Skip to main content

A Literary Look

A black and white image of a lanky, blond woman in jeans, a denim shirt and boots, next to an image of her book cover for Heartland that mostly shows sky with a bit of flat plains a the bottom of the image.

A Literary Look—Heartland: A Memoir

By A Literary Look, Blog

Sarah Smarsh by Paul Andrews and the cover of her memoir Heartland.

A Literary Look at Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth

A Literary Look is an occasional series that features recommended reads from the Rivers of Steel staff. For Women’s History Month, Dr. Kirsten L. Paine, our site management coordinator and interpretive specialist, introduces us to Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh. The One Book Community Read selection  provides a foundation for discussion of working class challenges in Pittsburgh, Homestead, and neighboring communities.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

This past September I had the opportunity to read Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, by journalist, political commentator, and writing professor Sarah Smarsh. Her 2018 memoir was selected for the Community College of Allegheny County’s (CCAC’s) 2023 – 2024 One Book Community Read program. It is a bit of a departure from my usual fare because it is contemporary and was written by someone who is not only alive but close to my own age.

For someone who reads mostly nineteenth-century American literature written by people who are very much not alive, I was drawn by Sarah Smarsh’s deep engagement with the immediacy of her own life as a child in rural Kansas. In mapping her family’s history as farmers in flyover country, Smarsh narrates generational struggles stuck in cycles of poverty. She highlights her family as an example of the ravaged working class left behind by years of harmful public policy. While grappling with how popular social engagements consider “white trash” as celebratory, beleaguered, stereotyped, and as a lived-in identity, Smarsh treats her life and own search for identity with gentleness and works through feelings of disposability in a world where people far too often see themselves as inconsequential.

I couldn’t help but consider her experience through my own lens, growing up in rural western New York. If someone drove through town on a breezy summer day, they might find the villages and hamlets nestled in gently rolling hills rather quaint. It took twenty years and several out-of-state moves for me to understand why folks took to an environment that felt so isolating to the adolescent version of me, but now I can see some charm in the bucolic idyll despite being aware that sometimes charm is performative.

I did not understand the real conditions of rural poverty. I did not understand deprivation. I did not understand insecurity. I think I observed these experiences from a distance and tacitly understood that other people I knew had very different lives than mine. Proximity meant familiarity—perhaps a kinship—but simply living around rural poverty did not substitute for intimate knowledge of its tolls, risks, and demands on a person, family, or community.

Regardless, I left as soon as I graduated high school. Twenty years later, I find myself here in Pittsburgh, deeply immersed in historic preservation work in postindustrial communities. Our contributions to revitalization efforts throughout southwestern Pennsylvania help nurture towns and villages that, in an increasingly postindustrial twenty-first century, look a lot like the one in which I grew up.

Considering Labor

In my role at Rivers of Steel, the legacy of labor and the industrial working class are daily considerations.  The throughline in Heartland that made me think the most was the way working class bodies appear on the page. Smarsh writes about women and labor as though they are one and the same—as though there can be no concept of womanhood that exists without the primary usefulness of the body as an object that can perform labor. Smarsh also handily doubles the meaning of “labor,” as it stands for the body at work and the body in childbirth. She writes, “Our bodies were born into hard labor. To people who Grandma Betty would say “never had to lift a finger,” that might sound like something to be pitied. But there was a beautiful efficacy to it—form in constant physical function with little energy left over” (Smarsh 44). And just as women’s bodies are inextricably linked to “labor,” she observes, “the person who drives a garbage truck may himself be viewed as trash. The worse danger is not the job itself but the devaluing of those who do it” (45). A laboring person inevitably becomes their task, and that in and of itself is indeed a dangerous way to think, because once a person becomes their job in that their job is their body’s primary function, they cease to appear human at all.

Later in the chapter entitled “The Body of a Poor Girl,” Smarsh writes about how “physical markers of our place and class were so normal and constant, from my vantage, that I never thought to question them: the deep, black bruises ever-present beneath my dad’s fingernails, the smoker’s rattle in Grandma Betty’s lungs, the dentures she’d had since her late twenties, the painful sunburns I sometimes got on my young corneas working outside against a hard slant of light” (82). If a body exists only as a body instead of a whole person, then the pain of intense physical labor is the world’s only indication that the body is even alive.

When I read or listen to stories of steelworkers in Pittsburgh, I hear the same refrain. There is a regional shorthand for “steelworker” to describe the bodies of men and women laboring in billowing mills. One of the tour guides, Keith Clouse, at the Carrie Blast Furnaces often talks about his own experiences as a steelworker. He tells rapt audiences his story and talks about heat exhaustion, burn scars, and the bone-deep sense that “steelworker” is an embodied identity. Working class meant working, and working was good. When someone asks Clouse if he would do it all over again, he answers, “Yes. In a heartbeat.” In some ways, I hear this sentiment echo in the way Smarsh writes, “I feel enriched rather than diminished for having lived it” (44).

Books Beyond the Classroom

When Carmen Livingston, Professor of English at the Community College of Allegheny County, asked me to represent Rivers of Steel as a community partner for the duration of the 2023 – 2024 One Book Community Read program, I jumped at the chance to engage with a modern piece of life writing. I wanted to participate for a number of reasons, but I especially wanted to see literature in action—on campus, at home, in town—as both a point of reflection and identification, and as a blueprint for the possibilities of widespread public engagement.

