The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.
"You want something…to lift you out of this crowded, tobacco-stained commonplace, to kindle and chafe and glow in you. I want you to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it. Sometimes I think it has a raw and awful significance that we do not see."
--Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills
Here in America, the "land of freedom and equality," there has always been a darker underside. There has always been, and continues to be, social injustice, inequality, human rights violations, and corruption. For all that is good in this country, there is plenty of bad. In response to this, there exists a proud tradition of a kind of art which may be called "social realism" -- art, literature, music, and film that seeks to directly confront this "underlife of America," to show people things they may not want to see, but must see if there is to be any hope of justice and equality and freedom. Examples of "social realism" include the Depression-era photographs of Dorothea Lange, the novels of Upton Sinclair, the murals of the Chicano movement, the songs of Bob Dylan, etc. For these artists and writers and musicians, the goal was to shine a light on our darkness, so that we might see the problems more clearly, reflect deeply (and painfully) upon them, and hopefully take greater responsibility for our fellow humans, suffering some injustice.
One of the earliest pioneers of "social realism" in American literature was Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910). She grew up in Wheeling, Virginia, an industrial town. Her father, an English emigrant, was a businessman and a book lover, and instilled in his daughter a love of reading and writing. By her 20s, Davis was publishing anonymous reviews of new novels in the local paper. In 1860, she completed her first short story--the one for which she would become most famous, "Life in the Iron Mills."
The story is, to quote one scholar, "one of the most overwhelming reading experiences in all American literature." In it, she describes, in brutal and poetic detail, the sad, hard lives of iron mill workers, the "Masses of men, with dull, besotted faces bent to the ground, sharpened here and there by pain or cunning; skin and muscle and flesh begrimed with smoke and ashes; stooping all night over boiling cauldrons of metal, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body."
Occasionally, Davis breaks the "fourth wall" and directly addresses the reader (just as Harriet Beecher Stowe does in Uncle Tom's Cabin): "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 for you."
One night, as a mill worker named Wolfe is toiling away in the hellish darkness, the mill owner and some of his buddies wander by, and sort of abstractly discuss the problem of social inequality, which is so obviously illustrated by the workers. The owner expresses capitalist logic: "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." Meanwhile, the workers continue to suffer. The owner and his buddies notice an iron sculpture of a woman, with an outstretched arm, which Wolfe had made, and they are puzzled. The owner regrets that his workers have human feelings. "if I had the making of men," he says, "these men who do the lowest part of the world's work should be machines,--nothing more." A doctor friend wonders aloud, "Who is responsible?" As Wolfe stumbles home, exhausted after work, he muses aloud, "It's all wrong--all wrong! I do not understand. But it'll end some day."
After being accused of stealing money from the mill owner, Wolfe ends up in prison, where he dies. The story is tragic, but like all great tragedy, there is a kind of catharsis. Not all stories have happy endings, and perhaps we can learn more from those which make us sad. Sad endings force us to reflect internally. If there is a "lesson" to be learned from "LIfe in the Iron Mills," it is an increased awareness of the inequality inherent in our economic system, and a heightened sense of social responsibility. To the mill owner's question, "Who is responsible?" one need only look in the mirror.