When I taught Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills (1861) this semester, I asked students to think about the opening paragraphs where the narrator describes the scene and implores the reader to come right down with her “into the thickest of the fog and mud and foul effluvia.” The opening images bring to mind Gothic texts as the narrator describes the trash and soot clogged river as it meanders around the iron mill through the town. Amongst this description, the narrator provides a couple of key symbols that help with understanding Davis’ novella. One is the image of the “broken figure of and angel”  who cannot fly because its smoke and soot cover its wings. Along with this image, the narrator also describes a canary, and it is this image that I want to focus on today.


Describing the scene, the narrator mentions a bird chirping beside her. She state, “A dirty canary chirps desolately in a cage beside me.” Here, the image of a canary in a cage is nothing really out of the ordinary; however, the words “dirty” and “desolately” call to mind the constrictions that the canary lives under. Following this statement, the narrator intones, “Its dreams of green fields and sunshine is a very old dream,–almost worn out, I think.” The canary represents multiple aspects and themes that appear throughout Life in the Iron Mills.

In the next paragraph, the narrator continues to a picture of the river, the town, and the inhabitants. Describing the workers, the narrator states,

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, laired by day in dens of drunkenness and infamy; breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body. (emphasis added)

One of my students noted the “breathing from infancy to death” part of this description, and that part directly correlates, again, to the life that Hugh, Deb, and the workers endure. The image of the dirty canary, trapped within a cage, symbolizes this existence as well.

Miners used canaries, of course, to warn them about gasses that could possibly kill them. Before the gasses would affect the miners, the canary would die; thus, the canary served as an early warning system. In this manner, the canary served one purpose, to live and work for the miners. In a similar manner, Hugh and the other workers in the iron mill do the same they thing. They live, breathe, and die doing work for those in power like the owner of the mill Kirby. Hugh does not have any opportunity, until his death, to cultivate his genius and taste, even though the visitors to the mill see his potential.

Conjoined with the improbability of Hugh moving beyond his station, the canary, and also the sculpture of the korl woman that Hugh makes, calls upon the reader to critique the idea of the American Dream. The up from your bootstraps mentality of Benjamin Franklin and John Hector St John De Crèvecœur has a long tradition in America, yet the question remains, “Is the American Dream accessible to all?” Davis clearly answers this question with a resounding “No!”

After the men see Hugh’s sculpture, Dr. May asks Kirby what he will do with those workers who show some semblance of “genius.” Kirby nonchalantly replies,

Ce n’est pas mon affaire. I have no fancy for nursing infant geniuses. I suppose there are some stray gleams of mind and soul among these wretches. The Lord will take care of his own; or else they can work out their own salvation. I have heard you call our American system a ladder which any man can scale. Do you doubt it? Or perhaps you want to banish all social ladders, and put us all on a flat table-land,—eh, May?

Rather than take the time to cultivate and nurture the dreams of workers, especially Hugh, Kirby decides to let life run its course. If Hugh is destined to rise in station due to his talent, then it will happen. If not, so be it. The idea of individuals being able to rise out of their social condition is apparent here in Kirby’s description of the American system as a ladder. Clearly, he views this system more favorably than the idea of equal treatment for all, an idea fresh in the minds of readers because Marx and Engles’ The Communist Manifesto appeared 13 years earlier in 1848.

Hugh exists in a cage just like the canary. The man he works for does not know his name, and when he sees the sculpture, he refuses, as does Dr. May, to assist the cultivation of Hugh’s talent in any manner. The inability to climb out of the “foul effluvia”  manifests itself in Hugh’s sculpture as well. The sculpture, which the narrator hides behind a curtain at the end of the novella, reaches with “arm stretched out imploringly in the darkness” as if trying to grab a hold of the ladder to lift herself up. However, she cannot gran hold and her face continues to stare longingly after that which she cannot achieve.

While the image of the caged canary devoid of dreams fits with the image of class struggles facing Hugh and the other workers, it also exists as a way to critique the transcendentalist ideas of Emerson, Thoreau, and others. I have written about this before, and I want to add a couple of items on here to just expand some. After she describes transcendentalist ideas as bubbles, Davis, in Bits of Gossip, writes about Amos Bronson Alcott preparing a space for Emerson to think.

Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to “do his thinking in.” It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.

Due to the unceasing work he must complete, Hugh does not have time to sit and think. His “dreams of green fields and sunshine” that will lead him to the divine have long since passed away. Now, he remains in his dirty age as desolately chirps, “breathing from infancy to death.” He does not experience the luxury of contemplation until his death where he looks upon the hills and the land that exists down river from the mill, a space with “odorous sunlight, quaint old gardens, dusky with soft, green foliage of apple-trees, and flushing crimson with roses,—air, and fields, and mountains” where he can be one with nature.

These are not the only ways we can think about the image of the canary at the beginning of Life in the Iron Mills, but they are two important aspects that we should consider. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.


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