[In this week leading up to Labor Day, one of our most poorly understood national holidays, five posts AmericanStudying texts and moments related to work in America. For many many more, check out Erik Loomis’ ongoing This Day in Labor History series at the Lawyers, Guns, and Money blog!]
On the striking novella that asks us to empathize with some of our worst work conditions.
If I had to identify one factor that can almost instantly change our perspectives (individually and communally) on any issue or story—no matter how entrenched our existing beliefs might seem to be—I’d have to go with empathy. Not just sympathy, ‘cause while that’s nice it’s still somewhat distant, regarding what’s happening to someone else and feeling badly about it. But the moment when we can empathize with them, the second we start imagining ourselves in that identity and situation and set of experiences, that to me is the lever that can force some daylight between our biases and the genuine and complex details of what these others are dealing with, making it possible, at least potentially, for us to see and understand the latter without being blinded by the former. That’s why, whatever else he did or does with his career, I’ll always be very grateful to Everlast for his song “What It’s Like,” which articulates the necessity of and stakes in such empathetic connections, even to some of the most controversial figures among us (an alcoholic homeless man, a girl getting an abortion, and a gangbanger), with perfect clarity and power (it also includes, in its bridge, one of the truest lines in American music: “You know where it ends, yo it usually depends on where you start”).
One of the most striking requests for an audience’s empathy in all of American literature comes in the opening paragraphs of Rebecca Harding Davis’s novella Life in the Iron-Mills (1861). The twenty-nine year old Davis was working as a reporter and occasional editor for her local newspaper, the Wheeling (WV) Intelligencer, when Life appeared in the April 1861 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, and had published no works in any genre on a national level (her first novel, Margret Howth, would appear later in the year); so this incredibly dense and evocative work would have likely caught readers by surprise in any case. But the direct inclusion of those readers in that first sentence—“A cloudy day; do you know what that is in a town of iron-works?”—, and moreover the central role played by “you” in almost every sentence of the story’s first four paragraphs, represents a even more thoroughly surprising and immediately engaging element. And Davis asks her audience to do a great deal more than just envision a cloudy day; in the fourth paragraph’s culmination of this introductory section, she requests your empathy much more overtly and brazenly: “Stop a moment. I am going to be honest. 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. There is a secret down here, in this nightmare fog, that has lain dumb for centuries; I want to make it a real thing to you.”
As the somewhat melodramatic language and tone there might suggest, the story that Davis proceeds to tell for us is certainly not without its sentimental and gothic extremes: from its heroine, a hunchbacked worker named Deborah who suffers from a lifelong unrequited love for the story’s hero, Hugh Wolfe; to Wolfe’s own conflicted identity as an iron worker who produces tragically beautiful works of art in his spare time and with spare materials; to the at times heavy-handed use of symbols, including a caged and soot-covered bird in the opening and the angel sculpture that represents both Wolfe’s masterpiece and, in the story’s main plot thread, his undoing and destruction. Yet of course one could argue quite successfully that such emotional and symbolic extremes represent purposeful choices on Davis’s part to help bring us in, to engage with her audience’s own emotions and ideas—and thus, paradoxically but crucially, that in these melodramatic elements, just as much as in the striking second-person opening, she is in fact working precisely to “make it a real thing” for us. And that argument could be made successfully because she most certainly succeeds in that goal: I’ve never been anywhere near a town of iron-works, and when I first read this story as a freshman in college had never even seen photographs of them, yet Davis’s text captures every sensory detail, every corner, of that setting and world with clarity and power; so much so that when we come back to the narrator’s voice and room in the final paragraphs, the circular structure reminds us of the first sentence’s question, and our answer now, wherever and whoever we may be, is “Yes.”
As with anything, even the best of things, empathy has its limits, and that’s not at all a bad thing; not every identity is healthy for us to imagine ourselves into, and I certainly have no desire to empathize with (for example) a Jeffrey Dahmer. But when it comes to defining experiences and places and issues in American history, especially those that are far removed from most of our 21st-century lives—and the world of industrial labor in the 19th century, before such things as the weekend or work hours or child labor laws or safety regulations were even matters for debate, is most definitely one of them—there are few things that can be more productive and important than imagining ourselves into them. And that’s a lot easier with a guide like Davis. Next labor post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other work-related texts or moments you’d share?
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