Academic journal article Style

Direct Addresses, Narrative Authority, and Gender in Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills."

Academic journal article Style

Direct Addresses, Narrative Authority, and Gender in Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills."

Article excerpt

When Rebecca Harding Davis died in 1910, eulogies recounted how her most famous work, "Life in the Iron Mills," published in the Atlantic Monthly nearly fifty years earlier, defied nineteenth-century assumptions about women's writing. According to the New York Times, many readers assumed that "the author must be a man" (the story was published without attribution at Davis's request): "The stern but artistic realism of the picture she put alive upon paper, suggested a man, and a man of power not unlike Zola's" (13). While the analogy is anachronistic--Zola was unknown in America in 1861--the suggestion that Davis wrote like a man is by no means unique. Elizabeth Smart Phelps, whose novel The Silent Partner (1871) owes an obvious debt to "Life in the Iron Mills," likewise argued that while her "intensity" was "essentially feminine... her grip was like that of a masculine hand." For Phelps herself, the effect was at once liberating and inspiring; reading the story prompted a "distinct crisis . . . at the point where the intellect and the moral nature meet," thus dramatizing the affective potential of an activist strategy of narration that "was never possible after reading to ignore. One could never say again that one did not understand" ("Stories" 120). Phelps's language here is precise and evocative: gripping captures the power of Davis's expose of working conditions in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), the steel town on the Ohio River where she spent much of her life. Welding documentary details into long, iron-hard descriptive passages, she forges a startling style: conjunctive images like "the pig-pens, the ash-heaps covered with potato skins, the bloated, pimpled women at the doors" (48) prefigure the clarity and focus of labor-class photographers like Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans. Similarly, intense conveys the disarmingly direct, emphatic tone of Davis's addresses to the reader: "Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down here with me,--here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story" (13). But Phelps's terminology also raises a question: what makes Davis's grip particularly masculine and her intensity "essentially" feminine?

The issue might be resolved by recalling Robyn Warhol's argument that, during the Victorian era, direct addresses were increasingly identified as a "woman's strategy, to be applied at moments when a reader's emotional receptivity should be most sensitive, and to be avoided by practitioners of self-referential 'high art"' (205). Unlike James, Howells, and other storytellers who ground their authority in the "rational" or analytical objectivity associated with the advent of professionalism, many female authors of the era aim to provoke specific responses, from sympathy to outrage to tears. Of course, numerous women writers parodied direct addresses as excessively coy, sentimental, or didactic, just as several of their male contemporaries shamelessly manipulated the emotive timbre of the device.(1) As Warhol suggests, emotional appeals were not sex specific but became "gendered interventions" as the critical vocabulary of realism dressed itself in self-consciously masculine metaphors. (Howells, for example, envisioned his realist advocacy as a war: he was "banging the babes of romance about" [qtd. in Cady 1]). Because realist aesthetics continue to shape critical tastes, Warhol's argument further illuminates why many contemporary readers betray discomfort with Davis's intensity. While rightly recognizing in her style a pivotal transition from the sentimental to realist mode--she at once echoes the social romanticism of Eliza Leslie, Lydia Sigourney, and Harriet Beecher Stowe while foreshadowing the "local color" of Phelps, Rose Terry Cooke, and Sarah Orne Jewett--critics must somehow account for the "bizarre complex of tones and appeals--now the voice of the Christian reformer . …

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