Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Slaveries "In the Borders": Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills" in Its Southern Context

Academic journal article The Mississippi Quarterly

Slaveries "In the Borders": Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills" in Its Southern Context

Article excerpt

IN THE WAKE OF CECELIA TICHI'S BEDFORD CULTURAL EDITION of Life in the Iron Mills,(1) any attempt to resituate Davis in her social and cultural milieu runs the risk of appearing immediately redundant. To date we have achieved, however, only a very fragmentary portrait of the "cultural hearth"(2) that gave rise to one of America's earliest and most startling exposes of industrial exploitation. Most notably, we have not yet uncovered the extent to which Davis's multilayered narrative is itself embedded in the popular narrative of the proslavery novel, a genre germane to Davis's regional literary heritage. Whereas Sharon Harris and Jean Pfaelzer have taught us to view the Western-born Davis as a would-be abolitionist,(3) Davis was in fact firmly attached to the Southern slave culture of her native Virginia, even though her hometown of Wheeling was removed hundreds of miles from the plantation belt. Slaves did not exist, as Tichi asserts, "only at the edge of her vision" ("Introduction," p. 4); rather, their presence, along with the rhetoric that justified their presence, formed a major shaping force behind that vision.

My recontextualizing of Davis involves re-examining the antebellum culture of Wheeling, Virginia, and recognizing its attachment to Tidewater mores. It also involves acknowledging Davis's reiterated contempt for the extreme position of abolitionism, a contempt she shared with both Southern sympathizers and prolabor activists. As Harris has pointed out, "Life in the Iron Mills" is very much a piece of "Virginia realism" (p. 94). Davis's 1861 masterwork is grounded, however, not only in local observation of mill workers but also in the locally authorized rhetoric of the proslavery attack on the "white slavery" of Northern-style capitalism. In the literature produced by slavery's defenders--including journalism, political tracts, and plantation novels--Davis found an arsenal of ready-made tropes to target the abuses suffered by industrial labor.

"Life in the Iron Mills" is an instance of regional writing whose cultural roots have yet to be fully unearthed or understood. The partial excavation I offer here suggests that the roots of Davis's social realism are entwined with the literary culture and heritage of the South in significant ways. Never naive about the real hardships of black slavery(4) or gullible about the limitations of the Southern pastoral ideal, Davis nonetheless finds the reactionary rhetoric of proslavery literature both attractive and useful in her indictment of industrial capitalism. Recognizing the voice of "Life in the Iron Mills" as the voice of a Southern-leaning sceptic means reconsidering Davis's biography and Davis's role in American literary history. Now firmly established as a canonical writer, Davis challenges our conception of nineteenth-century American literature as the production of a Northeastern-based hegemony and invites us to rethink the dividing lines we draw between regional ideologies and regional literatures.

Davis moved to Wheeling, Virginia, c. 1837, at the age of six. Reared during the decades preceding the Civil War in this heavily industrialized town in the northwestern panhandle of Virginia, Davis grew up in a culturally conflicted region that was poised on the border of free and slave territories as well as at the juncture of rural and urban economies, pastoral myth and capitalistic fervor. Living north of the Mason-Dixon line yet in a slave state, Davis experienced first-hand the extreme tensions of a nation poised on the brink of self-destruction. In her 1904 autobiography, Bits of Gossip, Davis describes the particularly painful paradoxes of Wheeling life once those tensions erupted into gunfire. According to Davis, during the Civil War, Wheeling residents found themselves in an awkward, often painful position. "We occupied," she summarizes, "the place of Hawthorne's unfortunate man who saw both sides."(5)

This peculiarly uncomfortable position was the result of Wheeling's long-standing cultivation of a peculiarly double-jointed socioeconomic environment. …

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