A New “Major Figure”? Incorporating Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl in the American Literature Survey

Fiona McWilliam
Florida State University

This past Spring I had the opportunity to teach Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl in my Major Figures in American Literature course at Florida State University. This 3000-level course, aimed primarily (but not exclusively) at English majors, centered around the theme, “Nineteenth-Century American Authors in Context.” My aim for the semester was for students to engage with cultural artifacts from the nineteenth century and thus develop a more nuanced understanding of our assigned texts and authors. More broadly, I wanted students to think about how and why an author becomes a “major-figure” and consider why we read some authors and texts but not others – Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl seemed like the perfect opportunity to have students consider these questions.

I assigned The Factory Girl toward the end of the semester. So, by the time we approached Savage’s text we had recently completed Louisa May Alcott’s Work and Rebecca Harding Davis’s Life in the Iron Mills. Needless to say, Savage’s picture of the factory and working life in general is very different from both Alcott and Davis. Alcott’s Christie, for instance, is at one point so exhausted, overworked, and disconnected from any meaningful interaction that she contemplates suicide. Davis’s Hugh and Deb are more or less trapped in a never-ending agonizing cycle governed by the mill. I found Life in the Iron Mills and Work—as woman-authored texts featuring working-woman characters—especially helpful accompaniments to The Factory Girl in the way all three texts trouble the notion of the separate spheres.

I taught Savage’s text in a single 75-minute class period, paired with Thomas B. Lovell’s essay, “Separate Spheres and Extensive Circles: Sarah Savages The Factory Girl and the Celebration of Industry in Early Nineteenth Century America.” When students approached The Factory Girl and Mary Burnam they were admittedly confused. “Where is the factory?” was, as expected, the most immediate question. Students noted that, as opposed to Life in the Iron Mills, it isn’t the working conditions that make the mill a potentially “bad” place but the people who work there who might pose as threats to Mary’s virtuous character. When Mrs. Holden, horrified by Mary’s suggestion to put her grandsons out to service, suggests they work the town factory, Mary rebuffs this option because it would do the boys “evil” and prevent them from receiving a proper education. We discussed how in terms of laborious work, it is not the factory that leaves Mary exhausted and spent but her work as a school teacher and working mother-figure for Mrs. Holden’s grandchildren—so why then is Mary (and the title of the text) The Factory Girl? Students also pointed out that unlike Davis’s Deb, Mary has the possibility of a future outside of the factory—indeed, factory worker never seemed like a long-term role for Mary.

I should note that The Factory Girl did not exactly entrance students—they found it dry and “preachy” (to quote one of my students). Yet when it came time to think about the final 10-page essay for the class, many students wanted talk about Savage and incorporate her text into a larger paper about, say, factories, or women working outside the home—which, for me, was proof enough that including Savage’s The Factory Girl in the course was a success.

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