Miasmatic Ghosts in Rebecca Harding Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills"

Lauren S Peterson

Abstract


This paper accounts for the Gothic elements in Rebecca Harding Davis’s ‘Life in the Iron-Mills’ by contextualizing its references to ghosts within mid-nineteenth-century theories of miasma, industrial toxicity, and ghostology. I argue that we can read the ghosts in ‘Life in the Iron-Mills’ as manifestations of the mill’s toxicity. Through their deaths, the mill workers become miasma—a nineteenth-century concept defined as the disease-causing effluvia emanating from organic rotting matter. The iron mill’s hazardous air kills its workers, turning them into undead, disease-spreading agents. This process makes chemical and organic hazardous air indistinguishable in the narrative. Drawing on Stacy Alaimo’s ecocritical framework of ‘trans-corporeality,’ I elucidate the constant exchange of material between workers’ bodies and their toxic, ‘ghostly’ mill atmosphere. The Gothic, with its obsession over bodily boundaries, appositely describes this phenomenon. I show that the ghosts—as representations of dangerous air—have become ‘real’ for us. My reading of the ghosts as miasmatic also accounts for the story’s ending: Hugh’s death and reappearance to the narrator reveal his transformation into a specter comprised of toxicity. The narrator’s impulse to write the story in the first place, I argue, arises from this toxic haunting.



Keywords


Miasma; trans-corporeality; material ghosts; Realism; Gothic; Rebecca Harding Davis

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References


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