I sat down with Livingston to talk about her accomplishments with the program this year (as well as hopes for a new slate of projects next year), and she immediately honed in on the project’s interdisciplinarity. She said, “It’s a way for us to do American history and literature in a different way by reaching towards connections that feel real and authentic for our students. We could showcase student work through audio recordings, podcasts, oral histories, personal essays, and theatrical productions.”

I asked her why she ultimately chose Heartland as the vehicle for all of these student projects. Livingston remarked, “This was the book that spoke to the region the most. It speaks to how geography can sometimes limit you and offers possibilities for different kinds of communities to solve ongoing regional problems. Because part of what Smarsh is doing is addressing the failures of a ‘get out to survive’ mentality. What happens when you don’t want to leave . . . when you want to invest in your community? We have in this region a population that hasn’t, can’t, and doesn’t want to ‘just move on.’”

By highlighting student-centered narratives and creative writing projects in their yearlong study, Livingston’s class put Heartland in conversation with their own personal stories about classism, racism, poverty, addiction, and teen pregnancy. Livingston also wanted to ensure that her students’ work did not exist in a vacuum. Community partnerships outside of the classroom bolster the success of the Community Read initiative.

I also spoke with a frequent Rivers of Steel community partner, Emily Kubincanek, program coordinator at the Carnegie Library of Homestead. I asked her why she wanted her Homestead library community to read this book. She said, “It puts into words what many of the Homestead [communities] live with and probably don’t have the opportunity to think about in the way Sarah Smarsh does. Smarsh does a great job at balancing her personal perspective and the larger issues at hand in our country. Everyone could benefit from thinking critically about why being poor in America is so widespread and generational, but people in this area should especially. Her family’s experience losing their career in farming is very similar to the loss of steel mill jobs here, and I think many readers here would see that.”

I appreciated Kubincanek’s point in drawing an explicit connection between the conditions of poverty in rural America and the struggles many former mill towns in the Monongahela River Valley have faced in the last fifty years.

Tangible Community Connections Through Books

Conversation is the driving force of the ongoing partnership between the Carnegie Library of Homestead and CCAC. In addition to having free copies of Heartland available for library patrons, the library and CCAC cohosted a public discussion of the book. I attended this discussion as one of the panelists and enjoyed talking with folks about how Smarsh’s frank depictions of generational poverty reflect many of the conditions found in our own neighborhoods. People talked about access to resources like well-funded public schools and reliable transportation options as key factors in long-lasting feelings of isolation. Some participants talked about seeing the genuine desire of young people to be good and do good and expressed concern that the pressures of modern life might compromise or otherwise thwart their efforts. Everyone in the room thought Heartland would be worth discussing in a high school classroom, while also remarking on the quality of the writing and storytelling.

Our discussion returned several times to a core question: what can we do to help young people up and down the Mon Valley create opportunities that might actually allow them to not only benefit from economic revitalization efforts but also make strong and stable homes in a community? We returned again and again to some variation on the idea of what a postindustrial community could look like.

Rivers of Steel works with many libraries throughout the National Heritage Area, and we often advocate for creating meaningful community connections through reading. These efforts align with the goals of CCAC’s One Book Community Read program. I wanted to know more about how Heartland could be a means of bringing classroom discussion and community partnerships together. Additionally, I wanted to explore how Heartland brings together diverse audiences and creates opportunities for dialogue. Kubincanek discussed the necessary role public libraries play in sustaining communities, particularly poor rural communities that often struggle to maintain access to necessary resources. She says that through Smarsh, there’s a realization that “public libraries are not available for many rural families like they are here in our community.” She reflected that while neighbors “have barriers with transportation and scheduling like everywhere else in the country,” there is potential for a book like Heartland to be “a jumping off point for a conversation about what libraries can do for low-income people in a more urban community like [Homestead].”

When I asked both Kubincanek and Livingston about their favorite parts of Heartland, they both reflected on finding the moments of beauty and hope in hardship—that it is possible to break and heal from cycles of abuse and neglect, and that such instances of beauty are to be treasured. For me, I revisit the end of Smarsh’s memoir where she offers readers a final deconstruction of “The American Dream” as a “ghost haunting our way of thinking” rather than “a sacred contract worth signing toward some future,” where an oft-repeated ideal takes the form of a spector (288). In its place she offers the possibility that “what holds society together in a lasting way isn’t a calculated trade involving sacrifice, currency, and power—a wobbly claim that you get what you work for—but something more like a never-ending spiral of gifts” (288).

Dr. Kirsten L. Paine is an educator and researcher with more than a decade of experience working in higher education. She started working for Rivers of Steel in 2017 as a tour guide at the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark and was inspired by the mission to preserve such a national treasure held in public trust. Kirsten is committed to the work of public humanities education in her role as Site Management Coordinator and Interpretive Specialist. By creating and facilitating public programs that make the National Heritage Area’s history come alive for the community, she believes in archival study and teaching from primary sources as vital community resources.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read another story from the A Literary Look series.

A Literary Look—Blood on the Forge

By A Literary Look, Blog

The dust jacket for William Attaway’s 1941 novel Blood on the Forge.

