What would Melville say?

Herman Melville, photo taken at Pittsfield photo gallery, courtesy of Berkshire Athenaeum
Herman Melville, photo taken at Pittsfield photo gallery, courtesy of Berkshire Athenaeum

Absent a first-hand account from any of the thousands of workers, managers and owners associated with the Pittsfield mills, it would be appropriate to turn to Pittsfield’s premier literary figure, Herman Melville, for a description of the mills.  After all, he lived in the town from 1850 – 1863, at the height of industrial production in textiles and paper in the region.

In April 1855, a short story appeared in Harper’s Magazine by Melville entitled “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.”  In it, Melville contrasts the lives of a group of lawyers in London with factory girls at a paper mill near Woedolor Mountain in New England.  If the name of that mountain is not enough to appreciate Melville’s views towards the condition of the young women, consider his other choices: a gorge called Black Point, a hollow by the name of Devil’s Dungeon not far from which stands “a large white-washed building, relieved, like some great whited sepulcher….”  Sounds a little like a great white whale.

Melville certainly had his own need for paper which drove him to nearby paper factories and a visit to a paper mill in nearby Dalton in January, 1851.  While his need for paper came from writing — as well as his wife and sisters copying his texts by hand —  he places the protagonist of the story in need of paper for packets for the seeds he is selling.  This idea may have come from Melville’s frequent trips to Hancock Shaker Village where the Shakers sold their seeds and distributed them around the country in small packets.

It was the noise that located the factory deep in the woods for the seedsman:  “Where stands the mill?  Suddenly a whirring, humming sound broke upon my ear.  I looked, and there, like an arrested avalanche, lay the large whitewashed factory.  It was subordinately surrounded by a cluster of other and smaller buildings, some of which, from their cheap, blank air, great length, gregarious windows, and comfortless expression, no doubt were the boarding-houses of the operatives.”   The seedsman “saw the long, high-gabled main factory edifice, with a rude tower – for hoisting heavy boxes – at one end, standing among its crowded outbuildings and boarding-houses, as the Temple Church amidst the surrounding offices and dormitories.”

The machinery he compared to iron animals, fed by the factory girls.  “Machinery – that vaunted slave of humanity – here stood menially served by human beings, who served mutely and cringingly as the slave serves the Sultan.”   Power came from the nearby stream: “Round and round here went the enormous revolutions of the dark colossal waterwheel, grim with its immutable purpose.”  In the rolling room where the pulp turned into paper, the seedsman remarked: “Before me, rolled out like some long Eastern manuscript, lay stretched one continuous length of iron frame-work – multitudinous and mystical, with all sorts of rollers, wheels, and cylinders, in slowly-measured and unceasing motion.”

The young women working the machines “did not so much seem accessory wheels to the general machinery as mere cogs to the wheels.”   In the rag room, where castaway clothing was turned into pulp, the young women wielded large scythe-like swords: “To and fro, across the sharp edge, the girls forever dragged long strips of rags, washed white, picked from baskets at one side, thus ripping asunder every seam, and converting the tatters almost into lint. The air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted, subtilely, as motes in sunbeams, into their lungs.”  Then, not as subtle, Melville calls the girls “Their own executioners; themselves whetting the very swords that slay them.”

On departing, the seedsman met the owner and wondered why he called the young women girls.  “We want none but steady workers,” the proprietor explained, “twelve hours to the day, day after day, through three hundred and sixty-five days, excepting Sundays, Thanksgiving and Fast-Days.  That’s our rule.  And so, having no married women, what females we have are rightly enough called girls.”

No wonder Melville likened the entrance to the woods a “Dantean gateway;” no wonder he titled his story after Tartarus, the Greek underworld “where the wicked suffered punishment for their misdeeds.” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

But were the young women so wicked as to deserve this punishment?  Or were there so few alternatives for them that this was their – or their families’ – best option to eke out a living?

Melville’s account is fictional, from his own outsider perspective, and yet it captures so much of the hardship and sacrifice endured by the thousands who worked inside the imposing structures that dot our landscape.

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