From the opening of Life in the Iron Mills, Rebecca Harding Davis uses descriptions of corporeality to separate Hugh Wolfe, her working-class protagonist, from the "breath of crowded human beings" (11) and the mass of "drunken Irishmen" that pass beneath her "open window" (11). Wolfe is a "Welsh" (15) emigrant, a distinction revealed only subtly through bodily rhetoric, through his "slight, angular" (15) form and "sharply-cut facial lines" (15). Throughout the text, corporeal images both script the figure of Hugh Wolfe as an individual, unique and distinguishable from the "[m]asses of men" prowling back and forth with "dull, besotted faces bent to the ground" (11), and also depict him as antithetical to the eroticized, quixotic site of labor disseminated in the first half of the nineteenth century by writers and artists of the picturesque. (1) When the story begins, Davis's journalistic-like narrator records that Wolfe has "already lost the strength and instinctual vigor of a man" (24); his muscles are "thin, his nerves weak, his face (a meek woman's face) haggard, yellow with consumption. In the mill he was known as one of the girl-men: "Molly Wolfe" was his sobriquet" (24). This disquieting, unromantic, and feminizing portrait of Wolfe prepares readers for a text that represents the worker's identity as necessarily embodied, but that fails to reconcile the laboring body's materiality with a nineteenth-century American rhetoric that equated white manhood with transcending and replacing the material body. Davis's inability to situate a representation of the embodied worker within national constructions of white manhood facilitates a crisis of working-class representation. This crisis forges a certain working-class visibility while dismantling the myth of white male homogeneity.
By the 1860s, the non-black working class in America was almost synonymous with an immigrant class because it was comprised mostly of young men from Germany, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. While often labeled as black because of the nature of their work, these immigrant working-class men clearly distinguished themselves from African Americans and saw themselves as white. In Wages of Whiteness, David Roediger documents in detail how all non-African-American working-class men, and especially the "Celtic race," while continuously finding themselves "labeled as black" (151), increasingly rejected solidarity with blacks, a coalition based on shared oppression, and embraced white superiority instead. According to Roediger, "being white" became increasingly important to this class of men, especially to Celtic immigrants, and they "came to insist on their own whiteness" (151). Davis's text, despite being primarily read as a text about blackness or female aesthetic production, is notable for its vivid descriptions of white male corporeality. Descriptions of the white male body, some of them grotesque and alarming, inundate Davis's counter-narrative of picturesque classlessness and laboring bliss, and function as a way of making tangible the elusive and unwritten construction of class and of whiteness.
Davis's text provides one of the first unsettling literary depictions of the non-African-American male worker, an unnerving delineation that attempts to combat the picturesque displacement of the working classes and register the historical conditions of a laboring, largely immigrant, class. As Tillie Olsen records, when Davis wrote Life in the Iron Mills in 1861, "a picture of cotton mills as a kind of industrial paradise was the vision impressed on the public primarily by the widely distributed and famous Lowell Offering of the 1840s" (165). In the consciousness of literary America prior to Davis's text there had existed no dark satanic mills outside of slavery and "if working people existed--and nowhere were they material for serious attention, let alone central subject--they were 'clean-haired Yankee mill girls," ... or Whitman's 'workwomen and workmen of these States/having your own divine and strong life ...'" (Olsen 88). Outside of literature, Americans reveled in the light, pleasure-giving, ahistorical art of the picturesque, and for the main part witnessed women and children, not men, working in factories. From the biographical information available, we know that Davis, a middle-class woman, probably never actually stepped foot in an iron mill, but she knew laboring life, as she herself suggests at the beginning of Life in the Iron Mills, from observing the bodies of iron workers "skulking" (19) back and forth below her window in Wheeling, West Virginia. It is the laborer's body that captures Davis's artistic imagination, that inspires her to write the story of Hugh Wolfe, that reminds us of the signifying power of bodies, and, one might even argue, that inaugurates the non-black American laborer into literary and artistic representation.