A Literary Look at William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge

A Literary Look is an occasional series that features recommended reads from the Rivers of Steel staff. For Black History Month, Dr. Kirsten L. Paine, our site management coordinator and interpretive specialist, introduces us to William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, a 1941 novel primarily set in Homestead in 1919 that connects us with the lives of characters uprooted by the Great Migration. In the process, Paine explores one of Pittsburgh’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance artistic movement and how it reveals some of the cultural and socioeconomic aspects of our region’s heritage, offering an understanding of Black life in the mills and the industrialized communities that surrounded them.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

Setting the Scene

“I got the Weary Blues

And I can’t be satisfied.

Got the Weary Blues

And can’t be satisfied—

I ain’t happy no mo’

And I wish that I had died.”

“The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes (1925)

“Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.” The speaker, an unidentified spectator in Langston Hughes’s landmark poem, “The Weary Blues,” watches a Black musician wring love and sorrow from a piano in a Harlem bar. The music swells up in bodies cast in shades of blue and yellow; it is mournful, yearning, and melodic, its rhythm incessant. It carries the piano player from the bar, to the street, and finally to his bed, where he dreams about that melody some more.

That melancholy rhythm echoes throughout William Atwell’s novel, Blood on the Forge.  The loudest strain comes through at the end of the story as a train carries Melody Moss away from the Homestead steel mills. He sits opposite his brother, Chinatown Moss, and watches him talk with a soldier. Their older brother, Big Mat Moss, is gone.

The soldier says to Chinatown, “There’s one thing I couldn’t shut out” (Attaway 236). Chinatown responds, “What was that?” (236). The soldier bids him, “Listen” (236). Over the puffing engine and creaking cars, the men hear, “Boom! … Boom! … Boom! …” (236). The rumble emanates from their bones—a memory from one kind of battlefield or another, one kind of war or another—but Melody cannot hear it. He just knows his brother can feel it, so he feels it, too. The train rolls toward Pittsburgh. When Chinatown and Melody arrive in Pittsburgh without their brother, they need to go to a place called “the Strip,” where the brothers can disappear into the crowd and try to begin their lives all over again (235).

An archival image of the US Steel Homestead Works showing sheds and smoky stacks.

A view of Homestead, Rivers of Steel Archives.

The Journeys of the Moss Brothers

This moment is from the final scene in William Attaway’s novel, a masterpiece first published in 1941, Blood on the Forge. This blistering, harrowing, and deeply tragic novel chronicles the intertwined journeys of the three Moss brothers: Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody. The Moss brothers are sharecroppers on a farm in Kentucky in 1919, and they each dream of a bigger life for themselves.

One evening, a strange white man on a horse gives Chinatown and Melody ten dollars from a roll of cash. He promises them more. Much more. However, the Moss brothers must meet him at the station and board a freight train bound for points north. As Chinatown and Melody debate whether or not this offer is a prank—or worse—they start to wonder if there “must be a lot of that kind of up-North money,” and whether or not they could have some of it for themselves (33). While Melody and Chinatown see an opportunity for each of them to prosper, Big Mat needs convincing. The three brothers ultimately crouch on a hay-strewn boxcar floor and dream of a new life as the train takes them northward.

What the Moss brothers discover, however, is not money. Instead of a rolling Kentucky field, the roiling Pennsylvania steel mill looms ahead. The prosperity suggested by the sight of the jackleg’s roll of cash reveals itself as bug-infested bunkhouses, brothels, and the looming shadows of Jim Crow. Mill work is easy to come by, but it is both extremely dangerous and underpaid. Despite his size, Big Mat tries not to let the physical punishment grind him down. He forges ahead, sometimes too far away for his brothers to see.

Melody carries on, picking the Blues out of his guitar, trying to keep mind, body, and soul intact. When he plays “so all those long days he had been twisted inside,” Melody cannot help but feel the emptiness in his music (123). The guitar “sang all the empty notes it had,” and makes him think “it was a bad thing to have to play only the music inside him” (123). The Blues wail, but Melody does not heed the song. In fact, none of the brothers listen.

Early cars travel on a main street lined with bricks in a colorized photograph from 1916.

A postcard of Homestead in 1916, Rivers of Steel Archives

The Great Migration

The Moss brothers represent parts of a much larger early twentieth-century movement now known as the Great Migration. The Great Migration maps the mass exodus of African Americans from the South to the North, and it is one of the largest and most concentrated movements of people in American history.

The first wave of the Great Migration occurred between 1910 and 1940. It occurred in the midst of global tumult caused by two World Wars, economic instability and collapse, the influenza pandemic, and unfettered mechanization, weaponization, and technological revolution. Masses of people moved across countries and continents. As waves of European immigrants came into the United States, large numbers of Americans also crossed state and county borders.

African Americans searched for stability, safety, and opportunity in new climates, new environments, and new communities. Northern industrial cities in particular, with burning and churning factories creating the modern world, beckoned newcomers. Chief among them, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh grew fast, ran hot, and enveloped people from the moment they disembarked from a boat or a train. When they arrived in cities like Pittsburgh, however, African Americans often faced familiar racist power structures limiting their economic opportunity. While Black workers could find jobs aplenty in the coal mines, coke plants, blast furnaces, steel mills, and rail yards of the Monongahela River Valley, those jobs were often in the most dangerous locations with the lowest wages. In many instances, Black workers came north because they were promised a good, steady factory job but were instead used as strikebreakers. These strikebreakers were summarily dismissed after white workers returned, which often left them without resources in an unfamiliar city, hundreds of miles away from any place that resembled home.

