclamations probably differ little from
some kinds of contemporary popular literature that students may have encountered.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Davis can be compared to
had an influence on Davis, especially House of the Seven Gables
American Romantic literature.
2. Dickens--sentimental realism.
3. Popular literature of today.
4. Novels of social criticism, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin
later muckraking novels, such as The Jungle
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. What is the purpose of the rhetorical questions posed by the author/narrator
at various points in the story? Do they refer simply to the prospect of
salvation for a man convicted of stealing, or do they imply the naturalistic
view that Hugh's theft is excused by his unfortunate environment and heredity?
Some students may recognize what is probably religious rhetoric in the
questions: perhaps the teacher can simply encourage students to seek additional
2. They could write a paper discussing the story as a transitional work
between Romanticism and realism, using traits outlined in Richard Chase's
American Novel and Its Tradition
Tillie Olsen's essay in the Feminist Press edition is probably the most
accessible place to go for additional information. It is highly personal