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


  • Lauren S Peterson University of California at Davis


Miasma, trans-corporeality, material ghosts, realism, Gothic, Rebecca Harding Davis


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

Author Biography

Lauren S Peterson, University of California at Davis

Lauren Peterson is in her third year in the PhD program in English at University of California, Davis. Her research is within nineteenth-century transatlantic fiction, especially Gothic literature.


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