A train brings the Moss brothers from Kentucky to Pennsylvania. From a few peepholes in the boxcar’s sides, they catch glimpses of the landscape emerging around them. As the train slithers along, the valley looks as though a “giant might have planted his foot on the heel of a great shovel and split the bare hills” creating a trench (43). From that trench rise mills, “half buried in the earth”(43). Off to the side the brothers see a “a dirty-as-a-catfish-hole river with a beautiful name: the Monongahela” (43). Instead of swirls of green and blue, “its banks were lined with mountains of red ore, yellow limestone, and black coke. None of this was good to the eyes of men accustomed to the pattern of fields” (43). Their hopes of a new home turn into piles of garbage, acrid smoke, ash, and the constant vibration of machines. Very quickly, readers attune to the music in this story.

A Black man rakes down manganese from a pile.

A worker moving manganese, Rivers of Steel Archives.

The Reality and Rhythm of a Working Class Novel

Over the course of Blood on the Forge, Big Mat, Chinatown, and Melody Moss endure oppressive systems and racist violence, which questions what all that “up-North money” could possibly cost them in the end.

In an article about literary depictions of the ways in which factory owners used Black laborers as strikebreakers, Cynthia Hamilton, former director of African American studies at the University of Rhode Island, describes what drives men like the Moss brothers: “These men were driven by forces within: their old standards of self-reliance and self-sufficiency, their unyielding nature in the face of force, and their traditional conceptions of manhood, which centered around a silent tolerance and endurance of pain and the constant desire for respect. Ironically, the combination drove them, helplessly, into the arms of capital, which transformed all of these motives into profits for the owners and bosses” (Hamilton 158).

As a reader, I often find myself compelled by characters who succumb to inevitable tragedy or characters who conjure feelings of sympathy despite their horrifically unsympathetic actions. Blood on the Forge compels me as a reader precisely because I have never, and will never, have to experience a life remotely close to the violence the Moss brothers endure. Unlike most of the texts in my library, Blood on the Forge is not sentimental fiction; meaning it does not bank on overwrought emotional scenes in order to move a reader or spur them into action. Rather, this novel is a realist novel in that the language Attaway uses is straightforward, unvarnished, and evident in everyday surroundings. It is also a working-class novel, sometimes called the proletarian novel, which emerged as an influential genre in the early twentieth century. Working-class writing centers on the lives and desires of laboring people, and it often exposes the inequalities and excesses of capitalism. The story affects me because it requires my attention to the language. I cannot turn away from the bloodshed because the reasons for this bloodshed are not swathed in simile or metaphor. As a reader, I think this is hard, but I also think this is why Blood on the Forge is worth seeing through to the end.

I come back to the music in Blood on the Forge, the Blues. I listen to Melody’s songs and let them tell me the story within the story, and I find a rhythm that way. In the darkness Chinatown and Melody tell stories to each other as a form of camaraderie, and at one point, Chinatown asks Melody to pick up his guitar again. He says, “Blues drive away that hungry cravin’[…] I jest sit here in the warmth and listen” (Attaway 163). Melody begins singing a song about snakes, and for the first time in a while, he “thought a little and let his thought ride high through the endless spades of his mind. He hit a bad chord on his music.  But it was good enough to carry him on a bit” (164). An accident at the mill cost Chinatown his sight, so Melody becomes his brother’s eyes. Another accident at the mill cost Melody use of his picking hand, so he learns how to play and sing the Blues again. The Moss brothers move through their world like a Blues song in search of a home.

People create homes everywhere. People establish neighborhoods, cultivate communities, and anchor their identities to experiences and environments in order to tell their stories. In many instances, those stories are haunting and tragic, and they bear witness to violence, its aftermath, and the soul-deep scars it leaves behind. That does not mean we should turn away or otherwise disengage from it. Sometimes it means we should look more intently and read with even more openness, especially if it means reconciling visions of home and community with the painful losses endured in the quest to find these places of restoration and respite.

Suggested Reading

Blood on the Forge is a traditional migration story, but it also fits in with art from the Harlem Renaissance.  There are so many ways to read Blood on the Forge in conversation with other literature from its time, and I highly recommend using the novel as an anchor for lots of literary exploration. I suggest pairing Blood on the Forge with Thomas Bell’s Out of This Furnace, also published in 1941. However, if readers are in search of the Blues in poetry, delve into Langston Hughes’s work. Consider collections like The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), A New Song (1938), or Fields of Wonder (1947). For novels about movement, migration, and the search for identity, try Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1938) and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939), Jean Toomer’s Cain (1923) or Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). If the “play’s the thing,” then seek out Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) or any work by Pittsburgh’s own August Wilson.


Attaway, William. Blood on the Forge. New York Review Books, 2005.

Hamilton, Cynthia. ‘Work and Culture: The Evolution of Consciousness in Urban Industrial Society in the Fiction of William Attaway and Peter Abrahams.” Black American Literature. Vol 21. Spring/Summer 1987: 147-63.