Scholars have questioned whether of not middle-class writers can produce working-class texts, but as Laura Hapke succinctly summarizes in Labor's Text: The Worker in American Fiction, there are strong arguments for including middle-class authors in any study on the worker. While these authors remain distanced from working-class experience, they can provide significant commentary about the place of, of the lack of a place for, the worker in the national/middle-class imagination. As Hapke puts it, even if they tell us less about "who is being looked at than who is looking" (6), these writers speak importantly to what the worker has meant to those who write about American life and identity. In addition, writers who are workers write "from within that life" (11) and suffer from their own limitations. Furthermore, there are few nineteenth-century workers who are also writers, a circumstance that challenges us to seek out "the plurivocal textual voices" in texts by middle-class authors, to seek out "the ways in which the voice of power in the text also records other voices" (7).
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans found it more difficult to ignore the ways in which European industrialism had transfigured white men into corporeal machines, a change that led Thomas Jefferson to fear that industrialism would produce the same "debased proletariat" (Kasson 24) of white men in America that wide scale manufacturing had created in Europe. However, while Jefferson, among others, remained horrified at the mobs of workmen in European cities and continued to predict the degradation of the working body, cultural constructions of American manhood during the first hall of the nineteenth century erased the material white male body from the national imagination, especially the troubling working-class immigrant body that postulated a visual reminder of both European industrial evil and the exclusionary nature of whiteness. Middle-class, nineteenth-century America imbued discourses of white male disembodiment with a national significance and fashioned a historically particular dissolution of the American white male body that would guarantee the promotion of a middle-class white manhood masquerading as a homogenous white national identity. (2) As Dana Nelson convincingly argues, during the period from the Revolutionary War through the 1850s, Americans simultaneously founded the nation and consolidated a powerful disquisition of disembodied white manhood that would equate nationhood with all white men; they created "the historical moment," Nelson records, "when the abstracting identity of white manhood ... comes into focus as a supraclass ideal for guaranteeing national unity" (ix). In The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life, Lauren Berlant also illustrates how during the nineteenth century "the Constitution implicitly defined a 'natural' legitimate subject (white, male), who was privileged to be 'disembodied' by national identity" (6). In American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender, Robyn Weigman interrogates what she calls the "universality" of white male disembodiment in contrast to the black and female body: "Modern citizenship," she says, "functions as a disproportionate system in which the universalism ascribed to certain bodies (white, male, propertied) is protected and subtended by the infinite particularity assigned to others (black, female, unpropertied)" (226).
While these scholars have historicized national disembodied manhood, they have not addressed the consequences of such a narrative for a class of men who labor with and through their bodies. If studies of gender, race, and the body in the nineteenth century focus in general on white male disembodiment in opposition to the female / African-American body, (3) Marxists and cultural materialists typically ignore how narratives of gender intersect with representations of class and immigration. (4) As a result, studies of class and gender have overlooked how narratives of masculinity not only bolster the production and subjection of the body, but also deny laboring men representation. As James V. Catono articulates in Ragged Dicks: Masculinity, Steel, and the Rhetoric of the Self-Made Man, "masculinized imagery and experience [are] regularly rewritten to align [them] with middle class white experience, demonstrating a ready rhetorical process that appropriates or drowns other voices in order to maintain not just a myth of masculinity but the dominant myth of masculinity" (5). If this is right, we might expect that the male body is also written in line with middle-class practice and that it becomes another totemic record that buries a more complex multivalent history of male corporeality that takes working-class experience into consideration. Davis's text, I argue, both reflects a middleclass dominant rhetoric of masculinity that excludes the worker, and at the same time resists this rhetoric by making the worker visible.
When Wolfe first recognizes the "unintelligible" (29) whiteness of Mitchell and the other mill owners, he understands that it is his embodied identity that "makes the difference" (27) between the owners of the mill and himself. When Mitchell enters the mill, he becomes "a mirror" that reflects the connection between Wolfe's grimy, "puny" (41) body and his identity as a worker: "Glancing now and then at Mitchell, marking acutely every smallest sign of refinement," Wolfe then looked "back to himself, seeing as in a mirror his filthy body, his more stained soul" (30). The soot and ashes that stain Wolfe's skin remain a lucid and negative mark of his labor, while the clean, visually-pleasing whiteness of Mitchell's body signifies his place in a higher and better class. As Wolfe momentarily assumes a position of observer, Mitchell's whiteness "flashe[s] before ... [Wolfe's] vivid poetic sense," and Wolfe feels disgust for his own laboring body: "he looked at himself with sudden loathing, sick" at the thought of Mitchell's "delicate, sinewy limbs, in harmony with all he knew of beauty of truth" (40).
