“Their Souls’ Concerns”: Rebecca Harding Davis’ Transcendental Critique of Industrialism and Passive Christianity

While Rebecca Harding Davis declared the Transcendentalist movement to be “beautiful bubbles blown from a child’s pipe” which were unreasonably disconnected from reality, she nevertheless translated the ideas of authors like Emerson and Brownson in her work, “Life in the Iron Mills,” through which she lobbied against the increased appearance of an industrialized economy in Wheeling, VA. This presentation will focus on connecting Davis to the greater discussion around industrialized labor and environmentalism found in the Transcendentalist movement and identifying how this led her to create a unique, ecofeminist-liberation theology. Davis represented a growing majority of individuals who sought to highlight the corrupting physical and moral forces industrialization presented, specifically through its degradation of the individual worker’s value. In her work, she presents one of the first instances of language that moralizes industrial waste (such as by using words like “pollution” and “filth”). In doing so, she joins the ranks of other Transcendentalist thinkers, such as Thoreau, by presenting a critique of modern society that is pessimistic of technological progress. Additionally, Davis identifies how Protestant Christianity assisted in the diminishment of both the environment and the individual worker, and in doing so alludes to both Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” and Browning’s religious language surrounding capital to reinforce her point. By understanding Davis’ resistance in the face of an industrializing environment and appraisal of individual value, one can see how she presented a transformation of Transcendentalist ideas at a time when the movement was losing traction in America. These examples complicate the images of Davis that scholars, such as Sharon Harris, are quick to draw and remind us of the complex cultural forces that shape any work of literature.

Author: Benjamin Flournoy