Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910)

    Contributing Editor: Judith Roman-Royer

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    Problems in teaching Davis include: dialect, allusions, confusing dialogue, hard-to-identify speakers, vague frame story, religious solution, and the juxtaposition of sentimental language with religiosity and realism. To address these problems consider the following:

    1. Explain the dialect (see the footnotes).

    2. Try to ignore the allusions; most are not important to the heart of meaning.

    3. The names of characters, their jobs, the speakers, and their roles need to be clarified.

    Kirby, son of Kirby the mill owner--He is aware of the problems of the workers but sees them as insoluble; he takes the attitude of Pontius Pilate.

    Dr. May, a town physician--He is idealistic, sympathetic to the workers, but naive about reality and thus unintentionally cruel to Hugh.

    "Captain"--The reporter for the city paper.

    Mitchell, Kirby's intellectual brother-in-law, visitor to the South--He is cold, cynically socialistic.

    4. Discuss the frame story. Careful readers will find inconsistencies in the frame narratives that explain the narrator's perspective. Early in the story, the narrator "happens" to be in the house, apparently a visitor, but at the end of the story, the house and statue of the korl woman seem to belong to her. The story of the Wolfe family is said to be set thirty years in the past, so how did the narrator come to know it in such intimate detail? One of my students suggested that the narrator may be Janey, who has somehow risen above her environment and become a writer, a solution that is provocative but unsubstantiated by the text.

    5. Show how Davis is ambiguous about religious solution. She espouses it, but her realistic picture of the problem is so vivid that it seems impossible to the reader that just Quaker kindness will solve the problems.

    6. The swing between romanticism and realism is at the heart of this author.

    Some students find this work depressing, but some like it. They can be asked to compare the situation of the poor today, especially the homeless and uneducated and today's immigrants. Students can also be interested in a discussion of religion's role in comforting and/or silencing the poor.

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    "Life in the Iron-Mills" is an accessible text that can be assigned and discussed in a single class meeting. Many students reject the "naturalistic" view inherent in the story that the characters could do little to help themselves. Contemporary students, educated to believe in the Alger myth, are eager to protest that Hugh could have lifted himself out of his poverty or moved to the city to become an artist.

    Perhaps a greater problem may be students' unwillingness to see the feminist subtext of the story discovered by Tillie Olsen. The story deals quite openly with the life of an iron-worker; how, then, do we find in it the story of a thwarted "spinster" fiction writer? To make this reading credible, students will need to know something of Davis's life story (see headnote); the position of unmarried women in society (their dependence on their families, the lack of socially acceptable ways for a woman to earn a living, and the impossibility of living alone); and the incredible isolation of writers who lived anywhere in America outside of Boston and perhaps New York at this period. In the context of a traditional American literature survey, Davis's frustration could be related to that of writers like Cooper and Irving and the sense of the U.S. as an artistic wilderness that prevailed early in the century.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    As far as style, many would have found the work oppressively realistic and unpleasant. The Hawthornes used words like "gloomy" and even "mouldy" to describe Davis's writing.

    Original Audience

    The work was written for an upper-middle-class and upper-class audience, the readers of the Atlantic, who were the elite of the country at the time. Many had familiarity with languages and the literary allusions in the work as well as intimate knowledge of the New Testament. Most were "liberal" Christians and although some were social reformers, virtually all believed the individual Christian had a responsibility to people like Hugh and Deb. The audience was highly receptive to Davis's message.

    The difference in the audience now is that college students come from a broader spectrum of society. This has two effects: First, some of them may have worked in factories or come from blue-collar families and have experience closer to that of Hugh and Deb; second, the language of the text is apt to be more difficult for them. The excess of punctuation is an impediment. The sentimental exclamations probably differ little from some kinds of contemporary popular literature that students may have encountered.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    Davis can be compared to

    1. Hawthorne, who had an influence on Davis, especially House of the Seven Gables; American Romantic literature.

    2. Dickens--sentimental realism.

    3. Popular literature of today.

    4. Novels of social criticism, such as Uncle Tom's Cabin; even later muckraking novels, such as The Jungle.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. What is the purpose of the rhetorical questions posed by the author/narrator at various points in the story? Do they refer simply to the prospect of salvation for a man convicted of stealing, or do they imply the naturalistic view that Hugh's theft is excused by his unfortunate environment and heredity? Some students may recognize what is probably religious rhetoric in the questions: perhaps the teacher can simply encourage students to seek additional possibilities.

    2. They could write a paper discussing the story as a transitional work between Romanticism and realism, using traits outlined in Richard Chase's American Novel and Its Tradition.


    Tillie Olsen's essay in the Feminist Press edition is probably the most accessible place to go for additional information. It is highly personal but helpful.