Davis's descriptions of Mitchell recall not only the aesthetic of the picturesque, but also what Mark Seltzer calls, in Bodies and Machines, "the aestheticization of the body" made possible by "a pro-choice or voluntaristic principle of identity or personhood" (123). Through his access to consumption not based on basic biological need, but predicated on manufactured desire for the artificial, Mitchell can represent his body as he wishes, act as a consumer in the marketplace, and replace his messy material body with an aesthetically agreeable one. As Seltzer observes in his analysis of nineteenth-century American culture of consumption:
In the turning away from the body to representation, ... in the turning away of perversion from need to want, in short, in the turning away from nature and necessity to pseudo-needs and unnatural or artificial wants, ... the culture of consumption ... represent[s] a fall into representation that is marked ... not by a desire for the thing itself but for its representations or substitutes. (122)
It is "the aesthetics of consumption," Seltzer points out, that is "the antidote, to overly deep racial and class embodiments" (125), Wolfe's difficulty in catching a glimpse of Mitchell's body indicates the distance and uncontainability of his body and reinforces Mitchell's privileged, free, disembodied position, one unhampered by negative denotations of class and race: "About this man Mitchell hung the impalpable atmosphere belonging to the gentleman. Wolfe, sweeping away the ashes beside him, was conscious of it" (29). The aestheticization of Mitchell's body denotes his autonomy to transcend the biological, material body, and fashion another one, while physical labor and exploitation not only prevent Wolfe from self-narrating such a body but also tie his identity inextricably to the visible flesh and muscle of the biological one.
When Wolfe does finally catch a glance of Mitchell's body, he perceives it in the context of the representational system that equates the aesthetic and relative disembodiment with whiteness and privilege: "Wolfe caught with a quick pleasure, the contour of the white hand, the blood-glow of a red ring he wore. His voice, too, ... touched him like music,-low, even, with chording cadences"(29). The exquisite quality of Mitchell's voice and body accentuate his identity as a powerful manager and owner of production, while Wolfe's body, on the other hand, denies him the "impalpable" (29) middle-class identity, reserved, like the disembodied "still marble figures" and "mysterious music" of the Gothic Church, to "meet the requirements and sympathies of another class than Wolfe's" (48). Wolfe's alienation from the disembodied religious transcendence signified by the Wheeling church becomes apparent as the preacher's words pass "far over the furnace-tender's grasp," and Wolf turns "from the church down the street" leaving behind the disembodied spiritual place of the church that preaches the moral worth of labor in "beautiful words," moving back towards the earthly, physical realm of embodiment where his pained body and "morbid, distorted heart" (49) remain cultural property contained in the public eye.
The "red" (40) color of Mitchell's ring acts as a kind of Derridian trace signifying the "red" blood of the subjugated white bodies that his disembodiment depends on and excludes. The contrast between Mitchell's blood-red ring and "the black nauseous stream of blood" (61) that pours out of Wolfe at the end of the text, suggests that the difference between Wolfe and Mitchell has symbolically--but also with real material consequences--drained the whiteness out of Wolfe. Davis's reference to Wolfe's "black" blood provides a sharp reminder of the interplay between the biological and metaphorical dimensions of color, of the performative nature of race, and of the idea that a "homogenous" white manhood is a misleading fiction, a construct that includes some white men and excludes others by feminizing or racializing them. In Davis's text, race is fluid and inconsistent in this way, and the contradiction between Wolfe's black blood and his "white" (23) body and "pure blood" (24) is one that remains unresolved.
