Published in the month that the American Civil War began, Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills” presents an idea about slavery that both the Union and the Confederacy both had at the time; wage slavery. Much of the language used in Davis’ piece revolves around wage slavery which is simply describing actions taken by workers who are paid for their labor in terms that are synonymous with those who are forced to do their labor for free. Set in Virginia around the Appalachian Mountains during the Industrial Revolution, “Life in the Iron Mills” centers around two Welsh immigrants struggling to manage with their low-paying jobs. The short story is told from the perspective of an elderly, middle class woman reminiscing about the tribulations the immigrants had to face while working in an iron mill and cotton mill. Hugh works in the iron mill, becoming blackened and worn down from his hard labor. Despite the nasty working conditions, Hugh is able to create statues out of the discarded iron throughout the mills. Deborah, Hugh’s cousin who loves him very much, brings Hugh his dinner on the many occasions he forgets to eat due to working at the mill. One night, the two are in the iron mill during a downpour that has also trapped a group of upper-class white men taking a tour of the mill. The group examines Hugh and his artwork, being amazed that a person covered in such filth and working in a mill could create art so beautiful. While the group is viewing Hugh’s work, Deborah steals money from one of the men and gives it to Hugh. Given this power of wealth, Hugh sets out through town with his new gift of freedom. Before he is allowed to decide how to spend his new source of wealth, he is arrested for robbery, convicted, and sentenced to work nineteen years of hard labor. Deborah is thrown in jail as an accomplice. In jail, Hugh is unable to live with the fact his life will never amount to anything and commits suicide. Deborah receives a visit from a Quaker who advises her to head to the Appalachians as a refuge.
The short story went on to be a success. Davis submitted the story to The Atlantic, surely expecting rejection. At the time, The Atlantic was where Emerson, Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes published many of their pieces. Expecting rejection, Davis did not open the envelope she received from The Atlantic after submitting her work. To her surprise and delight, the envelope contained a letter announcing the publication of “Life in the Iron Mills” and a check for $50 (Biggers). “Iron Mills” remained popular far after its initial release. Many literary critics have identified it as an early example of American realism and is “the first notable work of fiction to concern itself with the life of the factory worker in an industrial American town” (Hesford 70). One of the main foci of the piece is unjust treatment of the mill workers as wage slaves. Davis writes about the white mill workers in her piece, describing their working conditions as similar to chattel slaves. While showing that the white mill workers are treated unfairly by their superiors, Davis makes a mistake in her comparison between wage and chattel slaves. Readers are meant to believe that the wage slavery suffered by the white mill workers is far more burdensome than the chattel slavery African Americans were forced into during the time. However, the hardships faced by the white mill workers were at best comparable, and many times less severe, than those faced by their black brethren. By only emphasizing the white mill worker in “Iron Mills”, Davis inaccurately downplays the oppression of “true” black slaves who had faced such oppression in North America for over two centuries.
Just as nineteenth-century economist Henry George “often used the topic of chattel slavery in his analysis of [wage] slavery” (Steele 369), Davis uses wage slave rhetoric throughout to showcase her idea of how poorly white mill workers are treated. Growing up in Alabama and Virginia, Davis had first-hand experience in witnessing both chattel and wage slavery (Schocket 48). While it is easily understandable how Davis was exposed to chattel slavery with both states being slave states, it was her time spent in Virginia that she experienced wage slavery. Living in a small, mill town influenced many of the ideas present in “Iron Mills” including wage slavery. Davis combined her experiences with both forms of slavery to describe wage slavery in terms usually used to describe chattel slavery. At the time “Iron Mills” was published, slavery was a very large issue in the United States, allowing many readers to understand the connections Davis made between wage slavery and chattel slavery.
Many times throughout “Iron Mills,” Davis attempts to alienate the white mill workers from their white, middle-class peers. The separation between the two groups of men is meant to be based on social class, but also draws inspiration from the difference between white and black men during the time of chattel slavery in the South. When the middle-class men are staying in the mill to avoid being caught in the rain, the differences between the two groups of white men are exemplified. Kirby, the mill owner, and the two other men in his middle-class group, Mitchell and Doctor May, are clean and educated unlike the dirty, unskilled mill workers. The middle-class men’s superiority over the mill workers is illustrated in their outward appearance: They are well-dressed and unblemished compared to the mill workers who wear worn-out clothes and are covered in black ash, effectively making their white skin equivalent to black skin. While speaking, the conversation between the middle-class men includes high-level thinking, quoting Dante and Scripture with ease. None of the mill workers are able to understand the conversations as “Greek would not have been more unintelligible for the furnace-tenders” (Davis 1236). Many African-American slaves would react the same way while listening to their masters talk as slaves were kept uneducated out of fear that educated slaves would destroy the foundation of slavery (Simkin). The separation of the middle-class men and mill workers extends to more than just physical and mental aspects during this scene. Kirby tells of how his father “persuaded” many of the mill workers in how to vote at an election and commands a few of the workers to move boards around to allow the middle-class men to sit, just as a master controlled the actions of a slave for the benefit of himself. While Kirby and his guests are laughing about Kirby’s stories, the mill workers are still hard at work until they are allowed to leave for home (although some stay to sleep on the ash-heaps as they have no home to go to). Exactly like the black slaves who worked in hot, sunny fields while their masters sat inside all day, the “black” mill workers must labor through the terrible working conditions as the white men happily observe from afar. Hugh observes this unjust separation between the two groups, but sadly notes that “between them there was a great gulf never to be passed” (1236).
