De profundis clamavi’… analysing the figure of the exceptional worker in Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills, and its reflection of the American perception of normalcy.
This essay examines the role of the ‘exceptional worker’ in Davis’ realist novella Life in the Iron Mills, and what this figure implies regarding contemporary American perceptions of normalcy and class identity. I posit that the capitalist class divide propagates a popular amoral ‘normalcy’ that consists of a simultaneous fear of the ‘human commodity’ and a deliberate disacknowledgement of the inhumanity that is the product of the spiritual ‘reduction’ of the poverty-stricken labour classes. The figure of the ‘exceptional worker’ in Life in the Iron Mills is cynosurial with regard to recognising and supporting this line of reasoning, and is represented most evidently by Hugh Wolfe (an impoverished labourer); as such he will function as the principal object of our examination. How then can we best observe and analyse Hugh? It is clear that viewing him in isolation as an indirectly didactic literary character would be overly reductive, and so we must endeavour to consider Hugh Wolfe as a product of his conditions – conditions rooted in the apathy of class identity and ensured survival by the same skewed perceptions of normalcy that propagate and reinforce their existence. In order to analyse the notion of ‘normalcy’, we must first recognise and identify it objectively in terms of the contextual intent of the essay. When ‘normalcy’ is referred to, the term pertains to a set of societal circumstances which are accepted and adopted into the attitudes and expectations of the American people. When discussing ‘normalcy’, we are considering the way in which the national populace collectively accepts a set of quintessentially capitalist values - which we aim to show are inherently amoral and destructive.
With this in mind we must move to consider the basis of such a notion, beginning with the claim that an amoral ‘normalcy’ is essentially two-fold, and depends on fear born of class elitism as well as a disregard for the humanity of the labour classes. It is the latter of these two elements that will initially be examined, as it is arguably the most evident when viewing the life of an impoverished labourer through the realist lens of Davis’ prose. The way in which the conditions of the labour classes, and most notably Hugh, are disregarded as normalcy by the more elevated strata of society reveals an apathy that transcends attitudes of personal morality or empathy. It is instead rooted in a deeper and more complex passive acceptance of the workings of an unbalanced contemporary capitalist system, and the commodity fetishism inherent within the struggle for both personal and class identity. It is Hugh’s role as a living representation of commodity-driven societal disregard for the working classes that presents to the reader the issue of a potentially amoral system which irrevocably reduces the humanity of the common labourer. In his position as the ‘exceptional worker’, the figure of Hugh recognises and reveals the disparity between being human and what it is to be someone ‘reduced’ by the process of production – the latter being the inherently amoral ‘normalcy’ that we aim to identify and examine. To do so, we too must utilise Hugh as a tool: a representative microcosm of the lowest tier of a capitalist system, a ‘tool’ make exceptional by his ability to express the despairing and diminished souls of the labour classes through sculpture.
At the heart of the claim that contemporary American ‘normalcy’ is amoral lies the way in which the capitalist system requires a type of ‘forgetting’ with regard to the commodification of the labourer. The origin of commodities and the spiritual cost that they take on those who produce them is unconsciously unrealised; it is this apathy which is referred to in this essay as a ‘disacknowledgement’ of the labourer, and is so central in accepting that the consideration of normalcy is fundamentally and morally skewed. The production of commodities is, in a sense, concealed from the common populace by the way in which commodities undergo a veiling under price. Money masks its own production in the sense that it comes to stand in lieu of the commodity which it represents, and as such the nature and soul of the labourer is nullified since they too are commodities to be owned and manipulated by the system. The foundry workers in Life in the Iron Mills are in this way shown to be bereft of their humanity – it has been transferred from them to the product of the manufacturing process. Commodification has inevitably and irrevocably stripped from the labourers that which makes them truly human, and they seem entirely powerless to control the ebb of their humanity into the foundries of the mills and the pockets of the capitalists.
Hugh is exceptional because he expresses otherwise, and creates an emulation of life from the very materials which have stripped the souls away from others. This literal sculpting shows that he has recognised a disparity between what it is to be human and what it is to be someone ‘reduced’ by production. Although this may initially seem somewhat oxymoronic, the life of the worker is, as we have established, put into the product both spiritually and in an entirely literal physical sense. It is an unclean and imperfect process: korl is the result, and the korl woman carved by Hugh is the consequence of a soul’s recognition of its annihilation through commodification. In the same way, the processed ‘inhumanity’ of the labourer is deliberate – it is ‘sculpted’ by the transition of the spiritual into the mundane. It is possible here to recognise a parallel in these processes; the literal sculpting of the korl woman by the disaffected ‘exceptional worker’ is reflected by the requirement of social capitalism to sculpt by ‘chiselling away’ at the humanity of those at the bottom rung of the class ladder. Commodification is by its nature a process that simultaneously creates and annihilates, “a reality of soul-starvation, of living death, that meets you every day under the besotted faces on the street” (Davis, Life in the Iron Mills, Or, The Korl Woman, 1972, 8).
The nullification of the humane in the labourer, the ‘starvation’ of the soul, is the price of industry. Capitalism depends fundamentally on exploitation of the working classes, an aggressive and direct process of capital generation which disregards the value of labour and the labourer: “capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer” (Marx, Capital, Volume I, Chapter 10, 1867). This ‘recklessness’ is indicative of the apathy of social superiority with regard to the commodification of the human, which abandons the humanity of the proletariat and leaves him “left to feed his soul in grossness and crime, and hard, grinding labour” (Davis, 9) This is unconsciously permitted to happen by those who profit from the system because it is acceptable to ignore the ugly roots at the fundamental workings of capitalism if you are placed far enough up the money tree that grows from it. In the same way that a type of ‘forgetting’ is induced by the veil of money, the class divide is magnified and made unbreachable by the way in which the upper classes (the buyers of the product and, by association, the humanity of the worker) ‘forget’ and disacknowledge the labourer.
But how, one wonders, is this gross oversight of the savagery of labour and the brutality of poverty so readily disregarded by the socially superior classes? How is it that the class divide is so vast that the consumer of the commodities is, however well intentioned, naturally inclined to completely ignore the tribulations of the labour classes? The answer is to be found in the aestheticising of conditions, in the picturesque and romantic renderings of proletariat existence which mask the harsh reality of life in the iron mills. This denial of realism is perhaps most evident in the language of the aesthete Mitchell, who demonstrates the way in which his intellectualism and anti-realist inclinations are part of a romantic façade constructed between them and the working classes so that they are able to deny the reality of commodity production and disregard the subsequently compromised humanity and ‘soul’ of the labourer. Such distortions of perception are evident in his reaction upon observing the proletariat labour over the furnaces: “I like this view of the works better than when the glare was fiercest [.] These heavy shadows and the amphitheatre of smothered fires are ghostly, unreal. One could fancy these red smouldering lights to be the half-shut eyes of wild beasts, and the spectral figures their victims in the den” (Davis, 12). The startling irony is that the ‘spectral figures’ referred to by Mitchell are very much the victims, and the ‘den’ of the beast that they exist in is the Hell of the labour classes which strips them of their intangible human qualities. He is apparently unaware that the consumers of commodities are buying fractions of the human soul, encroaching upon the realm of the divine alluded to by the fantastical imagery. These are the conditions of the exceptional worker, yet Mitchell denies the realism of his temporary surroundings in favour of the aestheticism which permits him (and the entirety of the consumer classes) a degree of moral distancing between themselves and the origin of the commodities that they covet.