‘‘Life in the Iron Mills’’ is a classic short story set in the factory world of 19th-century Wheeling. The first published work of Rebecca Harding Davis, it appeared anonymously in April 1861 in the Atlantic Monthly and caused a literary sensation with its powerful naturalism that anticipated the work of Theodore Dreiser and Emile Zola. Davis’s story is emphatically on the side of the exploited industrial workers, who are presented as physically stunted and mentally dulled but fully human.
The story’s protagonist is Hugh Wolfe, a ‘‘puddler’’ who stirs molten metal in a vast foundry beside the Ohio River. On his breaks, he carves korl, a waste product of iron smelting described by Davis as ‘‘a light, porous substance, of a delicate waxen, flesh-colored tinge.’’ Hugh’s statue of a woman is noticed by some bourgeois visitors. They discuss the work condescendingly and awaken Hugh’s sense of natural rights. They raise his hopes but offer no concrete help, and Hugh makes a series of bad decisions that lead to tragedy. Meanwhile, the korl woman is kept by the narrator as a reminder of Hugh, his aspirations, and his achievements.
‘‘Life in the Iron Mills’’ was reprinted in the early 1970s and has continued to be an important text for those who study labor and women’s issues.
Written by Meredith Sue Willis
Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills: With a Biographical Interpretation by Tillie Olsen. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1972.
Blain, Virginia, et al., eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English: Women Writers from the Middle Ages to the Present. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1990.