Work in Life in the Iron Mills, “A Church Mouse,” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener”

What do Life in the Iron Mills, “A Church Mouse,” and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” have in common? My first instinct would probably be to answer: not much. Yet, I teach all of these three texts together in a sequence that is focused on work, and while all very different, they fit together well to ask questions about the value and role of work in our lives.

I have been teaching the texts in this sequence for a MA-level literature course for teachers in Norway, but I think the texts could work well together in everything from an intro-level literature course to upper-level classes with a stronger focus on American literature.

The first thing I did when putting together the texts was to develop central questions I wanted to focus on in each text. The questions are:

  • How is work viewed in these texts?
  • What are the characters’ relationships to work?
  • What are the characters’ relationships to their communities?
  • What questions about work do the texts raise for us as readers?

Life in the Iron Mills

Because of its length Life in the Iron Mills is the main text in this sequence. It is also about work in the most obvious way; the goal of the text is to show the hopeless condition of the mill workers and present the reader with insight into the lives of the mill hands. What I respect so much about the story though is that it is not only about work it is also about art. One of my favorite ways to think about text is through the lens of Hugh’s art and what art and creation means to all of us as humans.

I once gave a conference paper where I talked about visiting Carrie Furnaces, the museum and event space made from an old mill in my hometown. (I also wrote a blog post about this visit.) In the paper, I said that the the sheer size and scale of the furnace led me to a bit of a moment of awe. I asked if there was not the sweetness and light of Matthew Arnold in old iron works too. Isn’t there a bit of beauty in this work and these machines? One of the first questions that I got at the end of the presentation was about this assertion. A person asked if I was disregarding the real danger and the real work of these mills. She pointed to Life in the Iron Mills and discussed how miserable the lives of Hugh and Deborah. Surely there is no pleasure, no beauty, no art in that kind of life? Yes, I think that is partially true. However, I was not trying to assert that everything was easy breezy about working in a mill. Certainly Life in the Iron Mills does not present that to us, but it does very firmly say something about art and the role of art in the life of the main character, Hugh. Hugh does not quite know how to articulate how and why he makes the art he does, but he is an artist and the narrative shifts around his sculpture of the Korl woman. Even if it is ultimately unable to be articulated, there is art in his everyday life.

The Korl woman is the sculpture that Hugh makes out of waste product in the mill. The owner of the mill, Kirby and his friends, happen upon the sculpture as they are taking a tour of the mill, and they question Hugh about his work. The work is both alluring and intensely off-putting. The text describes it in this way: “There was not one line of beauty or grace in it: a nude woman’s form, muscular, grown coarse with labor, the powerful limbs instinct with some one poignant longing. One idea: there it was in the tense, rigid muscles, the clutching hands, the wild, eager face, like that of a starving wolf’s.” The men ask questions about the sculpture and Hugh tries to answer. He tells the men that the woman is hungry, which the men cannot comprehend. She doesn’t look hungry to them, but Hugh tries to make the point that she is hungry for more than food. Hugh articulates it best when he says he says that she is hungry for “summat to make her live, I think,—like you.” This is one of the central moments of the text. Hugh cannot quite grasp what the sculpture, and in turn, he are hungry for, but he can express his desires through this beautiful and horrible piece of art work.

Whenever, I teach this text, I like to ask about this moment and think about how we can understand it in light of our own need for creative outlets. These are some questions I ask my students about creativity in the book and in our own lives.

  • Why does Harding Davis make Hugh creative?
  • Why does she choose the specific medium for him to create with?
  • What is the power of art in difficult circumstances?
  • Does everyone have creative outlets?

“A Church Mouse”

Freeman’s collection of stories from which “A Church Mouse” comes

Are enough of you reading Mary Wilkins Freeman? I feel like she is underrated, but her stories of 19th century American women are fascinating and her characters are always doing surprising things that counteract the systems that govern their lives. Hetty in this short story is no exception. The story opens with a dialogue where she is arguing with some of the men with leadership positions in the small town New England town in which she lives. She wants to be the saxton of the church, but the men are pushing back because no woman has ever been saxton before. Eventually she gets to be saxton and manages to finagle herself a living space in the church itself. Her position is hard won because her community fights her at almost every turn.

In terms of work, what stands out to me most in this short story is the relationship between the individual and the community. The story raises questions about what our communities owe us as individuals when we age. Hetty is used to hard work. She has lived in other people’s homes as a boarder and taken care of many of the chores. She was never paid for her work, but she has managed to maintain herself and contribute to the community. Right before the story starts, the woman that she was living with passed away and the only option for her for a new home is one she refuses. This is when she hatches a plan to live and work in the church house. The other members of the community do not feel like they owe it to Hetty to let her do the work at the church. They also have no interest in taking her into their own homes or giving her another job. So what is she left with?

I do think that we often thing about our individual relationship to work more than the way that our work benefits the collective community. Some professions, such as those directly in involved in public service, probably think in terms of community more. But questions about what we owe our society and what our society owes us are not far from many public debates about work in our contemporary society. It can be important for us to think a little bit more like Hetty and ask, and perhaps demand, that our work be counted.

