Representing and Self-Mutilating the Laboring Male Body: Re-Examining Rebecca Harding Davis's: Life in the Iron Mills

Article excerpt

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 . …