Hughes, Langston. The Weary Blues. Second ed. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Dr. Kirsten L. Paine is an educator and researcher with more than a decade of experience working in higher education. She started working for Rivers of Steel in 2017 as a tour guide at the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark and was inspired by the mission to preserve such a national treasure held in public trust. Kirsten is committed to the work of public humanities education in her role as Site Management Coordinator and Interpretive Specialist. By creating and facilitating public programs that make the National Heritage Area’s history come alive for the community, she believes in archival study and teaching from primary sources as vital community resources.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read another story from the A Literary Look series.

A Literary Look: Jane Swisshelm’s Autobiography

By A Literary Look, Blog

A detail Jane Grey Swisshelm’s Self-Portrait, circa 1840-1845 / Senator John Heinz History Center, Courtesy of N.N. Moore.

Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm’s Autobiography, Half a Century

A Literary Look is a recent series that features recommended reads from the Rivers of Steel. For Women’s History Month, Dr. Kirsten L. Paine, our site management coordinator and interpretive specialist, reflects on one of her favorite historic Pittsburghers—Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm.  Working as a reporter, newspaper publisher, women’s rights advocate, and abolitionist throughout the nineteenth century, Swisshelm was a woman ahead of her time. Using her autobiography as a starting point, Dr. Paine leans on her own expertise in literature from that era to provide context for understanding this pioneering woman.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

Tucked behind and rolling away from the Carrie Blast Furnaces National Historic Landmark is land that once belonged to somewhat of a Pittsburgh legend: Jane Swisshelm. Some locals might hear her name and recall the blue historical marker near the corner of Braddock and Greendale Avenues in Edgewood. Other folks might know a bit about the newspapers she ran, or that she is credited as the first woman reporter to sit in the senate press gallery in Washington, D.C. Perhaps others are aware that she advocated for women’s rights.

Jane Swisshelm’s life drifts in and out of public knowledge, and the legacy she left behind is complicated and filled with interesting contradictions. We will explore the ins and outs of her complexities in a companion piece to this article later this month. But for now, let us take a look at a fascinating piece of writing: Swisshelm’s autobiography. Half a Century was first published in 1880, and in it, Swisshelm sets out to tell the story of her early life.

A painting of a younger Swisshelm paired with a photo of her decades later which show remarkable similiarity.

Two portraits, about twenty years apart. Left: Self-Portrait, Jane Grey Swisshelm, 1840-1845 / Senator John Heinz History Center, Courtesy of N.N. Moore. Right: Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, journalist, activist, and Civil War nurse, Joel E. Whitney, photographer / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1865. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Swisshelm’s narrative voice is engaging and witty. It is sharp, idiosyncratic, and can feel personable. Readers who enjoy memoirs, biographies, autoethnographies, and other forms of life writing might enjoy delving into this volume to get to know this interesting life of local lore. History buffs might enjoy the personal perspective on a galvanizing time in the American women’s rights movement, Civil War nursing, and Pittsburgh’s urban growth. There are many ways to read Half a Century. As March is Women’s History Month, consider reading it to understand what it means for a woman born in 1815 to tell her own story, in her own voice, and on her own terms in the nineteenth century.

Most people who know me know I am a scholar who specializes in American literary culture between 1790 and 1900 with a particular focus on women’s life writing from that time period. I love spending time with stories by and about women who challenge a world that is often inhospitable to their aspirations and ideas. Nineteenth-century women’s life writing has certain hallmarks. The writing can feel intensely personal even though the writer may not reveal much. Writers blur boundaries between public and private spaces and frequently indulge public scrutiny that might come with it. I enjoy investigating the purposes and limitations of this genre of literature.

So when I use the term “life writing,” I am taking it from two sources. In her 1992 book, American Women’s Autobiography, Margo Culley considers the term “autobiography” as three parts: “auto (self) / bio (life) / graphy (writing).” Then I combine that with James Olney’s perspective on the expansiveness of what “autobiography” can be. Life writing is autobiography, but it is also memoirs, journals, correspondence, scrapbooks, and other forms of composing the self.

Life writing is also intensely literary. Half a Century is a wonderful example of how a middle-class white woman in the nineteenth century uses rich simile, metaphor, and symbolism to make sense of the world in which she lives. She also has a strong sense of place. For example, she writes about her birth: “I was born on the 6th of December, 1815, in Pittsburg, on the bank of the Monongahela, near its confluence with the Allegheny” (10). In 2022, the building is long demolished, but it is still possible to trace the pathways of Swisshelm’s life in Pittsburgh by following her from the burgeoning little city out to the fresh air of Wilkinsburg and Braddock, then down the Ohio River to Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky. For the majority of her life, Jane Swisshelm did not stray far from one of the rivers that could, and would, eventually bring her back to Pittsburgh.

An illustration of the confluence of Pittsburgh's three rivers.

Pittsburgh during Jane Swisshelm’s era. View of Pittsburgh & Allegheny, Otto Krebs, Lithogrpaher.  Pittsburgh Pennsylvania United States, ca. 1874. / Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In Pittsburgh and everywhere else in the United States, the church played a critical role in people’s lives, no matter the denomination. Publicly accounting for one’s own spiritual journey is a key feature in autobiographies like Swisshelm’s. It is typical, then, for a writer like Swisshelm to lean heavily on religion as the lens through which she considers her life. She makes her spiritual journey central to how she understands her place in the world and why that place might not be enough for her. She was born to Covenantor parents, and the strict adherence to God’s authority over one’s every thought and action meant that Swisshelm had few opportunities to question or challenge that authority.

