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Tuesday, July 6, 2021

July 6, 2021: Work in American Literature: Phelps’ “Tenth of January”

[Later this month I start teaching a new online class, a variation of my Ethnic American Lit course that will focus on representations of work in American literature. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of such representations, leading up to a special weekend post on some of my favorite pop culture worker-characters!]

On a short story that combines local color and sentimental fiction—and becomes much more.

I’ve written two posts about one of my favorite 19th century authors, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps: this one on the overall arc and significance of her multi-faceted literary career; and this one on her best novel, the feminist, realist, and powerfully affecting The Story of Avis (1877). Throughout her career, Phelps wed sentimental writing (as in her spiritual Gates trilogy) to local color fiction (as in the New England regionalism of Avis), focusing consistently on the experiences of women within those different frames and settings; she also published a number of young adult and juvenile works, including the very popular Gypsy Brenton books (published when she was only in her early 20s). In the course of that long and successful career, she became one of the century’s best-selling novelists, inspired prominent subsequent writers like William Dean Howells, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Edith Wharton, and deserves to be far better remembered and more widely read in our own era.

Yet with all of that said, it’s quite possible that Phelps’ most interesting and important piece of writing was her first published work of fiction for adults: “The Tenth of January,” a short story published in the Atlantic Monthly’s March 1868 volume (when Phelps was only twenty-three years old). “Tenth” fictionalizes one of the worst industrial and workplace disasters in American history, the January 10th, 1860 collapse of the Pemberton Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts. That famous and horrific historical event offered Phelps a perfect chance to combine her two most consistent literary genres in this debut short story, and she does so to great success—opening with an extended portrayal of this Massachusetts mill town and its unique culture and community (“it would be difficult to find Lawrence’s equal,” the narrator notes), and then gradually building a sentimental and highly emotional story about a particular young female worker (nearly all those killed in the collapse fit that description, with most of them recent immigrants), Del Ivory, whose tragic fate (along with those of many other characters, some only children) becomes intertwined with that of the mill.

Those elements alone, in the hands of a master like Phelps, would be enough to create a compelling and moving story out of this striking historical material. But in the voice of her narrator, at once a detached observer and a fiery critic, Phelps adds another complex and vital layer to her story. Consider these back to back moments in the story’s introductory section. First the narrator concludes a descriptive paragraph on Lawrence with these angry lines, “Of these ten thousand [workers] two thirds are girls: voluntary captives, indeed; but what is the practical difference? It is an old story—that of going to jail for want of bread.” And then she transitions into the body of her story with this elegiac paragraph: “My story is written as one sets a bit of marble to mark a mound. I linger over it as we linger beside the grave of one who sleeps well: half sadly, half gladly—more gladly than sadly—but hushed.” This narrative voice is not unlike that of another Atlantic Monthly story from earlier in the decade, Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills” (1861)—but by wedding this engaging narrator and her multi-faceted literary genres to a real and horrific historical event, Phelps add yet another layer of power and pathos to this unique short story.

Next literary work tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other representations of work you’d share?

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