The narrator of "Iron Mills" hints at the sheltered life of a young woman whose view of the outside world never veers from behind the curtain of her upstairs window. Her future appears to be as limited as those manacled to the mills. While half of the female workers of her period in Wheeling were foreign-born mill laborers, maids, or slaves, the young women in Harding's own class languished in idleness until assuming the duties of matrimony, a development Harding spurned until after she had achieved literary success in her thirties.
Harding's seclusion made the publication of "Iron Mills" and its bitingly descriptive narrative all the more remarkable. Some critics saw her depictions of the gritty inner workings of the iron mills as a near-miraculous literary effort that should have been beyond the purview of her eyes. And her success in getting the mill story accepted by The Atlantic Monthly is almost as astonishing as its content or impact on its readers. This was, after all, the most prominent journal of the age, the hallowed arena of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. When an envelope from Boston arrived at Harding's home in Wheeling in January 1861, she carried it around unopened for most of the day, convinced it was a rejection letter. Instead, the journal praised her story for its remarkable urgency and writing, promised to publish it, and included a check for $50.
The payment was a tremendous amount for the times. A subsequent letter from the editor offered $100 for her next story. Overwhelmed by the offer, a stunned Harding turned down the advance, preferring to work on her next story without monetary pressure. Her only request was to remain anonymous.
Fan mail somehow found its way to the western Virginia town, however. A letter arrived from the legendary Nathaniel Hawthorne himself, quite possibly the most important living American author at that point, requesting a visit during one of his tours to Harper's Ferry. Only a few years prior, Hawthorne had written to his same editor at The Atlantic Monthly and complained, "All women, as authors, are feeble and tiresome. I wish they were forbidden to write, on pain of having their faces deeply scarified with an oyster-shell."
But the outbreak of war precluded a rendezvous with Hawthorne or any other admirers, though the "transcendental coterie" had been desperately trying to get its new star writer to New England for a visit. Instead, ensconced in a Union town that would eventually fall under martial law during the Civil War, Harding wrote another story, titled "Margaret Howth," about a young female bookkeeper in a mill. When the magazine's editors rejected it on the grounds that it was "too gloomy," Harding appended a new, sunny ending and resubmitted the story, which was accepted this time. It was serialized in The Atlantic later that fall, and was later published in book form to rave reviews.
Harding's much-heralded tour of Boston finally came in late 1862. Hosted by James Fields, then the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Harding went from one dining affair and parlor room to the next, meeting Emerson, Holmes, and a timid Louisa May Alcott, who quietly acknowledged Harding as her role model. It must have been a bewildering but gratifying experience for the young writer, on her own for the first time in her life. Removed from the provincial mores of wartime Wheeling, she found herself surrounded by free-spirited transcendentalists and even, she remarked, women who exhibited their "desire for men." Alcott's renowned father, the eccentric philosopher—or "sage of Concord," according to Hawthorne—had made a visit himself to meet Harding. He was anxious to know "what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia."
One magazine praised her as an American Charlotte Brontë, and The Continental Monthly praised Harding's foray into "a new field, right into the rough of real life, bringing out fresher and more varied forms than had been done before."
According to author Tilie Olsen, (who rediscovered "Life in the Iron Mills" in a torn edition of The Atlantic in an Omaha junk store nearly a hundred years later and then set in motion a literary campaign to recover Harding's work), the story was a literary landmark in modern history. As one of the first stories to chronicle the travails of mill workers and working-class immigrants in detail, it shocked readers. "In the consciousness of literary America, there had been no dark satanic mills," Olsen wrote. "When industry was considered at all, it was as an invasion of pastoral harmony, a threat of materialism to the spirit. If working people existed—and nowhere were they material for serious attention, let alone a central subject—they were 'clean-haired Yankee mill girls.'"
In effect, Harding's writings about industrial lives had established a new American literary form and set the standard of social realism nearly a half century before Upton Sinclair and The Jungle heralded an era of muckraking writing.
In 1863, Harding married Clarke Davis, a Philadelphia editor and abolitionist who had originally contacted her with a fan letter about "Life in the Iron Mills." She became Rebecca Harding Davis, and her career over the next five decades included a dozen novels and hundreds of stories and essays, many dealing with the dispossessed women of her times. Her son, Richard Harding Davis, eventually followed in her footsteps, emerging as a celebrated novelist and journalist in the gilded era of Teddy Roosevelt.