Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day

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Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day
Rebecca Harding Davis

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Reading


Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, published in 1862 in Boston, was Rebecca Harding Davis's second widely acknowledged work, and her first novel. Set in an Indiana mill town during the fall and winter of 1860, it depicts the suffering of the working poor at a time when industrialization was growing across America.

During the time Davis wrote, the society she lived in was divided into areas of activity that were considered appropriate for men, or for women. Women were expected to take care of home and family; men were expected to attend to the world of ideas, politics, and money. Writing books was considered to be a male activity, and women who wanted to be authors, like Davis, were expected to write "moral" fiction: fiction that educated, elevated, and promoted religious values.

However, some writers, such as Davis, preferred to present uncouth, sinful, or "low" characters, who were generally ordinary, poor, and flawed people. This realistic fiction was intended to be the opposite of popular nineteenth-century fiction, which presented strong heroes, beautiful heroines, and romantic plots. Davis managed to fit her depiction of unattractive, sinful, and flawed people within the social ideal that women write moral fiction by using her stories to examine social and religious issues—and to bring up moral questions. She writes at the beginning of the book:

"You want something … to lift you out of this crowded, tobacco-stained commonplace, to kindle and chafe and glow in you. I want you to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it. Sometimes I think it has a new and awful significance that we do not see."

Margret Howth was first published in six installments in the Atlantic Monthly beginning in October, 1861. At the request of her editor, James Fields, Davis rewrote the novel to make the ending happier. Although she was disappointed with the necessity of doing this to make the book more agreeable to the public, she had faith that Fields was probably right.

According to Jane Atteridge Rose in Rebecca Harding Davis, the book has been called "the earliest realistic depiction of an American woman as an individual and as ordinary." Jean Fagan Yellin, in her afterword to the Feminist Press edition of the novel, wrote that "readers immediately recognized" the significance of the book, and that critics commented on Davis's revealing "the fictional possibilities in people who had been presumed to be inarticulate, or whom economic or social oppression had submerged."

Author Biography

Rebecca Harding Davis was born Rebecca Harding on June 24, 1831, at her aunt's home in Washington, Pennsylvania, and soon was taken to the family home in Big Spring, Alabama (later renamed Huntsville), where she would become the oldest of five children. Although they only lived there until Davis was five, Davis later remembered her mother's description of "the mixed magnificence and squalor of the life on the plantations among which we lived; the great one-storied wooden houses built on piles; the pits of mud below them in which pigs wallowed," according to Jan Atteridge Rose in Rebecca Harding Davis.

In 1837, the Hardings moved to Wheeling, West Virginia, a steel-manufacturing town. Wheeling was a prosperous, diverse place, a center for new immigrants looking for work and for those who wanted to migrate farther west. Her experiences in Wheeling would provide characters and incidents that would recur, with little alteration, in much of her fiction.

Davis was educated at home by her mother. She was an avid reader, although her reading was limited, for the most part, to the Bible and works by John Bunyan, Sir Walter Scott, and Miss Edgeworth. She also read several stories by Hawthorne, which impressed her deeply because instead of writing about knights, fairies, and magical events, he took ordinary people and events and made them seem magical. Many years later, she realized how deeply his vision and sensibility affected her.

She attended Washington Female Seminary in Pennsylvania, where she was exposed to antislavery lectures and radical reformers. After she had attended for three years, her education was over; more education was unthinkable for a young woman of her time. Although she did not marry, she remained in her parents' house, taking care of younger siblings and doing the housework. She continued to read widely, using her father's library and the textbooks her brother, Wilson, brought home from college. In the late 1850s she began publishing reviews, poetry, stories, and editorials in the Wheeling Intelligencer, and in 1859, she briefly worked as its editor.

During this time she also took long walks, keenly observing everyone she saw—a range of people that apparently included "thieves, convicts, prostitutes, drunks, addicts, and suicides," according to Rose.

In 1861, her first work, "Life in the Iron Mills," was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Noted for the "bold authority" in its description of impoverished iron workers, according to Rose, the book "exploded with a force that shook America's Eastern intellectual community to its foundation" with its realistic treatment of unpleasant subjects and situations.

James T. Fields, co-owner of Ticknor and Fields publishers, as well as editor of the Atlantic, asked Davis to write another piece, but requested that this one be less depressing than "Life in the Iron Mills." He rejected Margret Howth at first because it was still too sad, and Davis rewrote it to satisfy him, with what Rose described as a "happy ending in which the ambitious and egoistic male becomes domesticated and the self-sacrificing female is fulfilled through marriage." According to Rose, the book has been described as "the earliest realistic description of an American woman as an individual and as ordinary."

Because of the book's success, Davis was invited to Fields's home in Boston to meet other well-known writers of the time. After this visit, she stopped in Philadelphia to meet Lemuel Clarke Davis, a lawyer who had written to her about her work "Life in the Iron Mills." The two fell in love and were engaged during her visit. On March 5, 1863, they were married. They had three children, Richard Harding, Charles Belmont, and Nora. Even-tually, Richard Harding Davis's career as a journalist and writer would overshadow his mother's.

Davis went on to write several novels and story collections, which are regarded as a form of "spiritual activism," according to Michele L. Mock in NWSA Journal, and as a form of pioneer American realistic fiction. She died on September 29, 1910, in Mount Kisco, New York, of edema of the lungs caused by heart disease.

Plot Summary

Chapters I-II

Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day opens as Margret Howth begins her new job working on the ledgers at Knowles & Company woolen mill, owned by Dr. Knowles. The job is dreary, lonely, and depressing; she works alone, in a dirty room high in the mill; on the floors below, workers slave in suffocating heat and deafening noise, amid the caustic fumes of dyes. She has taken the job to make money to take care of her impoverished parents; her father, a former schoolteacher, has gone blind and can no longer support the family. At the end of the day she returns to the family home, a formerly comfortable place that is now spare, since she and her mother have sold everything valuable in order to buy food.

Dr. Knowles, the owner of the mill, follows her. He has a grand scheme in mind, and he has been watching Margret to see how she will fit into it. He is also friends with her father, and spends time with him, arguing politics. Margret notices that the doctor is watching her, as he has watched her for her whole life, "with a kind of savage scorn," but doesn't know why he does so. His grand plan is to sell the mill and use the money to found a commune, where he will take ex-slaves, alcoholics, and all other downtrodden people, and teach them self-reliance and self-worth. All will live on an even footing with the others, and the community will be based on "perpetual celibacy, mutual trust, honour," and individuals will "rise according to the stuff that's in them." And, he hopes, Margret will work on this plan with him.

Lois Yare, a mixed-race woman who is deformed from rickets—a disease caused by malnutrition—and who has suffered brain damage, comes to the door. She began working at the mill when she was seven years old, but because of her condition couldn't keep up with the work. She left the mill, planning never to go back, and became a peddler of fruits and vegetables. She is a kind, optimistic, and loving person, and everyone she meets can't help but be kind to her; she believes that everything will be right someday—if not here, then in heaven—and that even among the poorest people, there are some who are "the Master's people," meaning children of Christ. Her mother was an alcoholic and her father, Joe Yare, is a thief, but she has never let her poor origins, or her physical suffering, affect her outlook. She tells the Howths that her father has just gotten out of jail, news that she's delighted about. He will be working as a stoker in the mill.

Chapters III-VII

The next day, Margret goes to work again. She thinks about her lost love, Stephen Holmes, an entrepreneur. She was once engaged to him, but the wedding was called off when she had to begin taking care of her aging and impoverished parents. She hears him walk past the room where she sits reconciling the mill's books, but he doesn't stop, and she thinks he doesn't know she's inside. He is now engaged to Miss Herne, the intelligent but unpleasant daughter of the man who is co-owner of the mill with Dr. Knowles. He admits that he doesn't love her, but without her money he can't realize his ambition of owning his own factory some day. When he walks past the room where Margret is working, he does know she's inside, and he misses her, but he thinks it's better if he doesn't speak to her anymore, because it will be too painful for both of them.

Holmes plans to buy Dr. Knowles's share in the mill, using money his future father-in-law will give him. One of the workers at the mill, a coal-digger, meets Holmes and asks him if he will do a favor for Lois's father, Joe. Holmes and the worker are the only two people who know Yare was involved in a forgery. If Holmes keeps quiet about it, Yare won't go back to jail and can clean up his life and move on. Holmes, however, says it's not up to him: Yare broke the law, so he must pay the consequences.

While Holmes is riding in a carriage with Miss Herne, they see Margret, and he decides that before he marries Miss Herne, he will talk to Margret one more time. He goes to her and tells her he always loved her, but that love kept him from realizing his ambition in life. As he talks, he realizes that ambition is nothing, and begs her to take him back. She is disgusted by that fact that he put power before love, and refuses. He tells her "I will wait for you yonder [in Heaven] if I die first," and she admits that she loves him too, despite her refusal.

Dr. Knowles finds Margret and tells her he wants to show her "a bit of hell: outskirt." He takes her to a mission house, where prostitutes, gamblers, vagabonds, runaway slaves, ragged children, and other poor and forgotten people live, and tells her ironically, "it's a glimpse of the under-life of America—God help us!—where all men are born free and equal." He asks if she will join him in working for them, and tells her that God is calling her to this work. This is why he has been watching her all her life—to assess her fitness and see if she can fit into his grand plan. She doesn't give him an answer, however.