There is nothing wrong with Davis’s portrayal of the separation between the two groups on the basis of class. The fault with Davis’s portrayal is that she equates the mills workers’ position with that of African-American slaves, thus ignoring the very real differences between the two states. Many people did wish for the abolishment of chattel slavery throughout the United States during the time “Iron Mills” was written and published, making Davis’s use of it understandable in her short story to promote her ideas of wage slavery. However, the ideas Davis has about creating equality for the mill workers is not in line with the ideas regarding the abolition of chattel slavery. “Iron Mills” argues that if black slaves should be freed and treated as equals in comparison to whites, all whites should be equal to each other. Equality was not a goal for abolitionists, though. Although abolitionists did want African Americans to be freed from slavery, they did not believe African Americans should be placed on the same level in society as whites. Even Abraham Lincoln, often viewed as the man most sympathetic to slaves, did not believe the two races could coexist equally and even believed in white supremacy (Tindall 466). Following the ideas of the abolishment of chattel slavery like Davis wants her readers to do, her plea changes from treating all men equally to strictly treating white men equally.
When examining Davis’s devaluation of the oppression African-American slaves faced in “Iron Mills,” it is important to understand what may have caused it. Both states Davis grew up in had slavery, allowing her to witness its atrocities first hand and develop sympathy for the slaves (Henwood). However, Davis would also grow up around proslavery literature that had little circulation outside of the South. Much of this proslavery literature revolved around how slaves were treated fairly by their owners and how they would actually be in a worse situation if free. Dawn Henwood believes that “[Davis’s] exposure to the literary products of the proslavery campaign furnishes her with a ready-made rhetoric of ‘wage slavery’ with which to attack the injustices of industrial capitalism.” In Davis’s 1867 novel Waiting for the Verdict, she did indeed use the ideas presented in the proslavery literature to touch upon the rough transition black slaves would have to go through when becoming freed and entering the white workforce (Schocket 50). Some critics, including Henwood, believe Davis’s upbringing actually made her sympathetic towards those in support of slavery. Henwood even attacks Davis’s stance on being an abolitionist by claiming no real abolitionist could write “Iron Mills”. Though many works tend to dispel any ideas of Davis not being an abolitionist, Henwood is correct in her assessment that “Iron Mills” “manipulates tropes borrowed from proslavery fiction and nonfiction to draw attention to the oppression of white mill workers.”
Another problem with Davis arguing for the equality of the mill workers is that the middle-class men in “Iron Mills” actually do accept the fact that Hugh could be equal or even greater than they in society’s eyes. Upon witnessing the korl woman statue Hugh has sculpted, Doctor May is very impressed by the work. He commends Hugh, the poor “black” man who cannot possibly bridge the gap between the middle-class men and the mill workers according to Davis a few pages earlier, and tells the mill worker:
Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great man? … to live a better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby here? A man may make himself anything he chooses. God has given you stronger powers than many men, -me, for instance. Make yourself what you will. It is your right (Davis 1239).
Davis contradicts herself by showing that the mill workers were already free to abandon their harsh lives should they choose to do so. Black slaves rarely were given this same privilege. Instead, they resorted to fleeing from their owners in a desperate attempt to know freedom. Quite often, slaves would be captured by hired slave catchers and brought back to their owners who would be sure to punish their slaves for being disobedient. In some rare occasions, African Americans would be legally freed but still worked for whites in a manner very similar to slavery. These freed black men were given very specific contracts, which they could not read or understand due to being uneducated, that took away many of their rights. When the black men committed an act in violation of the contract, which happened quite often, they would be placed in jail and forced to work hard labor for the sheriff on top of their contractual obligations (Shamberg). Davis attempts to represent the inability to escape slavery when Hugh is arrested after he leaves the mill in pursuit of a new life. Hugh is placed in jail and sentenced to nineteen years of hard labor for the crime of stealing money from Mitchell while he was in the mill (though it was actually Deborah who later gave Hugh the money). Though Hugh is subjected to the same punishment a black slave received at the time, the actions bringing forth the punishment are not comparable. Hugh is charged for theft after escaping the place of his enslavement while black slaves attempted to escape their place of enslavement to avoid the theft of their potential life by their masters.