Davis's insistence on Wolfe's whiteness points to an alternative white and classed manhood that is obfuscated both by the act of labeling the worker as black and by defining white manhood in terms of middle-class experience and aesthetic constructions. The "delicate, blue" (18) eyes of Janey, the Irish girl living with Wolfe, reminds us of the Celtic heritage of the immigrant working class, while the grotesque whiteness of Wolfe, his "white, sick" (52) look, "pale, bleared eyes," and "washed-out looking face," his "white face and red rabbit eyes" (16), disrupts the aesthetic distancing from working-class conditions of the picturesque and betrays an alternative to the aesthetically pleasing whiteness of Mitchell, a whiteness that is pitted against all that is "foul and dark" (14). The recognition of Wolfe's horrifying "whiteness" shocks us into recognizing the "difference" within whiteness that demolishes the myth of white male homogeneity and privilege in contrast to an enslaved African race. In The Cultural Front, Michael Denning describes the grotesque as "the poetic form most appropriate to moments of crisis and transition," that which "tends to be revolutionary" and that can "violate accepted classifications" (122). It is "an attempt," Denning continues, "to wrench us out of repose and distance of the 'aesthetic" (123). Davis's use of the grotesque signals the place of the laboring immigrant man in a representational system that represents white manhood in terms of aesthetic corporeality and disembodiment and that represents embodiment in terms of victimization, enslavement, and blackness. The recognition of the worker in this text leads to the perversion of the prevalent representational system of color and collapses the black/white opposition by divulging whiteness to be as terrifying and appalling as blackness.
In addition to her compelling portrayal of Wolfe's failure to replace his biological body with an aesthetic one, to satisfy "his fierce thirst for beauty--to know it, to create it; to be--something, he knows not what,--other than he is" (25) and to assume the role of consumer in the marketplace of representation, Davis also depicts Wolfe as excluded from the means to manage and discipline his own body. The relative disembodiment of white middleclass men during the nineteenth century hinged crucially on the investment in a narrative of corporeal self-discipline. Berlant documents the ways in which, during the first half of the nineteenth century, the state encouraged men to contain and manage their own bodies in order to transform their individual bodies into abstract, privileged citizens. The nineteenth-century workforce also demanded and encouraged this management of corporeality, and channeled male stamina away from the bedroom and pleasure, and towards capitalist profits. As the male body became an increasingly valuable source of labor, the middle class began to construct the male body as a well of potentially corrupt and savage energies. As Michael Kimmel argues, "to succeed in the market, the American middle-class man had first to gain control over his self. And by this he increasingly meant his body--its desires, its sensations.... Simply put, the self-control required of market success required the sexual control of the disciplined body, a body controlled by the will. Conservation of sperm signified conservation of energy for its deployment in the market" (15).
By the mid-nineteenth century, advice-manual writers sought to restrict desire and direct sexual energy toward productive activity--in essence to replace the body with industry. Charles E. Rosenberg notes that these manuals linked "mental discipline and physical exercise," which together became the "appropriate model for the discharge of nervous energy" (228). By the 1850s, several advice books linked a lack of corporeal discipline with a lack of manhood. They "addressed men's need for self-control over passion, temptation, and masturbation, weaknesses which would sap their vital energies and leave 'effeminate' men's bodies, ... and thus tender them unfit for the tasks ahead" (Kimmel 18). By the middle of the nineteenth century, the body had become demonized, a phenomenon to overcome, limit, and transform. A lack of bodily regulation equated to demasculinization, making the public display of masculine control over the body essential. Via corporeal discipline, American men could transform their chaotic and unpleasant biological bodies into the artificial and aesthetically beautiful ones that signalled the "privilege of relative disembodiment ... the aestheticization of the natural body in market culture" (Seltzer 123).