Chapters VIII-XI

Holmes goes to the mill, where Joe Yare begs him not to tell anyone about the forgery. Holmes, again, refuses to keep the secret. That night, while Holmes is sleeping in the mill, Yare sets it on fire. Yare's daughter, Lois, knowing Holmes is upstairs, runs into the burning building and saves him, but not before she inhales a deadly dose of toxic fumes from the burning dye vats.

Holmes lives, but his dream of wealth and power is destroyed. So is Dr. Knowles's dream, since the mill burned down before they could conclude the sale, and now he has no money to build his commune and achieve his grand scheme of becoming a famous reformer. He devotes himself to simpler acts of charity at the mission house.

Holmes recuperates in bed. His body heals, but his spirit feels sick as he thinks about how materialistic he was, how ready he was to deny love and marry a woman he despised just to get money. He is inspired by Lois's pure faith to reconsider his life and how he has wasted it, but realizes it's not too late to make amends. He asks Margret to marry him, and she accepts. Knowles is deeply disappointed, since he thought she was going to work with him at the mission, but in the end, Margret's life as Holmes's wife fills her with such happiness that she is completely fulfilled. In a surprising event that ties up the one remaining loose end, the poverty Margret's family has endured is suddenly ended when oil is discovered on the Howth property.


Miss Herne

Miss Herne is the daughter of the man who is co-owner (with Dr. Knowles) of the weaving mill. She is engaged to Stephen Holmes, who plans to marry her to get her father's money. She is attractive, with light blue eyes and blond hair, but has what Davis describes as a "cheap, tawdry intellect," and a sharp, sarcastic tongue that has given her a reputation of being "brilliant" and a "fine talker." She is shallow, and wears a great deal of perfume, which Holmes is disgusted by; he compares it to the stench of the mill. Her fine dress and educated talk only thinly mask the fact that she has no substance—no depth. She has had an easy life and is not reflective by nature; when she sees people, she doesn't think of them as real people with troubles and joys, but only as good-looking or ugly, well-dressed or badly dressed. She isn't interested in love, but believes Holmes is infatuated with her, and enjoys the sense of power over him that this gives her. She views him as her future slave, but on the surface, acts feminine and fluttery. Holmes, reflecting on his engagement to her, thinks, "That nerveless, spongy hand,—what a death-grip it had on his life!"

Stephen Holmes

Stephen Holmes is young, good-looking, on his way up in the world, and talented. He is a self-made entrepreneur, and although he is capable of acts of kindness, such as giving Lois Yare a cart so that she can start up her own business, he is cynical about love. When he is told that "God is love," he responds, "Was He? No wonder, then, He was the God of women, and children and unsuccessful men." He believes he can be his own savior and that people should be responsible for themselves, not rely on God to make things right. His plan is to make a lot of money and eventually move back East, where he feels more comfortable.

Holmes is a quiet man, and perhaps because of this, others seek him out to tell him their troubles; Davis describes him as "one of those men who are unwillingly masters among men," a born leader. However, Davis implies that this popularity is largely because he's perceived as a "go-getter" and people are impressed by this, and by the fact that he is expected to become rich. Tellingly, she notes that beggars don't bother to ask him for anything, because they know he won't help them.

Holmes was once betrothed to Margret Howth, but gives up his betrothal when her father goes blind and she has to stay home and take care of him. Holmes plans instead to marry Miss Herne, whose father is co-owner of the mill with Dr. Knowles. If he marries her, he will get her father's money, which he can then use to fund his ambition to own his own factory someday. He doesn't love Miss Herne, but feels that dealing with her will be a small problem, far overshadowed by the wealth he could have. Because of his "coarse" interest in money, he is an unusual hero for literature of Davis's time, which featured more idealistically depicted heroes; Davis was aware of this, and asks the reader, "How can I help it … if it made his fingers thrill with pleasure to touch a full pocket-book as well as his mistress's hand?"

When Holmes is about to marry Miss Herne, however, the mill is destroyed by a fire, which almost kills him. He is saved by Lois Yare, and slowly nursed back to health. In watching Lois and the nurses who take care of him, he finally sees the value of selfless love over greed and ambition. He realizes that he has spent his life chasing spiritually empty dreams, and as his body heals, his soul sickens. He goes to Margret on Christmas Eve and tells her he loves her; the two are reunited, and will be married.

Margret Howth

Margret Howth is a plain woman, unlike the conventionally beautiful heroines of most nineteenth-century fiction. Davis describes her as having "no reflected lights about her; no gloss on her skin, no glitter in her eyes, no varnish on her soul." She dreamed of marrying Stephen Holmes, a prosperous businessman, but that dream was destroyed when he decided to marry someone else or, since the story is not clear on this point, when she decided she could not marry him. Her father, previously a schoolteacher, has become blind, and she believes her first duty is to him. Although she seems dutiful and accepting of her fate, inwardly, she is not. She is secretly tormented by the fact that she must take a dull, joyless job at a weaving mill, by the fact that now she can never be a wife and mother, and by the fact that she has lost her true love. As Davis writes, "Christ was a dim, ideal power, heaven far off. She doubted if it held anything as real as that which she had lost." In this, she is an unusual heroine for literature of the time; most readers would have been shocked by a woman who is not terribly religious, who is miserable about caring for her aging parents, and who does not meekly accept her duty and pretend to be glad about it.

Margret has low selfesteem—she doesn't believe she's worthy of love—but is also caught up in her own suffering to such an extent that at first, she has no time to think about the suffering of others, such as Lois Yare, a poor and deformed peddler, or the people at a rescue mission run by Dr. Knowles, whom she sees when he takes her to see "a bit of hell: outskirt." However, as the story progresses, her heart opens to these people through Knowles's appeals and through Lois Yare's example. Eventually, she realizes that she, like most people, is involved in creating the world's "gulf of pain and wrong," and joins the doctor in helping people who are ill, impoverished, and hopeless.

Mrs. Howth

Margret's mother is a longsuffering woman, devoted to her husband. She works long and hard simply to help the family survive. She never lets her husband see her fears about their possible starvation, but always acts pleasant and hopeful. Margret notices that her mother's eyes are "dim with crying … though she [Margret] never saw her shed a tear," and describes her as "always cheery, going placidly about the house … as if there were no such things in the world as debt or blindness." Her mother goes on long walks, foraging in the fields for unharvested peas or corn, and comes home hopeless and exhausted, but never discusses her pain with anyone.

Samuel Howth

Margret's father, a former schoolteacher, is now impoverished and blind. A royalist who is descended from people who fought on the British side during the American Revolution, he sneers at democracy and dreams of bygone eras when kings and queens ruled. One of his greatest pleasures is debating politics with Dr. Knowles; since going blind, he has increased the vehemence of his arguments, and looks forward to the doctor's visits. He is convinced that Knowles's commune scheme to elevate the poor and downtrodden will fail, because "any plan … founded on self-government, is based on a sham, the tawdriest of shams." In all this debating, he seems to live in a world of political fantasy, and is removed from his own poverty. In fact, because he is blind, his wife and Margret have been able to conceal from him the fact that they had to sell many of their old belongings in order to have money for food.


The Howth family servant, Joel is a rough, uneducated man who nevertheless reads the newspaper and is avidly political, despite his ignorance. Unlike Mr. Howth, he believes fervently in the power of democracy, and keeps up with current affairs to see whether the government is truly "carryin' out the views of the people." He has little role in the story until the end of the book, when he discovers oil on the Howth property, thus restoring wealth and good times to the Howth family.

Dr. Knowles

Dr. Knowles, principal owner of the weaving mill where Margret works, is old and obese, "overgrown, looking like a huge misshapen mass of flesh," and has a face that "repelled most men: dominant, restless, flushing into red gusts of passion, a small intolerant eye, half hidden in folds of yellow fat." He is part Creek Indian on his mother's side, and thus carries what others consider "the blood of a despised race." However, because he has this blood, he has an innate sympathy with outcasts, the poor, and those who suffer from prejudice. This sympathy is an obsession for him: nothing in the world could be as important as social work, work for the poor. When he first appears in the book, the author hints that he is involved in some sort of obsessive scheme, which the other characters comment on incredulously. He has also been observing Margret for many years, secretly assessing her character to see if she will be suitable for his plans. He believes that her dream of becoming a wife and mother has been shattered for one reason: so that she can participate in his plan. "It was his part to put her work into her hands," Davis remarks.

Knowles takes Margret to his mission house and forces her to see that other people in the world are suffering far more than she is. Her loss of a selfish man is nothing compared to what others have to face: sickness, starvation, slavery, prejudice, ignorance.

Knowles is arrogant about his plan, believing that he, and he alone, can be a savior of many people, and dreaming about the praise he will earn. Knowles's plan is to sell the mill and use the money to create a communal farm, where poor, oppressed, and downtrodden people can live clean, simple lives of dignity and self-worth. However, his commitment to this cause is tested when a fire, set by Joe Yare, burns the mill to the ground before he can sell it. At first Knowles is deeply bitter about this, but gradually realizes the value of small acts of kindness, which can be as helpful as any grand scheme in helping those who are less fortunate. He works at his House of Refuge near the railroad tracks, and instead of being filled with the desire to be praised for his grand scheme, he accepts that the work he now does may not bear fruit until after his death, and he may never be personally rewarded for it.

Mr. Pike

The manager at the weaving mill, Pike is a cunning, sly man, who embezzles money from the mill, but reveals another side of his character when his little daughter is nearby: he is proud of her and kind to her, and brings her to the mill so she won't be lonely at home. His wife has died, and Pike explains, "I'm father and mother, both, to Sophy now." He has two sons, much older, to whom he gave a good education; they are now out West, seeking their fortunes, and he's proud of them. Davis comments, "Even this man could spare time out of his hard, stingy life to love, and be loved, and to be generous!"