Early in her autobiography, Swisshelm writes about memorizing prayers and Bible verses at three years old, and alongside remembering preachers, sermons, and any religious education, she also writes about ghosts and cemeteries. At the beginning of one story Swisshelm recalls, “Grandmother took me sometimes to walk in these graveyards at night, and there talked to me about God and heaven and the angels” (15). Odd, yes? However, given the context of the early nineteenth century and the closeness people had with death, the graveyard is an ideal teaching tool for discussing mortality and the divine afterlife. Swisshelm muses, “I was sufficiently interested in these, but especially longed to see the ghost, and often went to look for them,” and sometimes she “went home to lie and brood over the unreliable nature of ghosts” (15). Her interests lie not solely in the dutiful contemplation of heaven and hell. She documents the fleeting, unprovable, weird parts of spiritual existence that, perhaps, cannot be learned by following all of the rules.

Swisshelm builds resistance to, and rejection of, authority throughout her narrative. It culminates in her methodical dismantling of marriage as an institution designed to subjugate her. The first chapter devoted to her doomed marriage to James Swisshelm is entitled, “Deliverer of the Dark Night.” In it, Swisshelm unleashes all of the ghosts that would continue to haunt her through her life. She writes about how “he had elected me as his wife some years before this evening, and had not kept it secret” (40). James Swisshelm pursued her for years, and by the acknowledgement of both her family and his, “he had been assured his choice was presumptuous, but came and took possession of his prospective property with the air of a man who understood his business” (40). Words like “possession,” “property,” and “business” highlight the transactional nature of marriage and her value as an object for sale. Small details like this lay a foundation for how she navigates the issues of women’s rights to property, to children, and to divorce, for the rest of her life.

In the nineteenth century, belief that women belonged at home regulated daily life for most people. Women largely relegated their influence to raising children and tending to domestic responsibilities. Laws barred women from voting and holding political office, and they were mostly prevented from pursuing higher education, training in professions, and owning businesses and property. In many ways, women were property, so there were very few opportunities to hold positions of public authority. However, Swisshelm rejects the expectations of the “woman’s sphere,” precisely because she cannot think of a woman who succeeded in escaping it. She “had never then heard the words, for no woman had gotten out of it, to be hounded back” (48). As so much of the narrative chronicles her journalism career and the public platforms she created in order to speak about issues that mattered to her, it is interesting to read about how she “had gotten out of it” and refused in every way imaginable “to be hounded back” (48).

The Civil War created many opportunities for women to leave their designated sphere. Jane Swisshelm was one of the hundreds of women who, through the United States Sanitary Commission and under the leadership of other women like Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton, nursed soldiers in ramshackle hospitals near every battlefield. This portion of Half a Century is of especial interest to me primarily because it is about Swisshelm’s service during the Civil War, but I also think it is a fascinating look at how a seasoned journalist tries to assemble fragments of memories that are all part of a great national trauma. Memoirs of female Civil War nurses abound, and Swisshelm fits hers well within the somewhat self-denying style and tradition of women writing about their service. On the surface of such narratives, a woman’s motivation is motherly devotion to the wounded nation. However, once a reader pushes beyond Swisshelm’s public assurance that she behaved herself and completed her duties without losing an ounce of femininity, they will start to see Swisshelm, yet again, pushing against the boundaries of an institution designed to slot her into a specific role.

She argued with Dorothea Dix over the “kind of women” who should be allowed to train as nurses and threatened to “apply to my friends Mrs. Abraham Lincoln and Secretary Stanton, and have your authority tested” (302). She recounts the horrors she witnessed in the aftermath of the battle of Fredericksburg. She cajoled doctors into pursuing better treatments, conversed with sick and dying soldiers as they looked to her as a refuge, and, by her own account in a chapter called “The Old Theater,” almost single-handedly saved an abandoned group of soldiers and cowering nurses (308–314). These chapters comprise most of the last third of the book and piece together Swisshelm’s movement from hospital to hospital.

Part of Swisshelm’s narrative provides the basis from which she discovers, and then defines, the parameters of her belief in abolition, which was, of course, the primary cause of the Civil War. It is important to remember that, as a white woman in the nineteenth century, Swisshelm’s ability to synthesize and discuss the institution of slavery is limited to the language available to her at the time. It is also important to remember that how she frames her belief in and work with abolitionist groups is always in relation to those with whom she speaks on a regular basis. Of course, that means the language she uses to discuss the institution of slavery is shockingly racist to contemporary audiences.

Language in nineteenth-century autobiography challenges modern readers precisely because it puts present-day understandings of how and why words and phrases are weaponized to hurt people over top of archaic models of storytelling. However, with Swisshelm’s narrative as an example, readers can consider how she commands a gut-level emotional response by cultivating sympathy. She does not sweep violence away to make it more palatable for people. Rather, the violence embedded in her language and in her descriptions of violent acts are there to provoke anger, outrage, and even perhaps a little disbelief. After all, she writes about her first encounters with enslaved people while trying to reckon with the haunting scenes of violence that seemingly called her to action.