In contrast to middle-class rhetoric equating manhood, and participation in market culture, with self-discipline, Davis pictures Wolfe's lack of opportunity to practice self regulation. When Doctor May, one of the rich and privileged men visiting the mill where Wolfe works, says he does not understand the meaning of one of the figures Wolfe carves out of korl (the refuse left over after the workers run the pig-metal), Mitchell responds, "[w]hy May, look at him!" and see the "hunger" in the body that does not "make" itself, control itself, or discipline itself, but that remains "governed" by "the vast machinery of system" (19). Throughout the text, Wolfe's body remains territorialized both by the conditions and space of his hard labor, and also by what Foucault calls a system of panopticism--"[t]he surveillance and supervision of urban populations ... achieved through regulation and classification, which [makes] possible the centralized registration of bodies" (Turner 106). Wolfe's life reflects what Seltzer calls "the fabrication of disciplinary individuals" through "the differentiation, supervision and regulation of ... the political 'anatomy' of the body" (131). Labor controls the iron workers through an intricate system that coordinates the body's movement through time and space: "the hands of each mill are divided into watches that relieve each other as regularly as the sentinels of an army. By night and day the work goes on, [and] the unsleeping engines groan and shriek" (19). Outside of the mill, the streets forcefully police the workers' bodies as they move in and out of the factory. The "narrow streets" direct the "skulking" bands of "mill-hands" every day "to or from their work" (19) and do not seem to go anywhere else, restricting their movement entirely to the activity of labor. The road that Wolfe's cousin, Deborah, takes "had been quarried from the solid rock, which rose abrupt and bare on one side of the cinder-covered road, while the river, sluggish and black crept past on the other" (20). As well as an extension of the dark cramped mills themselves, these paths from the mills cut off vision and passage to anywhere else but the mills and to anything else other than labor.
As the laboring men in the mills work "half-clad" and under the gaze of other men, the relationship between vision and corporeality also regulates the workers, instituting the identity of the laborer as an objectified, demeaned body, a white "other" consumed by the disembodied eye of white men in another class: The faces of the workers stay "bent to the ground" (12), a posture of docility that invokes their existence as physical capital. Mitchell, sitting "on a stone with the air of an amused spectator at a play," looks "at the furnace-tender [Wolfe] as he had looked at a rare mosaic in the morning; only the man was the more amusing study of the two" (36). The movement suggested by Mitchell's "cool, probing eyes ... mocking, cruel, relentless" (33) conflates his own freedom from corporeal existence with his social and economic mobility while it simultaneously reduces Wolfe not just to the corporeal but to an object of consumption in a capitalist marketplace: The young man sits "with an amused light in his cool grey eye, surveying critically the half-clothed figures of the puddlers and the slow swing of their brawny muscles" (29). Davis effectively reveals the coercion of Wolfe's body, implemented through the insertion of his working body into an architectural/factory space where he remains permanently marked by visibility, governed by space, and consumed by the gaze of others.
There are moments in the text when the controlling gaze of the mill owners is interrupted. In these instances, just as the worker's story is transmitted by Davis to us, the readers, through Wolfe's body, his plight of hard labor and exploitation is made visible within the story via his body. The owners of the mill are forced to acknowledge the existence of the worker when faced with the anatomies of the laboring bodies that compellingly narrate class difference. Kirby glances at "the half-naked figures" of the workers, sneeringly remarks that "[t]hey have ample facilities for studying anatomy" (32), and continues, "[c]ome, let us get out of the den. The spectral figures, as you call them, are a little too real for me to fancy a close proximity in the darkness-unarmed, too" (31). The visitors prefer to reduce the workers to "net profits" and to "spectral figures," to "ghostly" and "unreal" figures reminiscent of the picturesque and hidden "in shimmering shadows" (28, 31, 27). The owners prefer the non-representation, or at least displacement, of the laboring body, an absence that obfuscates class difference and the possibility of class violence, but that also obscures the exploitation of a whole class of men.
Realizing that his body indicates his "difference" from the "mysterious class that shone down on him perpetually with the glamour of another order of being" (27), Wolfe attempts to participate in the construction of aesthetic corporeality by remaking his body through art, by molding "flesh-colored" figures out of korl: "in his off-hours from the furnace" (24), Wolfe "had a habit of chipping and molding figures.... It was a curious fancy in the man, almost a passion" (24). "The white figure" (31), sculptured by Wolfe, can be read as symbolizing his attempt to fashion himself as white, to become a middle-class actor in the marketplace of representation. While the Quaker woman who acquires the figure after Wolfe's death insists that it has a "wolfish face" (64), one through which "the dead korl-cutter looks out" (64), the narrator refers to the figure as a "clear, projected figure of himself [Wolfe], as he might become" (41). The figure obviously manifests Wolfe's attempt to make real Doctor May's claim that he "may make himself anything he chooses" (37). The white and "strangely beautiful" (24) korl figures that Wolfe creates designate his desire for access to the aesthetic and artificial world of whiteness represented by Mitchell, one that transcends the biological body and denotes an identity based on self-making in market culture. Wolfe attempts to re-define himself by constructing his own aesthetic representation of his body and by overcoming the one determined externally by others and created by the forced discipline that characterizes his labor as a mill worker.
