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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Rebecca Harding Davis

When “Life in the Iron-Mills” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861 it was immediately recognized as a pioneering achievement, a story that captured a new subject for American literature—the grim lives of the industrial workers in the nation’s mills and factories. Herman Melville’s “The Tartarus of Maids” (1855) had previously but more briefly penetrated into the dark interiors of the industrial structures that were transfiguring the American landscape. Harding’s story was the first extended treatment, a harsh portrayal of back-breaking labor and emotional and spiritual starvation. In its depiction of the lives of the workers, from their diet of cold, rancid potatoes to the crimes they were driven to commit, it introduced new elements of both realism and naturalism into American fiction.

“Life in the Iron-Mills” was the first published work of its thirty-year-old author, Rebecca Harding, resident of the industrial town of Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). It brought her fame, the acquaintance of many eminent New England authors, a valued, lifelong friendship with Annie Fields, wife of James T. Fields, editor of the Atlantic, and further publication in that prestigious magazine, including the novel Margret Howth (1862). Ten years later, however, she had lost her literary position, and although she continued to write and publish prolifically, she was not to produce a literary work equal in imaginative power to her first. Well before her death in 1910 “Life in the Iron-Mills” had been forgotten, and for over half a century thereafter, although mentioned in literary histories, it went largely unread until it was republished in 1972.

In her afterword to the 1972 edition, Tillie Olsen, the contemporary writer responsible for its rediscovery, attributed what she called “trespass vision” to Rebecca Harding, to underscore the unlikely nature of her achievement in writing about a way of life so different from her own. Born and raised inside a well-to-do middle-class family, Harding led the relatively protected and circumscribed existence of one of her sex and class. Educated in her early years by her mother at home, she attended Washington Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, from which she graduated in 1848 at the age of seventeen. Thereafter she remained inside the family, helping, as the eldest daughter, with household chores and the education of the younger children; reading; and also importantly registering and absorbing the life of Wheeling’s cotton mills and iron-processing factories. A triumphal trip to Boston following publication of “Iron-Mills” introduced her to the world of professional authorship, and to Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work she had read and admired, and whose influence can be seen in the supernatural and symbolic aspects of her “korl woman,” the statue that her main character, the furnace-tender Hugh Wolfe, a talented and self-taught sculptor, creates from the waste product, or korl, of steel-refining processes.

The story’s publication also led to a correspondence between Harding and Philadelphia journalist L. Clarke Davis, whom she married in 1863. Moving to Philadelphia, the author entered into the complex responsibilities of nineteenth-century wifehood and motherhood: assuming the primary care of the three children born to the marriage (one of whom, Richard Harding Davis, would become a famous journalist with a reputation eclipsing her own); supervising the household in her husband’s frequent absences; and serving, when he was at home, as hostess to his many friends. While she continued to write and to publish, the family’s often pressing financial needs led Harding to produce stories and serialized novels, including mysteries, gothics, and thrillers, for the popular magazines of the time, such as Peterson’s and Lippincott’s, which paid better than the Atlantic, and to write for the New York Tribune and a children’s magazine, Youth’s Companion, as well. In much of her work, including her final critical success, Silhouettes of American Life (1892), she continued to explore the issue of unused or wasted capacities, first treated in “Iron-Mills” in the story of Hugh Wolfe’s unsatisfied artistic hunger. Again and again Harding probed the anguished conflict, for her female characters, of marriage and professional work—the seemingly exclusive longings for both family and artistic fulfillment—never arriving at a satisfactory resolution. Sometimes she celebrated the pleasures of domestic life; often she expressed ambivalence about the intellectually or artistically ambitious woman.

Throughout her career Harding continued to introduce and explore new subject matter in accordance with her announced literary purpose, “to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it.” Waiting for the Verdict (1868) dealt with the educational, political and economic needs of the newly emancipated slaves and the ways in which racial injustice frustrated the development of their talents. John Andross (1874) was one of the earliest novels to treat political corruption in the nation’s government. Earthen Pitchers, serialized in Scribner’s Monthly in 1873 and 1874, explored the reality of women earning their livings professionally. In other works, she chose as heroines women who are unbeautiful by conventional standards, and women who are unabashedly physical—significant departures from prevalent literary fashion and breakthroughs into a new realism in the depiction of women.

Until recently, even Davis’s advocates agreed with the assumption that the quality of her writing, as well as her literary reputation, declined after the publication of Margret Howth in 1862. One reason for misunderstanding Davis’s later work is the mistaken belief that she had written an anti-feminist book, Pro Aris et Focis, in 1870.

Thanks to a new generation of Davis scholars, a different picture of Davis’s career is beginning to emerge. Sharon M. Harris disputes the portrayal of Davis as a discouraged and discredited writer and maintains that she produced work worthy of examination up to the end of her long career. Jane Atteridge Rose questions the assumption that Davis intended a female narrator in “Life in the Iron-Mills” and argues that the narrator is male. These and other writers bring a new perspective to Davis’s work. The republication of Margret Howth and the addition of “A Wife’s Story” and “Anne” to the Feminist Press edition of Life in the Iron-Mills make more of Davis’s work accessible so readers can experience it firsthand and judge its quality and significance for themselves. Regardless of the compromises she may have made in her life and her art, Rebecca Harding Davis left an impressive literary legacy. As Tillie Olsen has said, her “pioneering firsts in subject matter are unequaled. She extended the realm of fiction.”

Judith Roman-Royer
Indiana University East

Elaine Hedges
Late of Towson State University

In the Heath Anthology
Life in the Iron Mills (1861)

Other Works
Life in the Iron-Mills (1861)
Margaret Howth (1862)

Cultural Objects
Image fileMid-Nineteenth Century Views of Industrialization

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American Authors
An excellent portal to Harding resources (primary and secondary) available on the web.

Etext Library
A biography, bibliography and an etext of Davis' "Boston in the Sixties," and "The Wife's Story."

Perspectives in American Literature
A bibliography and suggestions for analyzing the work of Rebecca Harding Davis.

Scribbling Women
A biographical sketch.

Secondary Sources

James C. Austin, "Success and Failure of Rebecca Harding Davis," Midcontinent American Studies Journal 3 (Spring 1962): 44-9

John Conran, "Assailant Landscapes and the Man of Feeling: Rebecca Harding Davis's 'Life in the Iron Mills'" Journal of American Culture 3 (1980): 487-500

Sharon M. Harris, "Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910): A Bibliography of Secondary Criticism, 1958-1986," Bulletin of Bibliography 45 (1988): 233-46

Sharon M. Harris, Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism, 1991

Walter Hesford, "Literary Contexts of 'Life in the Iron Mills'" American Literature 49 (1977): 70-85

Jean Pfaelzer, "Rebecca Harding Davis: Domesticity, Social Order and the Industrial Novel," International Journal of Women's Studies 4 (May-June 1981): 234-44

Jean Pfaelzer, "Legacy Profile: Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), Legacy 7 (Fall 1990): 39-45 Jean Pfaelzer, Parlor Radical: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Origins of American Social Realism, 1996

Jane Atteridge Rose, "A Bibliography of fiction and Non-Fiction by Rebecca Harding Davis," American Literary Realism 22 (Spring 1990): 67-86

Jane Atteridge Rose, "Reading 'Life in the Iron Mills' Contextually: A Key to Rebecca Harding Davis's Fiction," Charles Moran and Elizabeth F. Penfield, eds., Conversations: Contemporary Critical Theory and the Teaching of Literature, Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990