Bartleby, the Scrivener

I might have been amusing myself a little bit when I included Bartleby in this topic. How can Bartleby teach us about work when we might interpret his goal as being to not work? But there is a lot of value to consider when discussing Bartleby in this light. The first ideas about work always come to me when I read the narrator’s opening description of his office and the way that it worked before Bartleby arrived. Instead of really describing his job in detail, he focuses more on the status of his work. For example, he tells us his address and that he worked for John Jacob Astor. And, yes, we learn what his workers do for him, but we actually learn more about their habits, such as if they drink too much or how neat they keep their clothes. The narrator is more focused on status and how his work is perceived than on the work itself.

This is, in part, why the narrator is so confused by Bartleby. He is unpersuadable by any pressures or arguments that the narrator generates. Bartleby is defined by his job in the title of the piece; he is Bartleby, but he is also a “scrivener.” However, that title or the duties the lawyer has assigned to him have no affect on his behavior. He works hard in the beginning of his employment, and then he stops–preferring to do less and less until he dies. The lawyer is flummoxed by his behavior, and so is the reader. There is no clear explanation for his motivations throughout the short story.

I love to think about Bartleby in terms of work not despite his lack of interest in work at the end of the story but because of it. Bartleby’s refusals might point us to question our own relationships to work. Why are we actually doing the work we are doing? What benefits do we get from our work? How do we define ourselves by work and is that a good thing? What is our labor worth and is our job honoring that value?

I have found these questions to be relevant for awhile, but they seem to be especially so during the pandemic. Right now, it is very easy to find headlines in the news that touch precisely on these questions. For example, there have been a lot of headlines about service industry workers not returning to work. Some people have chosen to see that as a bad thing–people are being lazy and not wanting to work hard. For example, Ohio stopped the $300 extra dollars in unemployment that the federal government was supplying to those out of work using this kind of logic as a defense for the move. Others are seeing an opportunity for workers to reassess their value on the labor market. Cristian Cardona said, in a Washington Post article, about his decision to leave work at McDonald, “I think the problem is workers are being paid too little working full time. That’s the real scandal.” This questioning and reassessing evidenced in Cardona’s quote is also what Bartleby can do for us. We ask why Bartleby stops working but the inverse of that is why are we working and what value to we hope to obtain from it?

Those some of the ideas that string these three texts together for me, and I have found teaching this sequence that students respond to thinking through these three texts together. There is a lot more to be said about each text, but I will end with a chart that I made with one class that nicely details the kinds of work and the philosophies of work in the three texts.

TextAuthorTime PeriodKinds of workPhilosophies of workRelationships between charactersActions (how are things changed?)
Life in the Iron MillsRebecca Harding Davismid-1800sfactory work, sculpturing, physical work, business men, jailer, Quaker woman, lamplighter, reporter, doctor, market, narrator as authorwork as necessity, charity, oversee the work, can do other things but it is a choice to work in the mills, how to punish people doing crimes, comparison to slaves, lack of choice about work, you can be in a better position with hard work and talent, the American Dream, money is the key, the revolt has to come from the masses.Hugh and the other mill workers and the disconnect between them, Deborah and Hugh and Jannie, Hugh takes the consequences of Deborah’s actions, demonstrates his love for Deborah, Hugh’s  struggle between what is right and what dreams he can imagine, the rich men and the workers, the lack of understanding about them, disconnect between the workers themselves: they see themselves as individuals.Deborah gets a better life, Hugh escapes from his life, he is buried out in the hills, Hugh kills himself, Hugh learns that he can have a dream and then he stops dreaming, the dream gives him the momentum to try to change his circumstances, the Korl woman ends up with narrator in a middle class home. the korl woman is hidden from the other workers, Hugh’s life doesn’t matter to the other workers, there is no change in the minds of the upper class.   
“A Church Mouse”Mary Wilkins Freemanlate 1800ssaxton, field workers, farmers, town selectman, preacher, deacon, wife, housewife, servant, teacher, landlord.pride in work, the right to retire, you should be provided for in old age, what is suitable work for your gender, benefit to have a job, right to work if you want to work, the boy excused from labor because they don’t want to help Hetty, the community has a responsibility to workers, the appreciation of the artwork, all kinds of things take work (housework, hobbies, etc.), Hetty’s point about the work of a saxton. not a good relationship with Hetty, the community sees her as very different, Mrs. Gale sympathetic to Hetty, the way that women control the events, the power shifts, the women in the community have the power, the men are helpless, the men are weak, the community comes together. she is strong in the beginning, has a moment of crisis, and then gets her independence in the end, the connection to Christmas and the feelings of the community, compassion vs duty, Mrs. Gale’s understanding of how to change the situation in contrast to the men who want to use brute force.
“Bartleby, the Scrivener”Herman Melvillemid-1800sscrivener, lawyer, errand boy, dead letter office worker, clerk, grub-man, turn-keydo as little as you can get away with, do what you have the capacity to do, humanity!, work as mechanical reproduction, you have to do what you are told in theory, “i would prefer not to,” responsibility to others in your work community, duty to contribute to your work environmentthe outsiders vs insiders, lawyer’s desire to help or support Bartleby, the lawyer is very invested in B’s life, the lawyer’s community is the reason he acts, Bartleby has no relationship to others?  no attachment to place?, the lack of action is also action, lawyer is accepting the actions of his workers, they (Nippers and Turkey) want to be seen as good workersthe lawyer moves his office, B’s lack of action makes everything worse, he increasingly opts out of things, and then he opts out of life, he was a good worker for a while, the lawyer is trying to ask something more of B, lack of production, very mechanical work.

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