Joe Yare

Lois Yare's father, a former slave, has spent time in jail for stealing. He also once committed forgery, a fact that only Stephen Holmes and a coal-digger at the mill know about. If Holmes told about this, Yare could be sent back to jail. When the coal-digger asks Holmes to give Yare a chance and not inform on him, telling Holmes that Yare is trying to reform and start a new life without crime, Holmes says that he didn't make the law; Yare broke it, and he must pay the consequences.

Yare goes to Holmes and begs him not to tell of the forgery, saying of prison, "what good'll it doe me to go back there? I was goin' down, down, an' bringin' th' others with me." Holmes refuses, so that night, knowing Holmes is sleeping in the factory, Yare torches it and burns it to the ground. His daughter, Lois, runs in and saves Holmes, and ultimately she dies because of exposure to toxic fumes. In the end, Holmes, who has undergone a change of heart, tells Yare he won't report him for the arson, either, although he is still disgusted by this "vicious, cringing wretch." Davis does not make it clear whether Holmes thinks Yare is wretched simply because he is black, or because he has lived through slavery and has never had a chance to improve himself. However, she remarks that his sad eyes may have seemed dishonest to other people, but when he looks at his daughter, Lois, he has nothing but kindness for her, and he worries about what she thinks of his past.

Lois Yare

Lois Yare is a mixed-race woman, the daughter of an alcoholic mother and a criminal father. She is also deformed and stunted from a bout of rickets, and apparently also has brain damage. She started working at Knowles's weaving mill when she was seven years old, but because of her handicaps she couldn't keep up with the work, and the overseer was getting ready to send her to the poorhouse. She left the mill when she was sixteen, but still remembers the horror of working there—the stench of the dye vats, the toxic fumes, the noise and heat—and swears she will never set foot inside again. Her eyes, despite her deformed appearance, are "singularly soft, brooding brown." Everyone she meets is attracted to her because of her kindness and happiness.

She works as a wandering peddler, driving her cart from farm to farm, buying and selling produce. She was given the cart by Stephen Holmes, who knew she could not return to the mill. Her cart reveals that she has the soul of an artist: the vegetables are arranged with care for their color, texture, and shapes, and the cart itself, though patched and old, has "a snug, cosey look." Whenever she can, she gives to people, even if it's only a piece of fruit. Davis writes, "She thought that unknown Joy linked all earth and heaven together, and made it plain."

Although Lois suffers more than any other major character in the book, she is the most filled with love and kindness. Instead of being bitter about her experiences, she believes that "things allus do come right, some time," because "The Master," or Christ, will make it so, and that everyone will have a chance, even if they have to wait until they're in heaven to get it. A true Christian, she knows that many of the starved, drunk, criminal, ex-slave, and downtrodden people she sees are really "the Master's people," even though they are despised by white, wealthy people. Her faith never wavers, no matter what happens, and she teaches all the other characters about the true nature of faith, Christianity, and love.

When her father sets the mill on fire, Lois realizes that Stephen Holmes is inside, and although the mill terrifies her, she runs in and saves his life. Later, it turns out that this heroic act will kill her: she has inhaled deadly fumes from the burning dye vats.


Role of Women in the Nineteenth Century

In the nineteenth century, a woman was expected to find a husband, raise a family, and run a clean and orderly household. In addition, a woman was not supposed to have a career or to be highly educated; her life was limited to her home and her family.

In the novel, Margret Howth deviates from these expectations, because she has lost, or given up, her chance to find a husband—at least throughout most of the book. She has let Stephen Holmes go because she is now burdened with the care of her blind and poor father, as well as her mother, because her mother was dependent on her father's income. She's a working girl, quite a descent in social class from her upbringing as a schoolteacher's daughter.

In another sense, however, Margret is still traditional in that she's fulfilling the only other acceptable role for a woman; if a woman couldn't or wouldn't get married, it was socially acceptable for her to live with and care for her parents, particularly if one or both of them was ill. Davis portrays Margret as loving her parents but chafing under this restricted life; she feels guilty for resenting the lot that has fallen on her, but this doesn't stop her from feeling her resentment. This honest attitude seems very modern, similar to that of many women who are caretakers of children or parents and who give up their careers outside the home to provide these services.

Effects of the Industrial Revolution

During the mid-nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution brought dramatic changes to workers' lives. Before the Industrial Revolution, goods were manufactured by craftspeople who brought their individual attention and particular talents to each piece they produced, leading to pride and a feeling of mastery, creativity, and self-worth. For example, before the textile mills developed, cloth was woven and spun by people working in their own homes or in small shops. After the use of large mechanized looms became widespread, looms were run by large numbers of relatively untrained people—often women and children—who served the machine by inserting bobbins and shuttles of thread, clearing lint, and doing other menial and repetitive tasks for many hours each day. These working conditions gave workers little sense of pride or control over their fate. In addition, wages were low, the work was exhausting, and there were no provisions to take care of workers who became ill or injured on the job. The need for large numbers of unskilled laborers to run these kinds of machines led to the growth of the poor working class, made up of ex-slaves, immigrants, and rural poor who were displaced from their farms by the growth of industry. These people often "fell through the cracks" of the new system, as Davis shows in Margret Howth with her depictions of the immigrant laborers in the mill, and the ex-slaves, alcoholics, and other down-and-out people whom Dr. Knowles wants to save.

Breakdown of Old Social Orders

With the Civil War and the rise of industrialism, American society became more fluid as old patterns of society broke apart and changed. In the early nineteenth century, society was relatively stable. People "knew their place" in an order governed by economic status, gender, race, and family name. By the middle of the nineteenth century the numbers of the working poor were growing as immigrants and poor rural people moved to the cities in search of work, and found only menial labor available. Americans became more mobile, moving from one social class to another and from one state to another. In Margret Howth, Margret's own father moves from being a highly respected schoolteacher to being blind and poor, dependent on his daughter's efforts and his wife's meager scavenging in the fields. Stephen Holmes is on his way to being highly respected as part-owner of the textile mill, and as son-in-law of the owner. Lois Yare moves from being a crippled ex-textile worker to an independent entrepreneur, with her own produce cart. In previous decades, this kind of social movement would not have been nearly as easy.

Utopian Reform Movements in the Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth century saw a proliferation of experimental utopian communities, like the one Dr. Knowles wants to establish in the novel. These communities were typically based either on religious views, like those of the Mormons, Amish, Hutterites, and Shakers, or on social and political theory, like those of the Owenites and Brook Farm.

All of these communities included people who wanted to establish a new social order, usually communal, and some included nontraditional marital arrangements, such as polygamy or group marriage.

Most of the colonies did not survive past the beginning of the twentieth century. Some were dependent on the charisma and strength of their leaders, and when the leaders died, the groups disintegrated; others were affected by the widespread social change from an emphasis on rural life to more industrialized, urban, secular, and scientific values. In addition, those with more nontraditional social arrangements, such as group marriage, suffered increasing hostility from the outside world.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the life of a worker in a large industry in the 1860s, such as a steel mill worker, textile mill worker, or railroad builder. Write a diary of a week in the worker's life, describing your work, daily routine, and problems you face.
  • Davis believed that religion was the answer to some of our social problems. Do you agree or disagree? Why? How do you think social problems, such as poverty, drugs, and widespread unemployment, should be dealt with?
  • In Margret Howth, Davis mentions that many of the workers in the mill were immigrants or African Americans. Did you have ancestors who were in the United States in the 1860s? If so, do you know what types of work they did? Write about their lives; if you don't know the facts of their lives, write about what you would have done for work if you had lived during that time.
  • Research the rise of labor unions and write about the changes they created in working conditions. Do you think we still need unions to protect workers? Why or why not?

However, some of the groups, such as the Mormons, Amish, and Hutterites, flourished and still exist today. Other groups, not directly linked to the nineteenth-century movements but based upon many of the same principles of communal ownership, self-sufficiency, and decision making by consensus, have sprung up in recent decades; some of the longest-lived and most well-known of these "in-tentional communities" are The Farm in Tennessee and the Findhorn Community in Scotland.


Author Intrusions

Throughout the book, Davis often refers to herself, the author, as "I," and addresses the reader as "you," as if she's having a conversation with the reader about the book. For example, the book begins, "Let me tell you a story of To-Day,—very homely and narrow in its scope and aim." Chapter V begins, "Now that I have come to the love part of my story." In addition to these short descriptions of what she's about to tell the reader, she also makes assumptions about the reader and embarks on sermons about what she thinks the reader wants, and what the reader should want, should believe, and should do. The first five pages of the novel consist of one of these sermons, in which Davis refers to the Civil War, slavery, patriotism, and chivalry, and notes that she will write about other truths "that do not speak to us in bayonets and victories—Mercy and Love. Let us not neglect them, unpopular angels though they be." Thus, she tells readers that this will not be a war story or a story of slavery; it will not be stirring and patriotic; it will tell about "common things" and common people. After this five-page discussion, the action of the novel begins with the narrator finding an old ledger, which reminds her of the story she wants to tell. Throughout the book, she interrupts to address the reader about religion, society, and other topics, or to warn of her intentions: "I am going to end my story now."

To the modern reader, these author comments may seem intrusive and distracting. Often, a modern reader may not know what Davis is referring to, because society has changed, or because she comments about events current at the time, but no longer remembered. For example, of Christmas 1860, she writes, "Do you remember how Christmas came that year? how there was a waiting pause, when the States stood still, and from the peoples came the first awful murmurs of the storm that was to shake the earth?" She's referring to the coming Civil War, and this reference would have been deeply meaningful to people who lived then, though modern readers might find it confusing if they are not versed in Civil War history.