When Doctor May tells Wolfe, "Oh-h! But what a mistake you have made my fine fellow! You have given no sign of starvation to the body," it is May who makes the error. Wolfe's hunger goes beyond that which fulfills basic biological needs, and the depiction of the korl woman as "nude," missing clothes and accessories, calls to mind pornography, a business that vividly replaces the biologically determined act of sex with the artificial and self-constructed representation of it. Davis again depicts Wolfe, not as "starving" (32) for food, or at least not only for food, but for the "necessary perversion of desire away from biology/need" toward the "artificial and the representational" (Seltzer 122). Wolfe's artistic molding of bodies out of korl signals his attempt to gain agency and to access whiteness via the market. By creating the woman out of korl, Wolfe works symbolically to achieve self-control over his body by moving from labor alienated from the product to labor defined by ownership and control of production.
The korl woman is also a gothic manifestation of contradiction and boundaries transgressed. (5) The sculpture is both "woman" (31) and "man" (32), "strangely beautiful" (24) but with "not one line of beauty or grace in it," (32), "of giant proportions" (31) and with a "bony wrist" (32). The excess of the figure that elides categories and classifications embodies the cultural contradictions subsumed by national myth. While the "muscular ... powerful limbs" (32) echo the romantic, erotic picture of working-class life made prevalent by the picturesque, the ghastly "mad, half-despairing gesture of drowning" (33) underwrites the real, dehumanized, and over-determined lives of the working-class. It is the schism between the national displacement of the worker and his everyday experience that plunges Wolfe's art into the gothic realm. It is also the inconsistency between a national discourse that connects work and manhood, and Wolfe's desperate desire to escape the only work he knows, his frantic anguish to escape his role as laborer, "to escape, out of the wet, the pain, the ashes, somewhere, anywhere" (14), that manifests itself as a demasculinized projection of Wolfe as he might become. As Daniel T. Rodgers records, above all, the nineteenth-century man "was made to labor" (7). Other historians have also documented the mid-nineteenth-century celebration of work and related values such as activity and usefulness. Anthony Rotundo records that before the nineteenth century, family and community established a man's identity, but during the nineteenth century, a man's work, of labor, became vital to self-definition: "if a man was without 'business' he was less than a man" (168). Rotundo claims that a man's life "had little substance or meaning ... when he lacked work" (168), while Kasson reports the comment by Thomas Eubank, United States Commissioner of Patents in the 1850s, that "with so much work to be done," non-utilitarian pursuits appear "to teater on sin and blasphemy" (143). In addition, in Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Eric Foner asserts that "the concept of labor lay at the heart of Republican ideology" and expressed, unequivocally, "the model of the good society" (11).
The futility of Wolfe's attempt to make himself through artistic representation, to imaginatively reconcile his laboring life with national discourses of white manhood, is indicated further by his habit of "working at one figure for months, and when it [is] finished, breaking it into pieces perhaps, in a fit of disappointment" (24). Significantly, Wolfe cannot satisfactorily represent himself by distancing himself from his biological body because while his material body keeps him from acquiring the privileges of the men who visit the mill, it is also the source of his work and identity: At first, he "gripped the filthy red shirt that clung, stiff with soot, about him, and tore it savagely from his arm. The flesh beneath was muddy with grease and ashes" (40). His red shirt becomes a pathetic and useless attempt to hide the laboring body and to become a participant in the cultural market of representation. The image of Wolfe looking down from his jail cell on the scene of "market-day" (54) re-emphasizes his distance from participating in any kind of market exchange, representational and otherwise. He sees the scene so clearly, and yet it remains inaccessible, intangible, just out of reach: "[I]t was so near. In one minute he could be down there. It was just a stop. So easy, as it seemed, so natural to go! Yet it could never be" (55). The scene stays framed in the window of the jail, "real" (54), and yet, at the same time, "like a picture" (55). As Wolfe contemplates his jail sentence ending, he momentarily realizes that he has only replaced one jail with another: "when he came out, if he lived to come, even the lowest of the mill-hands would jeer him,-how his hands would be weak, and his brains senseless and stupid. He believed he was almost that now. He put his hand to his head, with a puzzled, weary look" (56).
