The Artist Under the Mills
by Rebecca Harding Davis
Essay by Jarad Johnson
This review is of an older book, but I think the themes are still pertinent. This book is definitely worth a read. It’s a layered book and there’s an interesting perspective on feminine versus masculine traits as well, but for the purposes of provoking thought, I’ve focused on the battle between corporate need for capital and the individual need for fulfillment through art and beauty.
Rebecca Harding Davis’ novella, “Life in the Iron Mills,” was written in 1861 and largely forgotten until it was resurrected in the 1970s. This work took a hard, realistic look at the life of immigrant worker, through the eyes of Hugh Wolfe, a man whose artistic sensibilities are snuffed out by his life in the mills.
I read this story recently for a class of mine, and one of the many messages that stuck out for me in the story is that the need for beauty in human life is universal, essential to the nourishment of the soul. But, what is also clear is that that essential need that we all seem to have is not available to everyone, and in fact the people who work in the Mills are described as being in a state of, “soul starvation, living death.” Once you understand that state of being, many of their actions (like excessive drinking) begin to make more sense. Furthermore, in reading the story, it is evident that there is a reason that they are kept in this state of half-life. Davis explores the value beauty for the individual and society at large, but we also come to understand the inherent danger of the fulfilled soul to corporate entities.
The danger of art has always been well-known. The Arts and Humanities have always been somewhat, if not overtly, transgressive. Holding the powerful and society as a whole to account for their actions is (or at least should be) inherent to the nature of Liberal Arts. We focus on examination of texts, critical thinking and intellectual debate over ideologies and ways of thinking. The Arts are dangerous because they question the power structures that our society is based on. In, “Life in the Iron Mills,” it is easy to think that it’s harmless for someone to draw on a bit of paper or read the newspaper, or even just to sit, to imagine a life that doesn’t consist of daily physical and emotional agony. But it is. It’s dangerous to the morally corrupt system that the owners of the mills keep in place. It is the reason why they are never given any assistance, why the mills overseers never push to make their lives more comfortable, and it is the reason that they are treated as less than human, and only live to work those mills. Simply put, the reason is this: if they have time to paint or read, or even just imagine being somewhere else, they have time to think, and to think critically about their situation. They may begin to question why their lives are so awful, and to wonder how it can change, proving again that old adage, “education is power.”
If that is the mindset of the people who control the mills, then we begin to understand the story of the protagonist,Wolfe, and his art.
In his spare time, Wolfe carves sculptures out of Korl, or, “refuse from the ore after the pig metal is run.” His sculptures are described as, “hideous, fantastic enough, but strangely beautiful.” Here we have someone who is not interested in profiting off art, or indeed letting anyone see it, he is just interested in the act of creative expression. Art is often seen as frivolous, a hobby to be explored by those with enough means to have leisure time. This story disproves that somewhat. Artists, like every other profession, are made up of a multitude of different people, with different perspectives. The text says that, “God put into this man’s soul a fierce thirst for beauty,-to know it, to create it: to be- something, he knows not what,-other than he is.” Art is a much a part of Wolfe as is breathing, but his artistic perspective is not valued.
There is a scene where some genteel upper class gentlemen, including the mill owner’s son, see and admired Wolfe’s art. And this scene provides an insight into the underlying motive of the people who control the Mills. They all see one of Wolfe’s paintings, and admire the detail that he created, and how very lifelike it is. Wolfe says that the sculpture, one of a woman pleadingly raising her arms above her head, is hungry. They remark that he has given no indication of starvation on her body, and he says that, “Not hungry for meat,” but, “summat to make her live”. Here before them stands a visual representation of their policies, and they refuse to take responsibility.
One of them recognizes the talent in Wolfe, and tells him the he has the possibility to, “be a great sculptor- a great man” but refuses to help Wolfe financially accomplish this goal. Their mindset is perfectly summed up by Kirby, the mill owner’s son, who says, “I have no interest in nursing infant geniuses,” and that, “The Lord will take care of his own.”
They make excuses so they don’t have to acknowledge the humanity that they are crushing. It is evident that they acknowledge the talent that Wolfe has, they are fascinated by it, but they feel that he must, “pull himself up by his bootstraps,” to use a common phrase, knowing all the while that some people don’t have boots. The people who say those things know that, but in order to feel better about themselves for treating people as sub-human to uphold a system of power that preys on the disenfranchised, they must say that. Otherwise, they would be responsible for this, and they can’t acknowledge that. Art is not what they care about, just as they don’t care about the people working in the mills. They care about keeping them in line. They don’t even really see it as a possibility for the millworkers to be artists, because if they’re producing great works of art, they can’t make them more money.
Overall, I think it’s pretty clear that one of the commentaries of this story is that money often takes precedence over people and their needs. Money is a god that demands blood sacrifice. Those who have it must dehumanize those who don’t, or they might see that their money is life blood in times of trouble and share if for comfort and sustenance. If those who don’t have as much capital are seen as equals, what might be required of them? As the story shows, this sustenance goes beyond giving workers the bare necessities of life. Art and soul nourishment are not as important to many people as making as much money as possible, even if it means exploiting large numbers of people and deflecting responsibility for those deeds. In the case of this story, it seems that creativity, self-expression, and life are buried under the grueling and soul sucking Iron Mills.
Solomon, Barbara, editor. Rebecca Harding Davis: Life in the Iron Mills. Signet Classics, 1999.
Jarad is the co-administrator and writer for Sacred Chickens, attends college at MTSU, loves tea and coffee, and tries to spend every spare second reading. He recently developed an interest (some might say obsession) with gardening. Jarad is an English major with a concentration in literature. Bless his heart! Let's all light a candle for him and send him happy thoughts!