English 2013: Introduction to American Literature
Assignment Four-- The Urban Environment

Allen Ginsberg

The thematic focus of the literature that we are examining in assignments three and four is the urban environment.

This fourth assignment asks you to read two substantial works: Rebecca Harding Davis' didactic story "Life in the Iron Mills" and Allen Ginsberg's shocking poem "Howl."

Rebecca Harding Davis grew up in Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia) on the banks of the Ohio River. She used her observations of working conditions in Wheeling in her most famous story, "Life in the Iron Mills," which was published in the year that the Civil War started. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which had been published nine years earlier, "Life in the Iron Mills" sought to use literature to effect social change, but unlike Stowe's novel, Davis's work focused on the mistreatment of American laborers rather than slavery. And unlike Stowe's book, which is sometimes credited with having a major impact on American's attitude toward slavery in the decade before the Civil War, Davis's story did not create a similar change in American's attitudes toward working men and women.

Davis's story, with its gritty descriptions of the urban environment, is a precursor of literary realism, which became an important literary movement in America later in the nineteenth century. Her attention to the lives of poor working people, her determination not to turn away from the unattractive aspects of contemporary life, and her desire to "make it a real thing" Vol. I (p. 1278) to her reader foreshadow the realism promoted by the writer and editor William Dean Howells twenty years later. Of course, like Stowe, Davis did not intend to merely report objectively. Her story consciously manipulates its readers emotions, using sentiment and melodrama to increase her reader's sympathy for the working poor. The intervention of the Civil War, delayed national attention to the issues of labor and Davis's story was eventually forgotten until it was revived in an edition edited by the contemporary author Tillie Olsen in 1972.

Rebecca Harding Davis

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is one of our nation's most famous poems. This does not, however, mean that it is one of the most admired or appreciated, for Ginsberg clearly wanted to confront and challenge his readers with a vulgar and shocking diatribe that "howls" against the political and social repression that Ginsberg sees in 1950s America. If you want to view a video of scores of Tech students reciting lines from "Howl," (it is pretty amusing) click here.

Ginsberg admired Walt Whitman and his poetry shows the influence of the nineteenth century poet. The conscious effort to extend the subject matter of poetry; the long, inclusive lines filled with concrete detail; the use of repetition in place of metrical form; and the cultivation of a mystical appreciation for Eastern religion and philosophy mark both the work of both Ginsberg and Whitman.

Allen Ginsberg about the time he was writing "Howl"

Despite their obvious differences, Davis' story and Ginsberg's poem are similar in their desire to shock Americans into awareness of social injustice and in their portrayals of cities as potentially dehumanizing environments.

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updated: June 14, 2018