In the wake of the Sago mining tragedy, a look back at an 1861 tale that brought the plight of impoverished West Virginia workers to national attention.
The tragic events this week at West Virginia's Sago Mine have thrown into relief the risky, arduous work that Appalachian coal miners undertake each day to put bread on the table. For many, the region has long proved a difficult place in which to eke out a living—a place where thankless, difficult work of various kinds has offered the best hope of support over the years.
Nearly 150 years ago a young western Virginia woman named Rebecca Harding penned a short story for The Atlantic that brought to national attention the miserable plight of workers in Appalachia's mills. In a chapter of his new book, The United States of Appalachia, journalist Jeff Biggers recounts the tale of Harding's rise to literary prominence through the publication of that story, and the compassionate perspective she brought to the region's desperate poor. The excerpt below is adapted from that book.
"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."
—REBECCA HARDING, "Life in the Iron Mills," 1861
IN THE SPRING OF 1861, with the country on the verge of fracturing into civil war, a short story appeared in The Atlantic Monthly that stunned the nation's most elite readership with its unwavering descriptions of labor conditions in the iron and cotton mills in western Virginia.
"Life in the Iron Mills," by an unknown young western Virginian woman named Rebecca Harding, leaped from the most prestigious pages of the literary world as a groundbreaking work. For the first time in the already-legendary magazine's four-year history, readers encountered a lyrical and often disturbing account of the wretched conditions of immigrants and the underclass trapped in a subterranean world. Written from the perspective of a woman tucked behind the curtains of Southern protocol, the story launched the young author, and her Appalachian base, into the front ranks of American realism.
"Life in the Iron Mills" told the story of two Welsh immigrants, Hugh, an iron puddler and sculptor, and his cousin Deborah, a cotton mill worker, who inhabit a western Virginia river town. They are emaciated teenagers, deformed by their labors. Life revolves around the hellish furnaces at the mills and their moss-ridden hovel in a basement.
Enter a journalist, the mill owner's son, a doctor, and a Northern visitor, whose tour of the factory has been prolonged by a downpour outside. Biding their time while they wait for the storm to pass, they examine Hugh and, in the shadows, his sculptures, which have been carved from korl, the waxen refuse of the pig iron. They admire the Welshman's talent and eye for anatomy, especially in a statue of a nude woman with a "wild, eager face." They ask Hugh to explain his work. "She be hungry," he says. Not a hunger for food, he adds, but something "to make her live, I think—like you." The visitors are more amused than moved, and dismiss Hugh's thoughts. They launch into a philosophical discussion of the "lives of the wretched" and the possibilities of social reform.
Impatient with the talk, the mill owner's son throws up his hands and declares, "I wash my hands of all social problems—slavery, caste, white or black." The doctor sighs in disbelief. The journalist has vanished.
"You have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great man," the doctor tells Hugh.
"Will you help me?" the Welsh puddler responds.
"I have not the money, boy," the doctor says.
The visitors toss coins to the mill workers and depart, but we soon learn that Deborah, hovering like the apparition of the korl woman in the shadows, has picked the Northerner's pocket and stolen a fortune that could forever change their lives. She presents the bill to Hugh as a gift to another future. He roams through the town clutching the bill—his ticket to freedom—tortured by the moral cost of rectifying his position in society and uncertain about whether to keep the money or return it. Before he can make up his mind, however, he is apprehended, tried for robbery, and sentenced to nineteen years of hard labor.
Deborah lands in jail as an accomplice and witnesses Hugh's tragic final act as he takes his own life in the neighboring cell. Ultimately, Deborah takes to heart the touching words of a Quaker visitor, who suggests that the Appalachian range itself can serve as her refuge. "[Begin] thy life again," she tells Deborah—"there on the hills."
THIS WAS Rebecca Harding's vision of industrial Appalachia, and it was an incendiary one—reminding the country that Appalachia was not a foreign land, but a vital American crossroads of immigrant groups, blacks, and courageous women, all of whom were playing a significant role in our nation's industrial saga.
Thirty years old at the time her story was published, Harding had moved to the river town of Wheeling, Virginia with her parents at the age of five. Over the course of her years growing up there, the town had been transformed from a "silent and empty" frontier outpost on the National Road to a highly strategic industrial boomtown in the Ohio Valley. Living near the town market, this daughter of an English businessman had witnessed a massive influx of capital and immigrants into the town, as rolling iron mills and glassworks sprouted along the Ohio.
But after decades of boom, the town had crept through an economic depression in 1857. Cloaked by clouds of smoke—"the idiosyncrasy of this town," Harding wrote—there were "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 caldrons of metal, sequestered by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for body and soul."
The rolling mills lent themselves to otherworldly descriptions. They were cities of fires with "tent-like roofs." Flames of every sort writhed "in tortuous streams through the sand; wide caldrons filled with boiling fire, over which bent ghastly wretches stirring the strange brewing; and through all, crowds of half-clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire."
Harding herself came from a privileged background that kept her from the hardship of frontier drudgery. Her father was a quirky patrician Englishman, an émigré who placed his financial dealings second to his intellectual and social interests. The family's house was full of books; Harding's father had a penchant for medieval tales and regaled his daughter with fanciful stories of chivalry. Her mother, who came from nearby Washington, Pennsylvania, on the other side of the river, was an independent thinker for her times. Under her tutelage, Harding read Shakespeare and Hawthorne at the age of eight and studied with private tutors. In her mid-teens, she was sent to a private school for girls in her mother's hometown, only to return to the dismal cesspool of Wheeling's streets after her graduation.
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.