Those moments in her autobiography are bitter and deeply unpleasant, even as those same moments help readers understand how nineteenth-century people lived and wrote about their society, environments, and experiences—but proceed with caution.

A concrete relief sculpture of a woman's progfile set into a brick wall.

Photographer’s note: “This is one of four small, hard-to-spot stone reliefs built into a brick wall in the Coffee Way alley downtown, c. 1865. The artist is unknown. Exactly whom this relief represents is not recorded; it is speculated that it Mary Croghan Schlenley, a noted Pittsburgh philanthropist of the day; or Jane Grey Swisshelm, an American journalist and abolitionist.” One of dozens of examples of exemplary public art and architecture, some old, some new, in the venerable “Steel City” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh, 2019. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Of course, Half a Century delves into Jane Swisshelm’s journalism career. She details every paper she ever started, discusses in detail her approach to reporting and editing, and wields the power of the press to advocate for sweeping political, social, and economic advancements for marginalized groups of people. Readers who know Swisshelm’s extensive body of work in this arena will not be disappointed by the stories she tells.

I plan to use this part of the book as a pivot point for a companion piece about Swisshelm’s activism via the press. While it might reference Half a Century, the next piece on Jane Swisshelm will not be about her autobiography. It is a deeper dive into her journalism career as it relates to causes that eventually impact labor in the late nineteenth century.

Physical copies of Half a Century might be difficult to find because it is out of print, but it is easy to access online. Search for the book title and author on and enjoy one of the high-quality digitized copies located there.


Culley, Margo.  American Women’s Autobiography: Fea(s)ts of Memory.  University of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Olney, James.  Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing.  University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Swisshelm, Jane.  Half a Century.  Jansen, McClurg & Company, 1880.

Image Credits

In order of appearance:

Swisshelm, Jane Grey, painter. Self-Portrait. Ca. 1840 – 1845, painting. / Senator John Heinz History Center, courtesy of N.N. Moore.

Whitney, Joel E, photographer. Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm, journalist, activist, and Civil War nurse / Whitney’s Gallery, St. Paul. United States, ca. 1865. [St. Paul, Minnesota: Whitney’s Gallery] Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Krebs, Otto, Lithographer. View of Pittsburgh & Allegheny / Otto Krebs lith., Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania United States, ca. 1874. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. One of dozens of examples of exemplary public art and architecture, some old, some new, in the venerable “Steel City” of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Allegheny County United States, 2019. -07-05. Photograph. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read another story from the A Literary Look series

Two recycled metal birds appear on a sculpture in from the the stack from the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

A Literary Look: Life in the Iron Mills

By A Literary Look, Blog

A detail of Jan Loney’s Flight sculpture from Alloy Pittsburgh 2021 in front of the stack and stoves of the Carrie Blast Furnaces.

Life in the Iron Mills and the Industrial Muse

A Literary Look is a new series that features recommended reads from the Rivers of Steel staff. For the inaugural post, Dr. Kirsten L. Paine, our site management coordinator and interpretive specialist, offers up an examination of one of her favorite books, Life in the Iron Mills, a novella by Rebecca Harding Davis that was first published in The Atlantic Monthly in April, 1861. In this piece, Kirsten examines the enduring legacy of the industrial muse and how the human spirit can triumph over the laborer’s toil.

By Dr. Kirsten L. Paine

“It always has seemed to me that each human being, before going out into the silence, should leave behind him, not the story of his own life, but of the time in which he lived.” – Rebecca Harding Davis, Bits of Gossip (1904).

When Rivers of Steel’s Alloy Pittsburgh 2021 tri-annual exhibition opened at Carrie Blast Furnaces in August 2021, visitors explored connections between multimodal art installations and their surroundings. The contrasts between Carrie’s sharpness and softness, light and shadow, riots of color and muted tones altogether enhanced, engulfed, challenged, played with, echoed, and reflected six pieces of art from six distinct perspectives. Visitors to the site found themselves immersed in an environment that can transform all manner of human experience. The furnaces are giants that made the twentieth-century out of fire. They stand in witness to thousands of stories about that century and about the people who experienced it.

Sculptures of metal, glass, and rope; drawings and paintings of people and things; an enormous green jacket and invisible signs in the sky—all of these contain thousands of stories, too—stories about the people who lived and worked at the mill. The art, the work of making it, and the experience of seeing it, thrives in reciprocal community because it becomes a way for people to tell stories to themselves and to ponder a very big question: What does it mean to be human?

A larger than life scale "greens" jacket hangs on the wall of the blowing engine house.

Bradford Mumpower’s installation at the Carrie Blast Furnaces was inspired by the “greens” that workers wore while on the job, scaled to a size proportionate with the historic importance of the site itself.

This universal question has innumerable answers, but here is one: being human means creating art. Life in the Iron Mills, a novella by Rebecca Harding Davis and first published in The Atlantic Monthly in April of 1861, is about a poor Welsh immigrant named Hugh Wolfe. Hugh is a puddler in an iron mill, and he spends his life turning ore into pig iron. As he works, Hugh skims the slag from the top of the molten iron and uses it to create strange and wonderful sculptures. He is a gifted artist, sensitive and delicate, but he is hardened by strenuous work. He lives with his cousin, Deborah Wolfe, a disabled woman who yearns for a more peaceful life. One day the mill’s owners and managers tour the facility and watch the workers, but they do not seem to recognize people like Hugh and Deborah as more than parts of their giant machines. The men leave, but through an increasingly desperate situation involving stolen money, confessions, and imprisonment, the Wolfes are left heartbroken. When the story ends, readers are left only with the sublime statue known as the Korl Woman and the narrator’s voice imploring readers to not just look at the conditions of working-class life, but to see people as inherently beautiful.