References to Social, Literary, and Biblical Figures

Davis's style is typical of the nineteenth century, with author intrusions, references to social, literary, and Biblical figures, and short quotations in foreign languages sprinkled liberally throughout the text. Davis often refers to Biblical stories and characters, literary figures, religious thinkers, philosophers, political leaders, and social reformers, but modern readers may not know who these people were or what their significance is. For example, she compares Margret's hair to "Bysshe Shelley"—a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley, an English romantic poet. In the following few pages, in a political, social, and religious debate between Dr. Knowles and Mr. Howth, the two men refer to Cornwallis, a British general; Auguste Comte, a French mathematician and philosopher; Jeffersonian democracy versus Federalism; a biblical verse from the Book of Luke; abolitionists and Fourierites (followers of the French reformer Francois Marie Charles Fourier); and the philosophers Baruch Spinoza, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and Comte de Claude Henri Sant-Simon, a French socialist reformer. When Davis wrote the book, these references would have been understood by most educated people, but modern readers may not follow the substance of the argument unless they are similarly educated or do some research.

Foreign Language Quotes

Davis occasionally inserts phrases or quotations in Italian, Latin, French, and German, which also would have been familiar to educated people of her time. These are typically drawn from widely read books such as Dante Alighieri's Inferno, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Historical Context

Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day is set in an Indiana textile mill, but the town Davis describes is her own home town of Wheeling, Virginia—later to become Wheeling, West Virginia, as a result of the Civil War.

Civil War

At the time Davis wrote her book, the Civil War had already started, but the book is set in the months just before it begins. In the decades before the war, the North and South had become increas-ingly different from each other in terms of politics, economy, and society. The North was more heavily industrialized and commercial, employing great numbers of immigrants, whereas the South was still an agricultural society, based on slave labor. Although tensions between North and South arose largely because of their different economic and political situations, the institution of slavery became a focal point of the war.

The war began in April of 1861, when Fort Sumter was fired upon and Virginia seceded from the Union. Other states followed, leading to years of bloody combat. Few places were as divided as Wheeling, where Davis lived. Some people there chose to fight for the North, and others, often from the same families, chose to fight for the South. Still others, not wanting to risk their lives, simply fled into the mountains. In the summer of 1861, Wheeling was occupied by federal troops and put under martial law; by July, Wheeling was the center of "loyal Virginia," the part of Virginia (later called West Virginia) that did not secede. In August of 1861, Davis wrote in a letter: "Just now 'New Virginia' and its capital are in a state of panic and preparation not to be described," according to Jean Fagan Yellin in her afterword to the Feminist Press edition of the book.

The Civil War was a bloody conflict: almost as many Americans were killed during the war as were killed in all the other wars the United States has been involved in.

Industrialization and Technological Changes

Although Davis refers indirectly to the coming war, the main intent of the book is to consider the increasing effects of industrialization on American society. During the 1800s, the American economy, particularly in the North, shifted from an agricultural base to an industrial one. Railroads, petroleum refining, electrical power, steel manufacturing, textile mills, and other industries appeared or expanded. The growth of industry resulted in a new social class of rich industrialists and a prosperous middle class. It also led to vast growth in the working-class labor force, made up largely of immigrants and people who migrated to the cities from farms.

In the new industries, there were no laws to prevent children from working, to limit the hours anyone worked, or to provide for time off. Workers, including children, often worked twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week, often in sweltering heat, suffocating fumes, and deafening noise—for very low wages. If they complained, they were fired, because there were always more hungry people looking for work who would take their places. If workers became injured or were unable to keep up with the work, as Lois was in the book, they were simply fired, with no compensation. No work meant no pay, and starvation was often the result.

Because the growth of technology and increasing farm production led to lowered prices for farm produce, many farmers also went through hard times. Young people often simply left their family farms and went to the cities to look for work, adding to the swelling number of laborers seeking employment. Often, the work they found was seasonal, and they, like other workers, were unemployed for part of the year.

Americans who were born in the 1860s would see huge changes in their lifetime: a shift from candles to kerosene lamps to electricity; a shift from walking and horseback riding to steam-powered trains to electric trolley cars to gasoline-powered automobiles.

Critical Overview

Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, is widely acknowledged as a pioneering work in American realism; Rose, in Rebecca Harding Davis, noted that the book "has been cited as the earliest realistic depiction of an American woman as an individual and as ordinary."

Compare & Contrast

  • 1860s: The Civil War begins in 1861, and its four-year conflict is one of the bloodiest periods in American history.

    Today: Although the United States has since been involved in numerous wars and conflicts all over the world, none has been as bloody as the Civil War.
  • 1860s: Most women in America are not educated beyond grade school; those women who do receive an education usually are sent to a women's school for a few years, while their brothers go on to college.

    Today: Both men and women in the United States have equal opportunities for education and college.
  • 1860s: Slavery is legal throughout the American South.

    Today: Slavery has long since been abolished in the United States, and there have been ongoing efforts to increase civil rights for minorities; however, prejudice and oppression still linger.
  • 1860s: Widespread industrialization results in a great need for cheap labor, and there are no laws protecting workers from exploitation and dangerous working conditions, no laws preventing child labor, and no laws regulating how many hours people may work.

    Today: Laws regulate workplace safety, provide for a minimum wage, prevent child labor, and determine how many hours employers may ask employees to work each day.

The book was originally titled The Deaf and the Dumb; As Rose notes, Davis was referring not to deaf people who are disabled, but to those who are deaf to everything that is not superficial, and the dumb refers to those who comprehend profound spiritual truths but are unable to express them. At the request of her editor, James T. Fields, Davis changed the title to Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day. "To-Day" in the title refers to the fact that the story took place in current time (at the time when it was written) but also refers to the mundane, material world, as opposed to the spiritual realm, heaven, or "To-Morrow," where Davis believed that all people go when they die.

This emphasis on the mundane, commonplace elements of life and on common people was relatively new in fiction, which until then had focused on wealthy, beautiful people. Davis deliberately turned against this and made her heroine, Margret Howth, plain looking, with "no gloss to her skin, no glitter to her eyes"; the other characters are all ordinary looking or actually ugly, and she writes about "vulgar American life," as she tells the reader near the beginning of the book. Rose remarked that readers of the time, used to softer, more idealistic fiction, would have been shocked by "a heroine who is miserable caring for her parents, an egocentric, superficial hero, and an antagonist who expresses the moral attitudes of the author."

Davis was aware that readers might find her approach unusual, and she explains it in an aside to the reader in the middle of the book:

I live in the commonplace. Once or twice I have rashly tried my hand at dark conspiracies, and women rare and radiant in Italian bowers; but I have a friend who is sure to say, "try and tell us about the butcher next door, my dear,… I must show men and women as they are in that especial State of the Union where I live."

James T. Fields rejected Davis's first draft of the book; according to Rose, he objected to its narrative tone, which he found too depressing, and which he believed wouldn't sell. Davis responded that she had originally intended the story to end "in full sunshine," and that the negativity he perceived had crept in through her eagerness to tell the truth about her characters, but that she would change the book back to conform to her original idea. Rose remarks that the new, happy ending seems contrived and that it is "inconsistent with Davis's vision," and writes, "regrettably, similarly contrived happy endings compromise many of Davis's later works as well." Davis herself did not like the new ending; according to Rose, she compared it to "giving people broken bits of apple-rind to chew."

The novel's success led Davis to meet several famed nineteenth-century authors, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Bronson Alcott. She felt a creative and spiritual kinship with Hawthorne and Holmes, but was unimpressed by Emerson and Bronson Alcott because of their idealistic reactions to the advent of the Civil War.

In the 1930s, critic Arthur Hobson Quinn remarked in American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey that Davis had revealed the "fictional possibilities inherent in people who had been presumed to be inarticulate, or whom economic and social oppression had submerged," and Fred L. Pattee wrote in the Dictionary of American Biography that "Russian-like in their grim and sordid realism," her books were "distinct landmarks in the evolution of American fiction."

In 1951, Bernard R. Bowron, Jr., remarked in Comparative Literature that Davis was a pioneer in "the literature of industrialism, critically concerned with contemporary social problems," which led to the development of American naturalism.

The American writer Tillie Olsen brought increased attention to Davis and her work in 1985 with her homage in the afterword to the 1972 Feminist Press edition of Davis's "Life in the Iron Mills".

In Publishers Weekly, Penny Kaganoff wrote that although she didn't recommend the book for "the general reader," she thought it was "important for feminist literary scholars and libraries."


Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In this essay she considers themes of blood and race in Davis's book.

Rebecca Harding Davis's novel Margret Howth is a novel of social reform, as Davis brings up questions about the fate of the poor, relationships among people of different races, and the effects of industrialization. An interesting aspect of the book, however, is that although Davis urges social reform through Christianity, she seems to believe in theories of race and "blood" that imply that some people are destined to live among the "dregs" of humanity no matter what assistance they are given.

In the nineteenth century, two pseudosciences were in vogue—ethnology and phrenology. Both of these purported to link physical traits with nonphysical ones, and to link biological sex and race with particular physical traits. These "sciences" often led to biased, inaccurate conclusions about some physical traits and the supposed mental, moral, or spiritual capacity of people with these traits.