After a series of failed attempts at suicide through cutting himself with "a dull old bit of tin" (57), the same instrument used to cut korl, Wolfe achieves only the most tragic kind of freedom, that of cutting and molding his body into death. Since re-authorizing himself through art fails, Wolfe can only assert ownership over his body by erasing it. For Wolfe, transcending the body becomes associated with death, not with the identity of white manhood but with the impossibility of such an identity, and finally the only way that Wolfe can overcome the biological body is through self-destruction. Suicide takes the place of self-discipline, and self-making, manifested in the stripping away of the flesh, is a symbolic stripping away of all identity.
The ending of Life in the Iron Mills indicates that Davis, like the owners of the mill in her story, can only imagine Wolfe's body in terms of victimization, in terms of his desperate desire to be free of his laboring body and admitted into middle-class white identity. In this sense, Davis's text participates in the same non-representation of laboring men as the national rhetoric she critiques. Davis contributes to barring laboring men from a meaningful representation. Ironically, in its conclusion, the representation in the text undergoes a process of self-mutilation that parallels that of its protagonist. Wolfe attempts to meaningfully represent himself through art, fails, and mutilates himself, while the text first represents the laboring body, but subsequently undermines that representation in failing to imagine it as anything other than a problem. In participating in the cultural erasure/ exclusion of the embodied worker by insisting upon the worker's desire and failure to escape his laboring body, Davis's text is not only about the cultural exclusion of the embodied worker, but also exists as a cultural artifact that paradoxically shows that exclusion at work. While the worker's death entombs his exclusion, Davis's text fails to rewrite the historically/ culturally dominant by inventing a positive working-class embodied subjectivity.
But I would also suggest that while in Davis's middle-class imagination, the worker's body must finally be destroyed, at the same time, it also remains the very locus of representation throughout the text. In this way, Davis's text works against its own conclusion. While her conclusion adheres to equating white manhood with disembodiment, with replacing the material body with an artificial, aesthetic one-or a dead one-, at the same time her text delineates the worker as necessarily embodied and white. Davis cannot imagine the worker without writing his body and thus finds herself in a difficult, but also telling, quandary. In the context of a historically/culturally specific idea of white manhood, Wolfe's body bars him from white manhood, and yet at the same time his identity is necessarily filtered through his white body. It may be that in her middle-class imagination, Davis can only envision white manhood in terms of surpassing the body. At the same time in attempting social realism she can only envision and represent the worker by embodying him as white.
Davis, then, offers a complex and contradictory vision of class because it stems both from her investment in middle-class national ideology and from her social consciousness. Despite the text's conclusion, Life in the Iron Mills bears testimony to the necessarily embodied identity of a class of men who labor with and through their bodies as well as demonstrating the exclusion of these men from middle-class notions of white manhood. As Fred Pfeil says, "if we want to construct a majority for progressive change in this country's social and economic structures, we must bring a substantial number of white men, especially including working-class white men, along with us" (34). As Annalee Newitz and Matthew Wray point out, "[r]ace and class have been connected principally in studies of African Americans" (184) while the connections between whiteness and class have remained ignored. Our literature reveals to us that the visibility of the white male body is essential in disrupting the mythic ties among white men fostered by the projection of a de-racialized and universal whiteness and in making stronger links between de-privileged white men and other groups. White maleness is not reducible to cultural power as cultural power is not reducible to white manhood, and the historical visibility of the white body is crucial in continuing to work towards establishing this fact and in continuing to re-examine relationships between identity and social power. From Davis's text, we might hypothesize that representing corporeal labor, displaying the laboring body, and union protest (putting one's body on the line), all become acts directly in tension and conflict with nineteenth-century national middle-class rhetoric of manhood. What this has meant for workers and labor politics remains an important subject that scholars of labor and the working class might do well to explore.
