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Life in the Iron Mills

Life in the Iron Mills Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Rebecca Harding Davis

Rebecca Harding Davis was born in Pennsylvania in 1831, but lived much of her life in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), which served as the inspiration for the unnamed town in Life in the Iron Mills. Davis was a voracious reader and graduated as valedictorian in 1848 from her female seminary school in Pennsylvania. She is one of the progenitors of American literary realism and had a prolific literary career, working as a fiction writer, journalist, and editor. Her first completed work, Life in the Iron Mills, was an instant success and appeared in the ultra-prestigious Atlantic Monthly in April of 1861. Although the novella was originally published anonymously, Davis was still widely known as the author and gained attention from famous authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson. Though she was never able to replicate the success of Life in the Iron Mills, Rebecca Harding Davis penned more than five hundred published works during her lifetime, including ten novels, over one hundred short stories, and many pieces of journalism. Her writing primarily grapples with themes of gender dynamics, social justice, poverty, and the Civil War. In 1863, she married a journalist named L. Clarke Davis and went on to have several children, one of whom also became a journalist. She died in 1910 at the age of 79, six years after writing her autobiography, Bits of Gossip.
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Historical Context of Life in the Iron Mills

Life in the Iron Mills highlights the negative side of the American Industrial Revolution, which took place during the second half of the nineteenth century. The novella emphasizes the way that industrialization doesn’t necessarily mean progress and profit for America—in Life in the Iron Mills, the industrialized city is a hellish place, rife with disease, poverty, crowded prisons, sickly workers, inescapable social structures, and terrible living and working conditions. In addition, the novella was written during the American Civil War, which is briefly hinted at when the narrator refers to the city as being on the edge of a Slave State. Life in the Iron Mills was written and set three years before northwest Virginia became a free state called West Virginia with none other than Wheeling as its capital (which later changed to Charleston).

Other Books Related to Life in the Iron Mills

Considered one of the first works of American literary realism, Life in the Iron Mills portrayed the everyday lives of its run-of-the-mill characters in a fashion similar to the realist works of William Dean Howells, such as A Modern Instance, which follows a broken marriage and the negative effects of capitalism. Rebecca Harding Davis and Life in the Iron Mills also had admirers in the transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Louisa May Alcott. Transcendentalism was another reaction against industrialization, specifically finding fault in the way the industrial revolution undermined the power of the individual by ousting workers in favor of machinery. Transcendentalism also emphasized the power of the natural world, as seen in Emerson’s “Nature,” which is comparable to Life in the Iron Mills’ critique of the industrialized city and praise for the countryside. Life in the Iron Mills also has thematic similarities with the slave narratives of the time. Published one year after Life in the Iron Mills, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl details Jacobs’ experience as a slave in the American South. Both works highlight the harsh realities of forced labor in the South and both works attempt to reach an upper-class audience to spur change. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin also contains similar strands of social criticism and Christian ethics that appear within the pages of Life in the Iron Mills. Modern books about laborers that have a similar social message include Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which examines the effects of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act on the working class, and Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, which chronicles one man’s experience of living in Mexico City’s industrial suburbs.
Key Facts about Life in the Iron Mills
  • Full Title: Life in the Iron Mills
  • When Written: 1860
  • Where Written: Wheeling, Virginia
  • When Published: April 1861
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Literary Realism
  • Setting: An unnamed industrialized city in the American South that is based off of Davis’ hometown of Wheeling, Virginia
  • Climax: When Hugh commits suicide
  • Antagonist: While Kirby, Doctor May, and Mitchell seem like antagonists upon first look, the novella firmly asserts that industrialization is the true antagonist
  • Point of View: First person and third person omniscient

Extra Credit for Life in the Iron Mills

Fast Fame Life in the Iron Mills was Rebecca Harding Davis’ first completed work and was published in Atlantic Monthly, the most esteemed magazine in the country at the time.

Famous Friends Rebecca Harding Davis and Nathanial Hawthorne were fans of each other’s work and eventually met at Hawthorne’s home in Concord, Massachusetts.