Life in the Iron Mills

by

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the CUNY edition of Life in the Iron Mills published in 1985.
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Life in the Iron Mills Quotes

What if it be stagnant and slimy here? It knows that beyond there waits for it odorous sunlight,—quaint old gardens, dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and flushing crimson with roses,—air, and fields, and mountains. The future of the Welsh puddler passing just now is not so pleasant.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

This is what I want you to do. I want you to hide your disgust, take no heed to your clean clothes, and come right down with me,—here, into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia. I want you to hear this story. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries: I want to make it a real thing to you.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Their lives were like those of their class: incessant labor, sleeping in kennel-like rooms, eating rank pork and molasses, drinking—God and the distillers only know what; with an occasional night in jail, to atone for some drunken excess. Is this all of their lives?—of the portion given to them…?—nothing beneath?

Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Fire in every horrible form: pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames writhing in tortuous streams through the sand…and through all, crowds of half-clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire. It was like a street in Hell.

Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

You laugh at it? Are pain and jealousy less savage realities down here in this place I am taking you to than in your own house or your own heart,—your heart, which they clutch at sometimes? The note is the same, I fancy, be the octave high or low.

Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

There was not one line of beauty or grace in it: a nude woman’s form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf’s.

Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

“I dunno,” he said, with a bewildered look. “It mebbe. Summat to make her live, I think,—like you. Whiskey ull do it, in a way.”

Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

I wash my hands of all social problems,—slavery, caste, white or black. My duty to my operatives has a narrow limit,—the pay-hour on Saturday night. Outside of that, if they cut korl, or cut each other’s throats, (the more popular amusement of the two,) I am not responsible.

Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Something of a vague idea possessed the Doctor’s brain that much good was to be done here by a friendly word or two: a latent genius to be warmed into life by a waited-for sun-beam. Here it was: he had brought it…“Make yourself what you will. It is your right.”

Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Then flashed before his vivid poetic sense the man who had left him,—the pure face, the delicate, sinewy limbs, in harmony with all he knew of beauty or truth. In his cloudy fancy he had pictured a Something like this. He had found it in this Mitchell, even when he idly scoffed at his pain.

Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

…they sounded in his ears a very pleasant song in an unknown tongue. He meant to cure this world-cancer with a steady eye that had never glared with hunger, and a hand that neither poverty nor strychnine-whiskey had taught to shake. In this morbid, distorted heart of the Welsh puddler he had failed.

Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

…a wan, woful face, through which the spirit of the dead korl-cutter looks out, with its thwarted life, its mighty hunger, its unfinished work. Its pale, vague lips seem to tremble with a terrible question. “Is this the end?” they say,—“nothing beyond?—no more?”

Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:
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