This is a basic plot summary of Life in the Iron Mills, and it sounds like a depressing book; however, the story is an opportunity for readers to discover light in the darkness.  It remains one of the finest early examples of American realism, and it was a smash hit from the start.

In the 1860s, literary realism was one element of an emerging artistic style that sought to represent, through image and language, an authentic depiction of life.  Photography demonstrated technological advancements in creating mirrored images of the day-to-day. In one frame, a photograph captured and held a moment in its most quotidian fashion. A photograph showed the human body with all of its imperfections, and such an image could represent a lifetime’s worth of memories.

Literary realism uses words in a way that closely follow what photography transforms with images. For example, Davis uses unvarnished language in her descriptions of a mill town, a furnace, the workers, and the struggle to hang on to one’s own life as “pits of flame waving in the wind; liquid metal-flames writhing in tortuous streams through the sand; wide cauldrons filled with boiling fire” (Davis 45).

teeming archival image

Although it is a more contemporary image, this photo of the teeming process captures the color and heat Davis describes. Image from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

As you read, feel the heat as Deb, body hunched over from years of hard physical labor, brings a pail of dinner to her cousin the puddler. See the licks of orange and yellow fire as she walks past men with shovels and pickaxes. Imagine as the acrid sand tinges the nose. Deb walks past “crowds of half-clad men, looking like revengeful ghosts in the red light, hurried, throwing masses of glittering fire” and mutters—with a heavy Welsh accent—“’T looks like t’ Devil’s place!”(45). The straightforward language Davis uses compares the factory floor to Hell without going directly to that mythical place. It has what is called “verisimilitude,” or the quality of seeming real.

An Illustration of the Belmont Iron Works

The Belmon Iron Works in Wheeling, West Virginia was likely the basis for the mill in Davis’ story. Image courtesy of Ohio County Public Library, Wheeling, WV.

Davis threads lifelike passages of exposition that capture the sights and sounds of a nineteenth-century iron mill between characters’ thoughts and conversations. When Mr. Clarke (the factory manager), Young Kirby (the owner’s son), Dr. May (the town physician), and Mitchell (the owner’s son-in-law) walk through the factory floor with a reporter to inspect the machines and marvel at the industrial wonders they have financed, they cannot grasp how or why one of their workers has made sculptures from korl. Korl, which is an older term for slag, is the limestone waste leftover in the smelting process, and it has been transformed. Hugh uses the off moments during his shift to chisel the “light, proud substance, of a delicate, waxen, flesh-colored tinge” into “figures,—hideous, fantastic enough, but sometimes strangely beautiful” (48). The men stop and stare at one piece in particular. It is a figure of a woman. She is twisted, knotted like tree bark, but she reaches upward with an outstretched hand and looks up.  Her stone face wants for something. Mr. Clarke, Kirby, and the other professional, educated, middle class men—the men who do not actually make iron—discuss who she might be and what she might want, and then they ask Hugh.  He answers them plainly, “She be hungry” (53).  For what, they ask, not understanding what hunger is. He answers again, “summat to make her live, I think,—like you” (54).  The group of men cannot seem to reconcile the juxtaposition of art and labor, so they nod and move on.

The rest of the novella plays on a continuing notion of hunger in the search for life’s meaning. Despair is found where despair is felt. Peace is found where peace is required. However, at the molten core of it, Life in the Iron Mills is about what happens to art when the machinations of industry wreak havoc on the human spirit. And yet it holds up a woman made out of slag, reaching, searching, as the salvo. The waste is not wasted. At the end of the story, the narrator brings the reader back to her room overlooking the Ohio River and reveals the korl woman hidden behind a window curtain. The dim morning “suddenly touches its head like a blessing, and its groping arm points through the broken cloud to the far East,” where the sun rises (74).

a black and white image of the Carrie Furnaces from across the river.

“Carrie Furnace Scenic View” appears courtesy of the William J. Gaughan Collection, University of Pittsburgh, July 1946.

In 2022, Life in the Iron Mills is mostly taught in college English courses. Sometimes readers stumble across the book by way of internet listicles, and sometimes readers discover it while combing through library stacks in search of something completely new. No matter the mode of introduction, Life in the Iron Mills is worth the time and attention paid to it because it tells the story of a time not so long ago and a place not so far away from Pittsburgh and a people not so different from who people are now. Try reading the book, and then come to visit Carrie this spring. See all the colorful graffiti, the welded chairs, and the deer made of hose, pipe, and wire. Walk on pathways laid in korl and consider all manner of art made on the site. Look at what human beings can make.


Davis, Rebecca Harding. Bits of Gossip. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1904.

Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills. Boston: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1998.

Enjoy Dr. Kirsten L. Paine’s article? Read her piece Getting to the Heart of the Hardest Working River