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Philosophy for the Few: The Cost of Thoreauvian Ideals in "Life in the Iron Mills"

Updated on September 11, 2014

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation
and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

-Henry David Thoreau

Housing in a mills factory in Alabama. Photographed by Hine, Lewis Wickes.
Housing in a mills factory in Alabama. Photographed by Hine, Lewis Wickes.

If there is any literary figure who led the life of daily drudgery, mindless penitence, and "quiet desperation" then it must be the character of Hugh from Rebecca Harding Davis’s “Life in the Iron Mills.” Hugh is a talented sculptor with an eye for beauty, but he’s trapped in a destitute life in an ugly, dirty place. Surely the Thoreauvian philosophy of freeing one’s self from one’s chains and following one’s talent and intellect wherever it may lead can only raise Hugh’s life up from the muck in which he is mired? Unfortunately, that’s not how the story plays out. Hugh’s efforts to extricate himself from the social gears grinding him to the bone do not lead to a happily ever after on Walden Pond; instead they lead to suicide in a jail cell. If such a prime creature for transcendence cannot break free, then either Thoreau’s philosophy does not work in practice, or does not work for all people.

Hugh first receives the idea that he has something in him that can transcend his meager existence when the factory owner and a few gentlemen come by while he’s working. These men are better educated than him, cleaner than him, higher socially than him and wealthier than him. Yet, these are men who, for various reasons, wouldn’t spare a dime if begged. But they too are following Thoreauvian ideals. It’s a self-reliance thing. If they were to help Hugh—Hugh, a man with a potential to surpass them, which is clearly visible—then that would cost them something. It would mean putting their own divinity on a shelf to care for another. Or they feel it would be somewhat artificial to do so—that it wouldn’t mean anything if they helped him along from the outside. Mitchell’s excuse is just that; that, “no vital movement of the people’s has worked down, for good or evil; fermented, instead, carried up the heaving, cloggy mass” (39). Because he is an outside force, he feels that he cannot change Hugh’s life for him; that Hugh must be self-reliant and do it himself.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

Wouldn’t it be lovely to be self-reliant? To cut all ties and be truly free? How attractive that sounds. But is it possible? Could even Thoreau accomplish it? But he was born, wasn’t he? He was fed and brought up in some way? Did he never accept a crumb or helping hand from a stranger or friend? And if that’s so, could he escape from those ties—both the invisible and the visible? Is it fair or right to say "I don’t owe anyone anything?" No one can be truly self-reliant, but illusions of self-reliance abound.

If that is true and all humans are debtors, then it only becomes a matter of degrees of debt. No one likes to own that they owe, but it is true. That leaves the thinking person with two options: 1. to delude himself that he is self-reliant and therefore everyone else can do it too, or 2. to give a helping hand to those who life smote with a much lower credit limit. Without the illusion of self-reliance, to do anything else is just the philosophy of selfishness.

Now, Dr. May might not have been willing to grant Hugh any actual assistance, but he was willing to toss a few words of encouragement his way. He says to Hugh: “Do you know, boy, you have it in you to be a great sculptor, a great man? […] to live a better, stronger life than I, or Mr. Kirby here? A man may make himself anything he chooses” (37). He considered that he was doing a good deed by bolstering that spark of genius in Hugh, but all he gave was words—and what did his words do? Well, they lit a fire in Hugh, for certain. What is a man like him to do when told point blank that his miserable way of life is just a nasty quirk of fate and that if he can only do the seemingly impossible and pull himself out of it that he is destined for greatness? For Hugh it began with thoughts of, “his squalid daily life, the brutal coarseness eating into his brain, as the ashes into his skin: before these things had been a dull aching into his consciousness; to-night, they were reality” (40). Being told that the pain of his life all comes down to a social system that puts him on the bottom rung—not because he doesn’t have the intellect or the talent to rise to the top, but because he doesn’t have the money—must seem so unfair as to cause physical pain. And Dr. May seemed to think he was doing Hugh a kindness.

But May’s comments were anything but kind. He did not care to back them up with any practical support or to think what such comments might actually do to Hugh. He did give Hugh a way out, so to speak. He told Hugh that it was his right to transcend his circumstance. It’s a sentiment that Thoreau might have agreed with, but the way it was carried out was anything but happy. Hugh took this statement of his right to rise as reason for him to keep the money that Deb had stolen, which represented what he thought of as his only way out of his circumstances. That led to a prison sentence and an even lower state of being than before.

In prison, Hugh’s freedoms were even more curtailed than before. He was in a small space and shackled after attempting to escape. A sentence that can only end in his death stretched before him and he decided that it had come to such a sorry state that the least painful way out was death and succeeds in killing himself. Did he finally taste a moment of transcendence before he passed? As the moonlight flooded over him and after all his hard life has brought him, “his tense limbs relaxed, and settled into a calm languor. The blood ran fainter and slow from his heart. He did not think [then] with a savage anger of what might be and was not” (60). On the one side, he may have finally transcended his weary physical form as he embraced the final escape of death; on the other side, he bled to death alone and reviled in a jail cell, never to let his gift flourish again.

Rebecca Harding Davis
Rebecca Harding Davis

That’s why what May said to him was the cruelest of all. It awakened Hugh’s spirit, true, and made him want to change his life, but it did so bullishly, with no regard for the torrent of pain that would sweep down upon the man, or how he might choose to respond. If May had not said what he had about Hugh being meant for great things, then Hugh would not have kept the money that Deb stole, would not have been arrested and would not have died in prison. If Hugh hadn’t had the conversation with those men that he had, then the "dull aching" might not have blossomed into unlivable agony, and he might have gone on.

True, if Hugh never "awakened" to that denied greater purpose in his life, then he may have lived miserably for the rest of his days and some might say that finding that transcendence, even if he had to die to reach it, was better than that. But who can say what would’ve happened if he lived and hadn’t been jailed? Perhaps he would’ve found the ability to love Deb and let her love him; perhaps he would’ve been able to continue to use his gifts, whether privately or to some higher calling; perhaps the Quaker woman or someone like her could’ve helped Hugh as she helped Deb; or perhaps he would’ve gone on through dreary and brutal days much as he always had, but would’ve tasted the occasional joy along with the sorrow. Perhaps he would’ve just had his life. But the reader can never know this, because Hugh followed his dream and it led him to death. Perhaps the poor aren’t meant for transcendence—and a philosophy of the few is a sorry philosophy indeed.

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