Early ethnologists studied hereditary traits, as well as blood, of different people, in order to determine how these traits were linked to race. Their underlying assumptions were racist, as they attempted to determine what characteristics belonged to each race of people, and which race was "naturally" superior. Of course, whites were determined to be superior, and Native Americans, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and other groups were considered inferior. The term "blood" was used to refer to inherited racial characteristics—not simply physical characteristics, but the intellectual, emotional, and, particularly, moral traits that were supposedly linked to race.

In addition, another popular pseudoscience was phrenology, in which the different shapes and sizes of individuals' heads and their different facial features were believed to correspond to particular intellectual, spiritual, or moral traits. Because these traits were considered to be as inborn and as genetically determined as the physical traits, they were considered unchangeable—one was doomed by birth to a particular place in society, to a life of crime, or to a religious life. Naturally, features considered typically "white," such as a high forehead, long narrow nose, and thin lips, were believed to show intelligence, whereas features more typical of other groups had negative connotations.

Because these theories were widely discussed as part of the popular culture during the nineteenth century, references to these theories are frequent in writing of the time, including Davis's Margret Howth. Characters are defined and their actions are explained by their "blood" or by their inherited appearance. A well-known example of these theories appearing in fiction occurs in the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; when Holmes meets his archrival, the villain Moriarty, Moriarty says to Holmes, "you have less frontal development than I should have expected," referring to the shape of Holmes's head.

"Blood" is frequently mentioned in the book—not referring to the red fluid that leaks out after wounds but to heredity and even fate. Margret, despite her parents' poverty, is of "Virginia" blood, "cool, high-bred"; in one scene, Davis writes, "she looked at the big blue-corded veins in her wrist, full of untainted blood." She is like her mother, who has "hospitable Virginian blood," and like her father, who is descended from British Loyalists and thus carries his royalist tendencies in his blood, as his wife tells Dr. Knowles.

Dr. Knowles, in comparison, is the son of a white father and a mother who was half Cree Indian and half-white. Another character notes that it's no wonder that he's drawn to work among the most desperately poor people—alcoholics, prostitutes, runaway slaves—because his mother was "a half-breed," and, thus, Knowles must have inherited her "redskin" tendencies to drink and steal, and that gives him sympathy with people who do likewise. Knowles is described as "coming out of the mire, his veins thick with the blood of a despised race," but it's clear that the other characters believe he's swimming against the tide, and that eventually, he will sink back to the level he came from.

Stephen Holmes, on the other hand, may be white, but he's just as much a prisoner of his blood and his genetic inheritance as anyone else in the book. In a discussion about religion, Holmes sees Dr. Knowles looking at Holmes's "massive head, with its overhanging brow, square development at the sides and lowered crown." Holmes sees what Knowles is looking at, puts his hand on top of his head, and says, "Exactly. Crippled there by my Yorkshire blood—my mother." He's referring to his own preference for making money over some of the more esoteric things in life—he chooses money over love, and his main interest in life is having money and power. He is "crippled" by his Yorkshire blood, because people from that region of England are said to be interested mainly in money; this trait has been passed down to him and apparently there's nothing he can do about it.

Lois is the daughter of an ex-slave father, Joe Yare, and a white woman who died from the effects of alcoholism. Lois is deformed from rickets—a disease that results from a vitamin deficiency and is not genetic—and has also suffered some kind of brain damage. Despite the fact that she is the most kind and loving person in the book, she has one trait that sets her apart from even the poorest poor: "the taint in her veins of black blood." She is only "set apart" in the view of the wealthier characters, however; she is welcome at any home in the district and is loved by everyone because of her kindness. She is unconcerned with appearances; of all the characters in the book, she's the only true Christian. Like Jesus, she knows that even among "the very lowest" there are "the Master's people"—people who, though starved and beaten, would "scorn to be cowardly or mean"—who show God's kindness to everyone. Lois is one of these people, and this is why she's so loved.

Although Lois is the "lowest of the low," which is hinted at by her name, Lois, and her father's nickname, Lo, she is the only character in the book who truly lives by Christian principles. Other characters in the book, such as Dr. Knowles and Margret, may think they are doing God's will—and Knowles is positive that he is—but only Lois is truly spiritual, and she puts them all to shame, despite the harshness of her life and the prejudice she is daily exposed to.

The other characters, however, can't see past her race. Knowles, who seems like he should know better because of the social work he's involved in, says of Lois, "that girl's artist-sense is pure, and her religion, down under the perversion and ignorance of her brain. Curious, eh?" There's no evidence in the book that Lois is "perverted," and although she isn't educated, she's not "ignorant," and in fact seems wiser than many others. Holmes writes off her spiritual gifts, as well as her artistic gifts, by commenting that the shape of her head makes it apparent that she was simply born that way. He tells Dr. Knowles, "Look at the top of her head … It is necessity for such brains to worship."

The only person who is aware that Lois's life has been shaped not so much by heredity as by society is Margret, who eventually realizes that Lois's life has been warped, her potential has been wasted, and she has suffered not simply by "the fault of her blood" and her illness, but, more tellingly, by social attitudes towards her. "Society had finished the work [that heredity began]," Margret thinks.

Lois's father, Joe Yare, is a thief who has never had any opportunity to better himself. He is black, like the runaway slaves described in the book as "stolid, sensual wretches, with here and there a broad, melancholy brow, and desperate jaws." Fresh from two years in jail, he hopes to make a new start, but is initially thwarted by Stephen Holmes, who says he will report him for a forgery. Yare tries to kill Holmes by setting a fire in the mill, but Holmes survives, and the two eventually face each other. Davis writes of Holmes, "Did God make him of the same blood as this vicious, cringing wretch crouching to hide his black face at the other side of the bed?" One must wonder if Yare is characterized as a "vicious, cringing wretch" simply because he is black, or because of his crimes. Later, however, Davis writes, "what if he were black? what if he were born a thief? what if all the sullen revenge of his nature had made him an outcast from the poorest poor? Was there no latent good in this soul for which Christ died, that a kind hand might not have brought to life?"

In her afterword to the Feminist Press edition of the book, Jean Fagan Yellin asked, "Is Yare a criminal because he is black (that is, because he is somehow racially incapable of civilization)? Or because, when held in slavery, he was denied access to the Christianity and literacy essential to civilization?" Margret Howth doesn't answer this question, but as Yellin noted, it does ask how privileged, wealthy white people should respond to people like Yare. Should they punish them, as Holmes initially decides to punish Yare, or should they be compassionate, as Holmes is in the end?

What Do I Read Next?

  • Upton Sinclair's 1906 book The Jungle, a masterpiece of social realism, exposed conditions in a Chicago meatpacking plant and led to the passage of laws governing the purity of food and to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
  • Harriet A. Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), written in the same period as Margret Howth, tells of Jacobs's life in slavery and her escape from it.
  • "Life in the Iron Mills" (1861) was Davis's first major published work, and examines the appalling conditions workers endured in an iron mill in the mid-nineteenth century.
  • Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism (1991), by Sharon M. Harris, surveys Davis's role in creating a new American genre.

Davis, of course, believed in compassion, and she was opposed to slavery, but the book makes plain that she, like other people of her time, tended to believe that there was some truth in the theories of blood and race. As Dale M. Bauer wrote in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, "By the conclusion, Davis's thinking seems to be in line with the dominant theories of ethnology, reiterating the thesis that 'there's a good deal of an obstacle in blood' or that a 'vice of blood' overrules charity, sympathy, and social welfare work." The question the book brings up, however, is why would one try to help those who were poor and oppressed if their condition was supposedly hereditary? Wouldn't they sink back down into the "mire" they came from? Davis was, of course, a product of her own time and culture and like most people was not immune to popular ideas of her own time, particularly since they were presented as scientific. However, the book gives the impression that she personally was troubled by the conflict between these ideas of blood and race and her opposing Christian belief that oppressed people were as good as privileged people and that they should be regarded with compassion and given help in improving their lives. Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day magnifies this conflict, but does not provide any final answers regarding Davis's attitude towards it.

Source: Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Jean Pfaelzer

In the following essay excerpt, Pfaelzer provides an overview of Margret Howth, outlining the political, social, and personal issues the novel explores.

Margret Howth is also the story of the breakup of rural social structures in an emerging industrial capitalist economy. The novel begins with an image of one of the most profound changes of industrialization, the painful and repressive adjustment of a young woman who leaves home and enters the workplace for the first time. It explores how new relationships of production surrounding the woolen mill—wages, contracts, and competition—are replacing the rural networks of family, barter, gossip, and charity. Thus Davis contrasts the atomized and defensive personalities spawned by the economy of the mill—Knowles, Holmes, and Joe Yare—to the caring and responsible relationships of dependency sustaining those who work and live in the surrounding countryside, outside the economic aura of the mill—the Howths, local farmers, and, in particular, the peddler Lois. In contrast to the sham utopianism embraced by Knowles, Lois unites the community by trading its garden produce, a role that links her to its prein-dustrial economy. By comparing the new manufacturing town with the rural life of the farms (the Howth farm is still just a long walk from the mill), Davis exposes the tensions in the early stages of capitalist development. Mercantile and farm ethics of hard work, thrift, attachment, honesty, and community are yielding to individualism, secularity, self-interest, competition, alcoholism, and petty crime.

