115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Summat to Make Her Live: The Rise of Collective Class Consciousness in Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills

Townsend Scholz, "Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles"

This paper asks readers of Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills to reconsider the critical potential of the novella’s protagonist, Hugh Wolfe. While many have argued that Hugh, a product of the industrial order, is incapable of legitimate resistance, I contend that Hugh’s artistic and rhetorical response to the oppression of the immigrant working class represents a self-conscious criticism of the class system and a step in the assent to collective class consciousness.


While much has been made of the bleak images of working-class life that pervade Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills, the scholarly debate surrounding the novella has often centered more on the role of the narrator in representing (or misrepresenting) the plight of the working class than on the role of the working class in negotiating and responding to their plight. The noted lack of critical evaluations of Hugh and Deb Wolfe, the novella’s protagonists, as agents rather than objects of their class is surprising given that the majority of Life’s plot revolves around Hugh’s response to the oppressive conditions of industrial life. Hugh uses korl, a waste product of the iron smelting process, to carve a statue of a “woman, white, of giant proportions, crouching on the ground, her arms flung out in some wild gesture of warning” (Davis 52). When Hugh is asked by a group of wealthy visitors to the mill to explain the intention behind his bewildering creation, he replies that she is hungry for “summat to make her live, I think,—like you” (Davis 54). With this remark, Hugh sends the party into a flurry of philosophical discussion directed at answering the “terrible question” he seems to ask of them—the question, I would argue, of what to do about the growing consciousness of the immigrant working class (Davis 41).

Despite the immediate and disruptive force of Hugh’s art and subsequent interpretation thereof, scholars have largely continued to read Hugh as “inarticulate or ‘dumb,’” “the man the industrial world has already produced” and whose potential can never be realized because he does not have the faculties or resources to capitalize on it (Tichi 9, Lang 81). I contend, however, that Davis provides us with a means of reading Hugh as an appropriate and effective representative of the working class vis-à-vis the negative example offered by her story’s narrator. As scholars like Jean Phaelzer and Amy Schraeger Lang have argued, Life’s narrator, always shown at a distance (both temporal and spatial) from the workers whose pitiable story he or she recounts, is too far removed from the workers’ struggle to champion their cause. Where the narrator fails to represent the growing and self-conscious hunger of the working class, however, Hugh succeeds. With only the materials (korl) and dialect (Welsh) available to the class he represents, Hugh produces art and rhetoric that stand as a testament to the power of popular language in the expression of revolutionary sentiment—the power of a working class capable of not only diagnosing but also complicating and responding to their subjugation. Using Antonio Gramsci’s writings on the necessity of the common and self-conscious speech of the proletariat in the formation of class resistance, I will ask readers of Life to reconsider Hugh’s korl woman and, in particular, his reading of his korl woman as part and parcel of the assent of the immigrant working class to collective critical consciousness.