Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Censored and Uncensored Literary Lives of Life in the Iron-Mills

Academic journal article Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers

The Censored and Uncensored Literary Lives of Life in the Iron-Mills

Article excerpt

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me."

Mitchell, quoting Jesus (Matt. 25.36; Davis Life in the Iron-Mills)

Rebecca Blaine Harding (not yet Davis) must have been a bit dismayed when she read her first published story, Life in the Iron-Mills, (1) in its April 1861 Atlantic Monthly form. An entire paragraph had been excised from the manuscript (holograph) she had submitted in 1860. (2) When in 1972 Tillie Olsen reprinted Life in the Iron-Mills, she naturally used the Atlantic Monthly text, since she found it "in one of three water-stained, coverless volumes of bound Atlantic Monthlys ... in an Omaha junkshop" (157). Ticknor and Fields published a new version of the story in an 1865 collection of fiction from the Atlantic Monthly. (3) Olsen's reprint and Cecelia Tichi's 1997 edition were both based on the Atlantic's version of the story. Neither Olsen nor Tichi indicate awareness of the 1865 text. This 1865 version restores the substance of the holograph paragraph in two paragraphs, rather than one. The holograph and the 1865 texts contain Davis's full artistic vision, though the holograph is the superior text. It offers internal coherence to the story and is stylistically superior--more poetic, more technically accurate, and less effusive and declamatory--than the 1865 version of the story which, nonetheless, surpasses the Atlantic Monthly text.

Because the story we have been reading is truncated, we have not been able to understand fully Davis's view of social justice. An examination of the various literary lives of Life in the Iron-Mills explains the way the publishing business attempted to mediate the vast social reform theories abounding in the mid-nineteenth century, including Davis's, and also discloses the "secret ... that has lain dumb for centuries" the "terrible dumb question" at the heart of the story (13-14). (4) The holograph version and, less effectively, the 1865 text target the Evangelical Protestant church as the primary social institution which had failed at what she believed was its most elemental task to allow "brotherly love" to inhere in the church and then suffuse American culture, thereby eliminating poverty. (5) Were that vision to be realized, the Evangelical Protestant Church would become the instrument of humanitarian reform needed to moderate an industrial, capitalist economy that was running amuck. If the "Christian" nation were genuinely to enact Christian charity in public policy, the American dream would be available to one and all.


The passage the Atlantic Monthly text omits occurs in the church scene, about two-thirds of the way into the story where the Welsh immigrant, iron-mill puddler Hugh Wolfe enters an Evangelical Protestant church. Between the paragraph which begins with "Shall I go over the history of the hours of that night?" and the succeeding paragraph, which begins "Wolfe rose at last" (48-49), this paragraph appears in the holograph:

   Years ago, a mechanic tried reform in the alleys
   of a city as swarming and vile as this mill town,
   who did not fail. Could Wolfe have seen him as
   He was, that night, what then? A social Pariah,
   a man of the lowest caste, thrown up from
   among them, dying with their pain, starving
   with their hunger, tempted as they are to drink,
   to steal, to curse God and die. Theirs by blood,
   by birth. The son, they said, of Joseph the carpenter,
   his mother and sisters there among
   them. Terribly alone, one who loved and was
   not loved, and suffered from that pain; who
   dared to be pure and honest in that devil's den;
   who dared to die for us though he was a physical
   coward and feared death. If He had stood
   in the church that night, would not the wretch
   in the torn shirt there in the pew have "known
   the man"? His brother first. And then, unveiled
   his God. … 
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