The novel begins on Margret's first day of work, her twentieth birthday, when she enters the mill as a bookkeeper in order to "support a helpless father and mother; it was a common story." Clearly, her status has worsened. Margret's climb onto her stool on October 20, 1860, in a small "closet," a dark seventh-floor office, is mainstream American literature's first record of a young rural woman leaving home to work in a factory. The floors shake with the incessant thud of the looms, and the office is heavy with the smell of dye and copperas, a sulfate of copper, iron, and zinc used in woolen dyes. Seated uncomfortably on her stool which is, metaphorically, "too high for a small woman," the American heroine is no longer looking out a window, but finds herself fully occupied by the world of work within. As in "Life in the Iron-Mills," images of artistic repression define industrial work. Unwilling to "dramatiz[e] her soul in writing," she has taken up ledger work, the uncreative and monotonous copying from one book to another. With her steel pen "lining out her life, narrow and black," she soon wipes the ink from her pen in a "mechanical fashion"—reified by her task. Through the imagery of writing itself Davis replaces sentimental fiction's metaphoric and literal closet of the house with the realist's enclosed office: female confinement endures.

In contrast to her own anonymous "cramped quiet lines," Margret soon discovers a series of charcoal sketches drawn on the office walls by her predecessor, P. Teagarden, who has boldly emblazoned his name on the ceiling with the smoke of a candle—an interesting literary gesture from a woman novelist who is pleading with her publisher to keep her work anonymous. Teagarden has also left behind a doleful chicken pecking the floor of a wire cage, which, along with the drawings, prompts Margret to recall how, as an aspiring and imaginative young girl, she planned to "dig down into the middle of the world, and find the kingdom of the griffins, or … go after Mercy and Chris-tiana in their pilgrimage." As Margret walks past soot-stained warehouses toward her home in the hills after her first day of work, the narrator observes, "One might have fancied her a slave putting on a mask, fearing to meet her master"—an image of alienation and self-disguise that fuses wage slavery, chattel slavery, and the repressions of domestic life. These images of mechanical confinement and artistic inhibition anticipate such images as the caged parrot of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, who incessantly chants, "Allez-vous en!" ("Go away!" "Get out!") and the wallpaper in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," whose design becomes a frightening projection of female repression.

Despite Fields's title for her novel, Davis always saw Dr. Knowles as the center of the story. Influenced by his readings of early European socialists, Knowles, like Hollingsworth in Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, plans to use the profits from the sale of the mill to launch a utopian community made up of the most degraded and impoverished residents of the town—alcoholics, prostitutes, and abandoned women—and he hopes to recruit Margret (suggesting Margaret Fuller, perhaps) as his aide. The relationship between Margret and Knowles, rather like that between Hollingsworth and Zenobia, distills the tensions between the telos of sentimentalism and the telos of romanticism. Knowles presumes that Margret "had been planned and kept by God for higher uses than daughter or wife or mother. It was his part to put her work into her hands." Like her mother, who thinks that "Margret never had any opinions to express," Knowles presumes that her desire is a species of his own, which he fantasizes as incestuous and repressed intimacy: "Between the two there lay that repellent resemblance which made them like close relations,—closer when they were silent."

While Margret views her office job as a consequence of her father's financial incompetence and of Holmes's rejection—"perhaps life had nothing better for her, so she did not care"—Knowles, who consistently misreads Margret, sees her work as a romantic test. Intending to "make use" of her in his utopian community, "he must know what stuff was in the weapon before he used it. He had been reading the slow, cold thing for years,—had not got into its secret yet. But there was power there, and it was the power he wanted." He is convinced that Margret is an emanation of his best self and that if he can control her it will assign them both significance. To Knowles, Margret is a "Damascus blade which he was going to carry into battle." But only in his phallic projection is she dangerous; in fact, Margret's repression and plainness undercut Knowles's egoistic fantasies: "There were no reflected lights about her; no gloss on her skin, no glitter in her eyes."

In my view, a central problem with Davis's novel comes from a contradiction within transcendentalism itself: how to reconcile egoism with the dissolution of self that allows for political engagement. Like Bronson Alcott, Knowles tries to resolve this profound impasse by linking his ambitious quest to the universal good, a fusion of the personal and the public at the core of utopianism. In assigning political righteousness to his dominating fantasies of Margret, Knowles legitimizes her powerlessness at the same time that he blesses it with historical possibility. Margret's social vision, by contrast, derives from sentimentalism. Fred Kaplan explores how sentimentalism inherited the Enlightenment faith in the redemptive power of emotions over self-calculation. He cites David Hume, for example, who argues that "the ultimate ends of human actions can never … be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependence on the intellectual faculties." Kaplan thus distinguishes sentiment, an "access of feeling," from the romantic "excess of feeling," which, almost by definition, must deny the world. Furthermore, he suggests, while sentiment offers an optimistic vision overall, it nonetheless takes its force from a keen awareness of human nature that, paradoxically, jeopardizes its claims to an ideal world. Margret's dilemma is thus to find a way to defend the sentimental woman against the self-sufficient romantic imagination on the one hand, and the post-Calvinist forces of philosophical realism on the other. If sentimentalism sought to atrophy woman in her emotions and traditional social duties, realism sought to limit woman as the dubious product of her social conditions and biology. To Davis, neither race, gender, class, nor region should be prescriptive.

For Davis, the split between preindustrial and industrial values has a gendered valence. She believes that transcendentalism prompts patriarchal self-interest, which fits comfortably with the industrial breakup of rural and familial communities. In Knowles and Holmes, both mill owners, she portrays men who assert their self-reliance while they remain emotionally and financially depen-dent. The romantic man needs the sentimental woman, typified by Lois, as an enduring sign of the living gospel, and as an apostle of anti-egotistical and anticapitalistic values that can heal the culture as a whole. In Margret Howth, it is as the vessel for men's salvation that women's essential nature takes on a transformative role in the ongoing social debate about American industrialism. In this Davis again echoes Emerson, who holds that self-reliance is not a paradigm of freedom from duty, but rather a model of an internalized standard of duty.

Thus, rather than a protonaturalist text, Margret Howth belongs to a discursive category that Thomas Laqueur terms the "humanitarian narrative," a hybrid of sentimentalism and early realism in which details of suffering, particularly bodily suffering, prompt compassion—understood in its time as a moral imperative to undertake social change. "Sentiment thereby shapes Davis's vision of social goals. For example, Margret, despairing of her plight, agrees to accompany Knowles on a visit to a crowded railroad shack, a "haunt of the lowest vice," where he hopes to recruit members for his celibate community. In this passage Davis recalls the nighttime visit to the mill in "Life in the Iron-Mills," but this time the witness is female, as are the homeless Irish women and fugitive slaves who live in the shack; as an empathic female, the narrator repudiates Knowles's romantic appropriation of suffering.

True to the lineaments of sentimentalism, the suffering of the industrial poor is pictured as an imprisoning and confining female site where gender transcends class. Knowles views poverty as erotically female: "'Come here!' he said, fiercely, clutching [Margret's] hand. 'Women as fair and pure as you have come into dens like this,—and never gone away. Does it make your delicate breath faint?" Knowles and Margret stand over women who are prostrate and drunk, incompetent as mothers and incapable of taking action on their own behalf: "Women, idle trampers, whisky-bloated, filthy, lay half-asleep, or smoking on the floor, set up a chorus of whining and begging when they entered. Half-naked children crawled about in rags."

The destitute women are further distinguished by their Catholic faith, which, to Davis, marks them as recent immigrants: "On the damp mildewed walls, there was hung a picture of … Pio Nono, crook in hand, with the usual inscription, "Feed my sheep." This ironic reference to Pius IX (the pope who whose betrayal of the Italian revolution of 1848 was bitterly described by Margaret Fuller) points to Davis's lifelong hostility to Catholicism as well as to Protestant churches that were unwilling to engage in the Social Gospel. Davis conflates the Irish women with runaway slaves, who are mutually eroticized: "In the corner slept a heap of half-clothed blacks. Going on the underground railroad to Canada. Stolid, sensual wretches." The narrator's racial discourse is indistinguishable from that of Knowles, who, while viewing the slave women as his future utopians, is trapped in the rhetoric of human commerce, and who observes, "so much flesh and blood out of the market, unweighed!." When Margret, by contrast, picks up a slave child and kisses her face, Knowles responds, "Would you touch her?… Put it down." Locked in their own discursive systems, Margret and Knowles appropriate the poor in different ways.

Eventually Margret agrees to join the community, a reluctant choice that mainly stems from her plight as a lonely single woman who is tired of taking care of her pettish mother and her bigoted father. Margret is repulsed by Mr. Howth's dreams of secession, his admiration for Napoleon, and his tiresome investigations of the Middle Ages when commoners still believed in the "perfected manhood in the conqueror." Unlike Knowles, her father believes that now "the world's a failure. All the great dreams are dead." Even in a novel that prioritizes affectional bonds, Davis, like Susan Warner in The Wide Wide World, satirizes a father who is self-interested, unreliable—indeed, "blind." Margret's decision to enter Knowles's "House of Refuge," a parody of the idealized home, reflects the disempowerment of domesticity and frustrations at her parents' house, "in which her life was slowly to be worn out: working for those who did not comprehend her; thanked her little,—that was all."

Davis, herself a single woman taking care of her parents, is unromantic about the trials of house-wifery on a meager income, the "white leprosy of poverty." She pictures how Mrs. Howth forages in the harvested fields for late peas or corn, until Margret "could see the swollen circle round the eyes, and hear her [mother's] breath like that of a child which has sobbed itself tired"—a role reversal that exposes the protective covenant of motherhood. Not only is the family vulnerable to economic pressures outside its moral sway; Davis's satiric representations of Margret's family as conflicted and inept—indeed, her very act of ironizing the family—destroys it as sentiment's utopian telos. Thus, Margret's choice to follow Knowles is based not only on her poverty, but also on her own isolation as a woman whose lover has rejcted her, whose dog has run away, and whose mother prefers the company of her father. Compared to the House of Refuge, her parents' home offers neither Margret nor her mother female authority, emotional transcendence, or the moral significance of domestic work. Margret also turns to a life of social duty because Jesus (often shaped in sentiment as a consoling figure who protects women from isolation) also "had been alone."