Part of Davis’s mistake in trying to make wage slavery equitable to chattel slavery is that she confuses race with class. According to Walter Hesford, “In this period in America, racial divisions loom larger than class divisions” (78). Davis combines race and class together, which only leads to everyone in the middle-class being considered white while all those below them are considered black regardless of their true race. This is what leads Davis into making the mill workers “black” and relating their struggles to black slaves. However, Davis’s view of these lower-class white men is not the view they had about themselves. Caroline Miles notes that “while often labeled as black … these working-class men clearly distinguished themselves from African Americans and saw themselves as white” and that the working white men rejected any similarities with black slaves, instead promoting white superiority (90). In attempting to make all lower-class men black, Davis forces the working white men to become something they reject. Placing working whites into the same group as black slaves ends up placing African Americans in an even lower level of society than if the working whites remained just lower-class people. Rather than just being below whites in social standing, black slaves are below the group viewed as equal with them. This once again creates a situation where equating lower-class whites to black slaves benefits only the whites.
In examining Davis’s portrayal of lower-class whites as black slaves, it is important to look at how African Americans are portrayed in “Iron Mills.” However, there are only two black persons in the story, both appearing briefly before never being mentioned again. The first is a woman interacting with Deborah before she goes to give Hugh his dinner at the mill. This woman is very drunk compared to the others in the scene, being the only one who required any assistance in standing up (Davis 1229). She is a character taken straight out of a proslavery story who shows “the miserable state of African Americans outside slavery’s supposedly protective bonds” (Henwood). However, she is not fully black as she is a mulatto, a person who has one black and one white parent. This character, although acknowledged to be black by the narrator, is viewed as an even lower-class white woman by her low-class white women peers. By having the mulatto pass as white, Davis placed a black person in a white class only to have them be the excluded from that class, showcasing the previously-mentioned flaw in the text. The only other black character in the story appears much later during Hugh’s imprisonment. Once again, this black character is a mulatto. She follows around her mistress with a basket on her head full of fruit and smile. When looking up to see Hugh, her expression immediately “grew grave” and quickly left Hugh’s sight (Davis 1249). As she is seen walking behind her mistress, we are to assume that this mulatto is under this owner of this mistress. Doing so creates the image of the mulatto being the well-fed, well-cared for slave of Southern proslavery. In fact, this mulatto woman serves as a human example for an idea Davis introduces before Hugh sees her. Hugh looks out of his jail window to view a crowded market place and spots a man walking his dog. The dog “could go backwards and forwards just as he pleased: he had good luck” (1248). Davis uses the common rhetoric of equating slaves to animals to show how they are able to do as they please under the watch of their owners. The mulatto, who is viewed as an animal, has more freedom than a white man and cannot even look at him out of pity or disgust. Hugh is left to marvel at the mulatto woman, using her as an inspiration for his next piece of art. The reader is meant to believe that Hugh is in a much worse situation than the mulatto slave is which, as discussed, is simply not true. Davis merely adjusts the truth behind black slaves’ lives to further her own cause.
“Life in the Iron Mills” is a story that, like many others written before and after it, attempts to show the oppression of the minority of a majority group. In these stories, the majority minority is often equated to a true minority in order to better align their suffering with a group that more visibly faces it. However, doing this often falsely makes the oppression faced by the majority minority much worse than the actual minority. In The Plot Against America, a novel by Philip Roth, the oppression faced by American Jews in the 1940’s is emphasized as something that is equitable to the oppression faced by black slaves, much as Davis tried to show in “Iron Mills” with the mill workers. Roth runs into the same problem as Davis does in trying to show that the hardships faced by a group of white people were as difficult as those faced by black slaves. Critiquing Roth’s piece in a negative light, Walter Benn Michaels claims that
Anti-Semitism was never a very significant factor in American life – the fact that Jews were white was almost always more important than the fact that they were Jewish, and Jewish success in America today is less an effect of the triumph over racism than it is an effect of the triumph of racism (290).
Though “Iron Mills” does not fully show the “triumph of racism,” it does attempt to use racism as a factor in drawing sympathy for mill workers. As shown, this racism did not exist against whites as regardless of their social class. They were still whites. Davis, like Roth, tries to create an anger in her readers over the slave-like treatment of mill workers to which Michaels raises the question of “why should we be outraged by what didn’t happened rather than outraged by what did?” (289). Indeed the treatment of mill workers, and all lower-class workers as a whole, was not favorable compared to their middle-class brethren, but comparing their treatment to that of which black slaves faced leads to an incorrect image of the situation both groups were in. As David Roediger notes, “As long as slavery thrived, any attempt to come to grips with wage labor tended to lapse into exaggerated metaphors or frantic denials of those metaphors” (Schocket 50). Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” does exactly this, using chattel slavery as a distorted metaphor for wage slavery while simultaneously deemphasizing the harsh life of a black slave to better suit her views of the white mill worker.
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