Jill Gatlin, “Disturbing Aesthetics: Industrial Pollution, Moral Discourse, and Narrative Form in Rebecca Harding Davis’s ‘Life in the Iron Mills’” (pp. 201–233)
This essay reevaluates the historical, literary, cultural, and ecological significance of Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861) in the context of industrial pollution. Situating the story in relation to contemporaneous debates regarding the benefits and hazards of coal smoke, I extend the work of historians who have overlooked the influence of moralizing rhetoric on early understandings of industrial waste and workers. As Davis contests idealized equations of smoke with economic equality, progress, and health, she also delineates the spatial stratification determining laborers’ debilitating exposure to smoke and censures the paternalistic proclivity to blame the poor for pollution and prescribe their moral improvement. I argue that Davis undermines moralizing pollution discourse by crafting an aesthetic of disturbance through her narrative form and construction of readers, which departs from sentimental, realist, gothic, and pastoral formal features that critics have associated with the story. Entering the frame story, readers must reconsider their spatial and social positionality as well as their affective response to pollution. Davis positions readers to move beyond self-stabilizing, dismissive disgust to interactive empathy that prompts them to confront their complicity in workers’ oppression and classification as waste. Intervening in nascent pollution discourse with more complexity than many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers and reformers would, “Life in the Iron Mills” disrupts popular, gothic, and pastoral accounts of moral, corporeal, and spatial purity regulating the aesthetic and material category of the human in toxic industrial environments.
- Rebecca Harding Davis
- “Life in the Iron Mills”
- pollution and waste
- ecocriticism and environmental justice
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