Unlike Margret, but also unlike the romantic figure Mitchell in "Life in the Iron-Mills," Knowles has a political role: "Fanatics must make history for conservative men to learn from." Knowles is a follower of the French utopian socialists Fourier (1772–1827) and Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and of the German romantic and founder of "absolute idealism," Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814), whose works Davis probably read with her brother, Wilson, a student of European romanticism. From Fourier's design for phalansteries, Knowles planned a community that would work "like leaven through the festering mass under the country he loved so well." From Fichte, who was influenced by the "ethical activism" of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emmanuel Kant, Knowles inherited the view of a morally empowered ego. Unlike the solipsistic strain found in many transcendentalists, Fichte believed in a socially ethical self that could withstand pressures from the competitive and aggressive world of nature. History, once a prerogative of God, now belonged to the individual, who had a duty to create a rational, moral, egalitarian, and self-sufficient community free from the "anarchy of trade." Organized into guilds, the tightly organized community would provide each member with tools, the value of one's labor, and the right to a full creative life. While Davis never develops Knowles's utopian design, in his plans to "make use" of Margret, however, he also exhibits the authoritarianism of Hawthorne's Hollingsworth and of Saint-Simon, who argued that leadership belongs to the educated elite—scientists, physiologists, historians, and economists—who can best design and supervise a technocratic but providential state on behalf of the poorest and most numerous classes.

Unlike Margret, Knowles identifies with social as well as personal suffering. On the one hand, the details of the humanitarian narrative touch his Fichtean sense of moral empiricism: "All things were real to this man, this uncouth mass of flesh that his companion sneered at; most real of all, the unhelped pain of life, the great seething mire of dumb wretchedness in streets and alleys, the cry for aid from the starved souls of the world." On the other hand, still reiterating the word real, Davis locates Knowles's political drive in his own racial oppression. In her first reference to the plight of Native Americans, the narrator explains that Knowles's mother was a Creek Indian and notes: "You and I have other work to do than to listen,—pleasanter. But he, coming out of the mire, his veins thick with the blood of a despised race, had carried up their pain and hunger with him: it was the most real thing on earth to him,—more real than his own share in the unseen heaven or hell."

In contrast to the social egoism that compels Knowles is Stephen Holmes's "self-existent soul." Holmes, who has purchased the mill with his fiancée's dowry, is driven by economic self-interest. He has "turned his back on love and kindly happiness and warmth, on all that was weak and useless in the world," that is, everything he identifies with Margret. A representative of the emerging ideology of bourgeois individualism, Holmes views his new fiancée, the mill, its workers, and Margret as his property, which he will try to transform into an aspect of his self. Since purchasing the mill, he has become so mechanized that to Margret his familiar footsteps now sound like an "iron tread … so firm and measured that it sounded like the monotonous beatings of a clock." Now, "in the mill he was of the mill." Eventually he even decides to sleep in the mill, where his hard bed and chairs are made of iron—"here was discipline." Only money, he finds, is erotic: "it made his fingers thrill with pleasure to touch a full pocket-book as well as his mistress's hand."

Fusing his utilitarian belief that "all things were made for man" with a romantic vision of the self, Holmes seeks "a savage freedom … the freedom of the primitive man, the untamed animal man, self-reliant and self-assertant, having conquered Nature." As Margret realizes that she must leave Holmes to his "clear self-reliant life,—with his Self, dearer to him than she had ever been," Davis marks the dangers of romanticism through a character who has chosen solitary wholeness over communal fragmentation. Nonetheless, even in a sentimental narrative that values nurturance and concern, both Margret and Dr. Knowles are attracted to Holmes whose credo is Ego sum. Margret finds Holmes "a master among men: fit to be a master," and Knowles likewise observes "If there were such a reality as mastership, that man was born to rule."

Holmes rather than Knowles thus inherits the mantle from Mitchell in "Life in the Iron-Mills." Pictured, like Mitchell, through images of coolness and ice, Holmes is an exponent of the "great idea of American sociology,—that the object of life is to grow." Unlike the korl woman, however, who is "hungry to know," Holmes has a "savage hunger" that drives him to transcend his childhood in the slums and become a "merchant prince." In contrast to the statue, he believes that "endurance is enough" for the slaves and destitute factory workers who work at his mill. Images of slavery surround Holmes; he believes that he has been "bought and sold" by his fiancée, who "held him a slave to her fluttering hand." While she is "proud of her slave," he resents the fact that "there were no dark iron bars across her life." It is tempting to think that having promised Fields a perfect day in June, Davis was mocking her publisher when Miss Herne masquerades as June in a tableau vivant. Anticipating the tableaux vivants in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth, Miss Herne dresses as a seductive, dangerous, and serpentine figure who, in Holmes's view, glows with a "smothered heat beneath the snaring eyes" and whose "unclean sweetness of jasmine-flowers mixed with the … smells of the mill … Patchouli or copperas,—what was the difference? The mill and his future wife came to him together." Miss Herne's decadent sexuality, a form of promiscuity earlier associated with aristocratic excesses that threatened middle-class virtues, has in Margret Howth evolved into a female metaphor for the seductive power of industrial capitalism it-self. Margret's chastity, by contrast, emerges as a trope for bourgeois morality, which, in the end, prevails.

In Margret Howth, true community arises through the understanding of shared suffering rather than through the design of any single individual. In the figure of Lois Yare, Davis's first African-American character, the politics of pathos bridge the discourses of sentimentalism and realism, mobilizing democratic sentiment through the values of domesticity. Lois embodies the tension between personal pain, inscribed in the language of sentimentality, and industrial oppression, inscribed in the language of vernacular realism. To signify the loss of preindustrial innocence, Davis invokes the racist stereotype of a childlike, physically handicapped, mentally retarded mulatto woman: "Her soul, being lower, it might be, than ours, lay closer to Nature." Nonetheless, when speaking for herself Lois insists that it is the mill (where she had worked from the time she was seven until she turned sixteen), not her nature, that has ruined her mind and her health. Like Stephen Holmes, she was "of" the mill: "I kind o' grew into that place in them years; seemed to me like as I was part o' the' engines, somehow."

Countering the narrator's racist observation that Lois's "tainted blood" had "dragged her down" is Lois's own clear insistence on the erotic force and toxic ecology of the mill:

Th' air used to be thick in my mouth, black wi' smoke 'n' wool 'n' smells. In them years I got dazed in my head … 'T got so that th' noise o' th' looms went on in my head night 'n' day,—allus thud, thud … th' black wheels 'n' rollers was alive, starin' down at me, 'n' th' shadders o' th' looms was like snakes creepin',—creepin' anear all th' time.

Lois's sense of defilement by the mill marks her passage to adulthood and affiliates her narrative with that of other girls in sentimental fiction (such as Ellen Montgomery in Susan Warner's Wide Wide World, 1850), who are initiated into a culture that has abused their bodies and repressed their emotions. Lois recalls that before she went to work on the looms she used to play house in the lumberyard at the mill; now she realizes that her "crushed brain and unawakened powers" were caused by the "mass of iron and work and impure smells" of those years.

But for Davis, writing from a slave state in 1861, the traditional midcentury fictional ending of marriage and home is historically and imaginatively unavailable for a black woman character—a tension that Davis seems to have understood. Initially Margret identifies with Lois, the disfigured and bitter survivor of years of slavery and brutal child labor, through their common female suffering, acknowledging that her own "higher life" was also "starved, thwarted." As Julie Elison observes, in the nineteenth century pain (which is always gendered) serves as the link between the body and power. However, Margret soon recognizes a crucial distinction: unlike Lois she "was free—and liberty … was the cure for all the soul's diseases." Thus Davis refuses to let slavery and blackness serve as a generic metaphor for many other sorts of pain.

Although permanently deformed, Lois recovers spiritually through her relationship to nature. In the figure of Lois we can trace the profound influence of Emerson on Davis. Lois is indeed a nature scholar who, in Emerson's sense, "can read God directly." In a series of passages that adhere rather closely to the prescriptions of "The American Scholar" and "Nature," Lois reveals what Emerson calls an "original relation to the universe," Emerson argues that a primal contact with nature allows one to experience God firsthand, unmediated by corrupt churches or biblical interpretation; able to be "read" by anyone, nature can replace the Bible as the greatest spiritual text. Further, a nature scholar is unalienated because he is infantile:

Few adults can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward sense are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of his manhood … In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through them, in spite of real sorrows.

In Margret Howth Lois is a child-artist who reads nature as a great spiritual text; she becomes the world's eye. For Davis, Lois's primal ability arises from the fact that she is black and female. Even though Lois is clearly a young adult, the narrator and various characters refer to her as a cheerful child. Unlike Knowles and Holmes, Lois has eyes quick to know the other light that "went into the fogs of the fetid dens from which the coarser light was barred." Like the scholar-artist, she has the simplicity of character to become an "inter-preter" of nature who understands that nature is (in Emerson's phrase) a "remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious." Thus Lois, says the narrator, can see glimpses of the "heavenly clearness" of God's light: "Was it weakness and ignorance that made everything she saw or touched nearer, more human to her than to you or me?." Surrounded by Emersonian images of sunlight, Lois "liked clear, vital colours … the crimsons and blues. They answered her somehow. They could speak. There were things in the world that like herself were marred,—did not understand—were hungry to know: the gray sky, the mud streets, the tawny lichens."

