Teen Vogue labour columnist Kim Kelly wrote the forward for the brand new launch of Rebecca Harding Davis’ 1861 book, Life at the Iron Mills. An abridged version of Kelly’s excerpt is below.
“A cloudy day; do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?” asks Rebecca Harding Davis at the very first line of her revolutionary novel, Life at the Iron Mills. 159 years later she penned those words, one can still envision the way that day should have felt and looked, with all the dark industrial smoke hanging heavily in the air, ash staining every surface it touches, gray lines pushed into the haggard faces of passers-by. It must have been difficult to breathe, even in younger towns on whose poisoned earth farmland and forests had formerly stood. There are places such as that today, also, cursed with all the heritage of humankind’s insatiable appetite: enormous production cities in China where everyone wears masks to breathe; polluted atmosphere creeping across significant industry websites in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; deforestation fumes choking Cameroon; wildfires in Australia along with the U.S. West Coast strangling complete cities.
The white-hot tide of industrialization and urbanization that spanned the world at the 19twentieth century altered how human beings operate, reside, consumedie, forever shifted how society functioned, and unwittingly set the stage for the ravages of late capitalism, in addition to the present climate catastrophe. Before that the Industrial Revolution, agriculture has been the key business; contamination was minimal, and many people lived in rural areas and worked outdoors. After that the fantastic change, laborers flooded into cities in search of work. They discovered work, okay — however as Davis exemplifies, all too frequently, these employees ended up paying a hefty price.
Class branches were redrawn like conflict lines, with rich capitalists and industrialists indulging their whims for stunning mansions while the working and poor classes were squeezed to rickety boarding homes, stinking tenements, and dank cellars. When new immigrants arrived in hopes of creating better lives for themselves and their own families, they had been hauled up into the labour pool by greedy managers who watched an opportunity to extract as much value from their own bodies as possible. It has been a sad time to be living without the advantage of being wealthy. Whether they were native born or came from everywhere, a 19th century mill employee’s living conditions were completely gloomy; diseases ran rampant, sewer pooled from the streets, and individuals of all ages ravaged — physically, intellectually, and emotionally. Wage slavery was a departure sentence. Some employees paid the price of metropolitan living with their blood, sweat, and tears, and were able to split something resembling a good presence; others fought, living hand to mouth, their own spirits and bodies broken whenever they were able to walk. An unfathomable number compensated for their lives.
And for a lengthy time, their tales were left untold. In a time prior people college was equally free and mandatory (a feat the U.S. didn’t attain before the 1920s), many members of the laboring class were illiterate, and lots of immigrant employees were without a firm grasp on the English language. But more importantly — and shamefully — their daily lifestyles were abandoned undocumented and unexamined since no one at the middle and upper classes was listening to exactly what into the faceless masses had to state. Those who enjoyed greater economic and social liberty understood that those employees they saw trudging through the roads to and from the mills were doomed to lives which were bad, nasty, brutish, and short, however, then as now, did not necessarily see it their own difficulty. This is a part of what constitutes Life from the Iron Mills and its own smoke-smudged spin on literary realism so exceptional. Rebecca Harding Davis was born into a life of comparative ease and had next to nothing in common with all the employees inside her narrative, and she writes about them along with also the proletarian struggle with this kind of empathy and depth of penetration that it is difficult to think she had been only watching in the window.
The novel provokes questions which we are still grappling with now. What are roses into a worker whose sole idea is bread? What are fantasies to someone who hardly has time to sleep? How lots of individuals are there out there today, working hazardous, soul-sucking tasks instead of following their passions? How a lot more will need to endure before this gloomy capitalist system eventually breaks down and puts us free?
-Kim Kelly, Philadelphia, 2020
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