(1) The picturesque has its origins in eighteenth-century painting but had an enormous influence on literature and other disciplines on different continents well into the nineteenth century. It can be seen as a middle- and upper-class genre that responded to an industrialized Europe by playfully transforming unpleasant realities, including the squalor of the poor, into mythical and nostalgic scenes. For a detailed discussion of this aesthetic vision and the working class, see Andrew Silver's essay "'Unnatural Unions': Picturesque Travel, Sexual Politics, and Working-Class Representation in 'A Night Under Ground' and 'Life in the Iron Mills.'" Silver indicates the ways in which the middle and upper classes used the picturesque both to displace their anxieties about industrial enslavement and the dehumanization of the working classes, and also to play out their fantasies of adventure, danger, and physical prowess: "[D]isplaced narratives of working-class industry," Silver writes, "became a staple of mid-nineteenth-century American picturesque, providing a potent antidote to the constraints of urban middleclass life and transforming great anxieties about systematic industrialization and the discontent of working-class masses into subjective narratives of individual middle-class pleasure" (96).
(2) White male disembodiment has characterized western thought and practice since Descartes. Recently, scholars across disciplines, especially feminists, have renewed their interest in the body, specifically in the context of western culture's gendered investment in the Cartesian separation of mind and body, a division that explicitly splits mind and body, reason and emotion, and that subordinates the latter categories to the former. The introduction of the Cartesian model to a culture that already to some degree associated women with the bodily and immanent side of human existence, while equating men with disembodiment and transcendence, implied, whether intentionally or not, and anyway easily lent itself to, the subordination of women to men. While in fact Descartes had very little to say explicitly about women's bodies, other thinkers since the seventeenth century have infused his thinking with connotations of gender, and have used it to shape and institutionalize cultural attitudes toward both men and women. As Susan Bordo says in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, "[m]ind / body dualism is no mete philosophical position to be defended and dispensed with by clever argument. Rather, it is a practical metaphysics that has been deployed and socially embodied in medicine, law, literary and artistic representation, the psychological construction of self, interpersonal relationship, [and] popular culture" (14).
In his new book, The Vehement Passions, Philip Fisher summarizes what he calls the "strong and prominent ... set of consequences" of "the dis-impassioned world of modern philosophy and culture" (246). In a post-Kantian world, he records, the passions, associated with the body, have been consistently viewed as dangerous and as symptoms of pathology. Fisher equates the passions with "a militant sense of self-assertion and uniqueness" (65) demonstrated by figures such as Achilles and Macbeth. He argues that the passions complemented a politics based on monarchy a system based upon the uniqueness of the king, while modern democracy required that passions and individual uniqueness be absorbed into a universal citizenship and commonality.
(3) Sharon Cameron argues that "American works" seem especially "preoccupied with questions of identity conceived in corporeal terms" (3). However, she continues a whole tradition of American Studies criticism exemplified by D. H. Lawrence's Studies in American Literature, Quentin Anderson's The Imperial Self, Richard Chase's The American Novel, and Richard Poirier's A World Elsewhere, all of which differentiate the American novel from the British one by defining the American novel as one that understands the self and therefore manhood outside of a social or historical context. In a traditional Cartesian context, Cameron discusses male writers" engagement with a universal ungendered and unracialized body rather than with their specific culturally constructed white male bodies. But see also Karen Sanchez-Eppler, and the 2001 special edition of American Literature, especially the essays of Jeannie de Lombard, Jennifer Rae Greeson, Warren Hedges, and Bryan Wagner.
(4) Studies of corporeality and cultural power include most notably Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault. Also see Dialectic of Enlightment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer.
(5) See Teresa Goddu's Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation for a discussion on the different ways in which the American gothic represents how race contradicts "America's self-mythologization as a nation of hope and harmony" (4).
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