Emerson's scholar inevitably becomes a realist artist whose unmediated sensibility is shaped not by tradition or imagination but by the eye: "To the human eye that the primary forms, as the sky, the mountain, the tree, give us … a pleasure arising from outline, color, motion, and grouping." Lois is such an artist, fulfilling Emerson's requirement that art should become an epitome of the real world, a "result or the expression of nature, in miniature." Lois instinctively composes her cart along such lines: "Patched as it was, [it] had a snug, cosy look; the masses of vegetables, green and crimson and scarlet, were heaped with a certain reference to the glow of color … What artist sense had she,—what could she know—this ignorant huckster—of the eternal laws of beauty or grandeur?." Davis frequently judges her characters by this transcendent artistic capacity. Like Hugh Wolfe, Lois, an "ignorant huckster," has built her sculpture from the materials of her work. By contrast, despite his humanitarian inclinations Knowles is "blind to the prophecy written on the earth," and, similarly, in his isolated myopia Holmes sees that "the windless gray, the stars, the stone under his feet, stood alone in the universe, each working out its own soul into deed. If there were any all embracing harmony, one soul through all, he did not see it."

While Davis masculinizes society, she feminizes nature which, as such, is vulnerable to male exploitation and definition. Viewed in relation to urban life and industrial control, nature in Margret Howth becomes a projection of woman's unconscious and an image of her recurrent need for mothering. Like Emerson, who sees nature as a "beautiful mother," Lois finds in nature a new mother who "longs to take her uncouth child home again." Onto this maternal sensibility Davis layers a feminized sense of erotic unity. While Holmes's impetus is toward separation, discontinuity, and self-denial, Lois moves toward a transcendent sense of nature that erases boundaries—"Why, sometimes, out in the hills, in the torrid quiet of summer noons, she had knelt by the shaded pools, and buried her hands in the great slumberous beds of water-lilies, her blood curdling in a feverish languor, a passioned trance, from which she roused herself, weak and tired"—a romantic and erotic erasure of the self and others, subject and object. The surrender to the romantic universal also removes the entranced child-woman from the inevitability of history, represented by the mill. Marianne Hirsch suggests that in female romanticism sleep not only signifies withdrawal into the symbolic landscape of the innermost self; it also suggests the one-dimensional nature of a woman's development. Excluded from social interaction, she is thrown back into herself, where she can explore her spiritual or emotional sides, but only at the expense of other aspects of her selfhood.

For Emerson, Lois's transcendent capacity would have had a social function: "The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances." In contrast to Knowles, who is ineffectually trying to forge a utopian society in his own image, Lois, the peddler, through her "Great Spirit of love and trust" and her romanticized trinity of "a faith in God, faith in her fellow-man, faith in herself," offers the enduring possibility of a true preindustrial community. One morning, for example, as Margret walks alongside Lois into town, they stop and visit at each farmhouse, collecting produce and butter and enjoying several breakfasts. Repudiating the imagery of mechanical time that surrounds Holmes, Lois's leisurely work connects Margret, the isolated bookkeeper, with her neighbors. For the first time "the two women were talking all the way. In all his life Dr. Knowles had never heard from this silent girl words as open and eager as she gave to the huckster about paltry, common things." As she shares "disjointed" womanly talk with Lois, Margret feels "keenly alive" for the first time. Even in the town, where Margret used to see the houses as closed and silent, she discovers through Lois a sisterhood of servants, housemaids, and news vendors.

In the end, rage generated by racism and poverty brings down the industrial house—a danger that Davis believed the North must heed. Lois rescues Holmes from a fire that her angry father, Joe, has started at the mill, and dies after inhaling the fumes of burning copperas. But her death does not represent the Christian martyrdom of Stowe's Uncle Tom or Little Eva. Lois's pre-oedipal attachments, her allegiance to childhood, her dissolution of boundaries, and her sense of the dangers of industrialism render her death an inevitable effect of the adult world of industrial and chattel slavery. Her death actualizes sentimental rage, reiterating the novel's choice between romance and self, community and ego. As Lois lies dying, the community, black and white, comes together and invests her death with the power of social redemption. In Margret Howth Davis revises the theme of much female fiction from the mid-nineteenth century—the end-less attempt to achieve self-sacrifice—by viewing women's submission as a tragic consequence of masculine assertion and romantic egoism. Eventually Margret quits the House of Refuge and forgives Stephen Holmes, who has repented of his ambitious romance and returned to Margret, announcing, "I need warmth and freshness and light: my wife shall bring them to me. She shall be no strong-willed reformer, standing alone: a sovereign lady with kind words … only to that man whom she trusts." The narrator notes, however, that Margret "paid no heed" to this final comment.

Davis was quite disappointed with Margret, and wrote to James Fields that she did not want the novel named after its heroine because "she is the completest failure in the story, besides not being the nucleus of it." Whether Margret dissatisfied her author as a woman or as a literary achievement is tauntingly unclear. If Margret's betrothal and reentry into her family sanction what Davis took to be available forms of female adulthood for middle-class women, Lois's death from the brutality of child labor and the toxic waste of the mill suggests the sorrowful fate of mill girls and former slaves. Since Fields had vetoed Davis's plan to "kill Dr. Knowles at Manassas," "in the end, she leaves Knowles and Holmes mutually penniless from the fire. Knowles abandons his utopian plan and quietly builds the House of Refuge as a homeless shelter. The impoverished Howth family, however, is ironically rescued by their slave, Joel, who discovers oil on their farm—a portentous omen of industrial inevitability in a book that marks its risks.

Margret Howth critiques transcendentalism's investment of the egotistical imagination with social power. In this early novel Davis challenges literary and philosophical systems that, in their formal structures and social textures. divorce the reader from life in the commonplace. Midway through the novel, as Davis prepares to satisfy Fields and "come to the love part of [her] story," she speaks to her place in literary history: "I am suddenly conscious of dingy colors on the palette with which I have been painting." She compares her ambivalent characters, who must navigate difficult choices in their public and personal lives, to figures in "once upon a time" fiction, when readers "had no fancy for going through the world with half-and-half characters." Nature, she reminds herself, no longer turns out "complete specimens of each class." Refusing to write of a heroine who "glides into life full-charged with rank, virtues, a name three syllabled, and a white dress that never needs washing," she announces that her heroines will never be "ready to sail through dangers dire into a triumphant haven of matrimony." Thus, Davis introduces the reconciliation of Margret and Holmes with a manifesto on realism: "I live in the commonplace. Once or twice I have rashly tried my hand at dark conspiracies, and women rare and radiant in Italian bowers; but I have a friend who is sure to say, 'Try and tell us about the butcher next door, my dear'." This became her lifelong literary charge.

In Margret Howth Davis extends her discourse of realism and talks about "the butcher next door," seeking to challenge the restrictive tenets of sentimentalism—its illusion that domestic culture can transcend political culture, that the self can be divorced from social circumstances, and that domestic life can guarantee women status, autonomy, economic security, and moral redemption. Romanticism, she found, severed the individual from history just as the imperatives of slavery and industrialism were threatening the American illusion of community. Indeed, autonomy became a snare that threatened women's identity as social subjects. Exploring subjectivity in the history of slavery and early industrialization, Davis finds that her characters face aesthetic frustration and emotional repression. In fastening the emerging strategies of literary realism onto felt experience, Davis reclaims from sentimentalism its subjectivity and intensity of feeling. In Margret Howth, her first novel, the social practices of domesticity, female labor, free black labor, and nascent industrialization authorize emotional appeals, shaping American realism as an indigenous and heartfelt political narrative.

Source: Jean Pfaelzer, "The Common Story of Margret Howth," in Parlor Radical: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Origins of American Social Realism, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996, pp. 62-75.


Bauer, Dale M., "In the Blood: Sentiment, Sex, and the Ugly Girl," in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall 1999, p. 57.

Bowron, Bernard R., Jr., "Realism in America," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 3, Summer 1951, p. 273.

Kaganoff, Penny, Review, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, No. 18, April 19, 1991, p. 63.

Mock, Michele L., "A Message to Be Given: The Spiritual Activism of Rebecca Harding Davis," in NWSA Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2000, p. 44.

Pattee, Fred L., in Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 5, edited by Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1930, p. 143.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson, American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey, D. Appleton-Century, 1936.

Rose, Jane Atteridge, Rebecca Harding Davis, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 1-32.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, "Afterword," in Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, The Feminist Press, 1990, pp. 271-302.

For Further Reading

Baym, Nina, Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820–1870, Cornell University Press, 1978.

Baym provides a critical guide to novels written by women or that feature women characters in the mid-nineteenth century.

Harris, Sharon M., Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

Harris discusses Davis's influence on the literary movement of American realism.

Mock, Michele L., "A Message to Be Given: The Spiritual Activism of Rebecca Harding Davis," in NWSA Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, Spring 2000, p. 44.

Mock explores Davis's beliefs and describes her as a forerunner of contemporary ecofeminism.

Pfaelzer, Jean, Parlor Radical: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Origins of American Social Realism, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

Pfaelzer discusses Davis's place as a founder of the social realist movement.

Yellin, Jean Fagan, Women and Sisters: The Antislavery Feminists in American Culture, Yale University Press, 1990.

Fagan discusses several women writers who wrote works opposing slavery.

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Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day

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