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Life in the Iron Mills

Rebecca Harding Davis

Book Overview: 

The first novella by Rebecca Harding Davis: writer, social reformer, and pioneer of literary realism. It tells the story of Hugh Wolfe, a Welsh laborer in an iron mill who is also a talented sculptor, and of Deborah, the hunchbacked woman who unrequitedly loves him.

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Book Excerpt: 
. . .Come near to the fire,"—said one of the men, approaching to scrape away the ashes.

She shook her head. Wolfe had forgotten her. He turned, hearing the man, and came closer.

"I did no' think; gi' me my supper, woman."

She watched him eat with a painful eagerness. With a woman's quick instinct, she saw that he was not hungry,—was eating to please her. Her pale, watery eyes began to gather a strange light.

"Is't good, Hugh? T' ale was a bit sour, I feared."

"No, good enough." He hesitated a moment. "Ye're tired, poor lass! Bide here till I go. Lay down there on that heap of ash, and go to sleep."

He threw her an old coat for a pillow, and turned to his work. The heap was the refuse of the burnt iron, and was not a hard bed; the half-smothered warmth, too, penetrated her limbs, dulling their pain and cold shiver.

Miserable enough she looked, lying there on the ashes like a limp, dirty r. . . Read More

Community Reviews

I never knew Rebecca Harding Davis was from Southwestern Penna., so this is a nice surprise on a few levels. I highly recommend this short stroy. It's easy to get through, somewhat surprisingly (perhaps because of the approach the author takes to telling this story). I found this story really mov...more

I love the narrative technique used in this short story / novella. Interesting commentary on the "hunger" of the artist.

ETA: Also, the tension between realism and romanticism is great to read. And the symbolism. The symbolism is off the charts; my brain almost exploded geeking out over it.

I wrot...more

A fabulous and vastly ignored book.

Hugh Wolfe in “Life In The Iron Mills” inspires the most tragic pathos in anybody who can faintly relate to him. He appears to exhibit magnificent talent in the art of sculpture, but has neither time nor money to pursue this aspiration. His time is absorbed into the vacuum of the interests of the...more

Finals have descended upon me and here I am catching up before my American Lit final on Monday. Don't judge me

This was really important for the day and says really important things about class and gender and disability. But it's also really drawn out, over-explains and is very on-the-nose. I didn...more

Moving call to arms for those who struggle to make a living

The entry on realism in A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia brings this up, and it's not hard to see the linear connection between Clyde Griffiths of An American Tragedy and this story's Hugh Wolfe, though the latter is shockingly more wretched, as we might expect of an 1861 Welsh mill worker: Physic...more

See my review of Hazard of New Fortunes... Similar subject matter, without the shallow resentment directed towards the financially well off. This book depicts the less fortunate with genuine sympathy, while also asking questions that transcend social class, such as how one can find fulfillment in...more

A short story/novella that does a great job exposing the injustices suffered by iron mill workers in the nineteenth century. Rebecca Harding Davis's commitment to realism tears away any romanticized notions of these laborers' awful working conditions. She incorporates several intriguing ideas int...more

I was abducted into an apocalyptic scene where puddlers are doomed for hard work in hellish conditions. Also, the narrative technic that Harding Davis uses is so captivating that the reader finds himself part of the life of the characters. It makes you feel pretty much involved in these very dehu...more

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