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Pollyanna and the Grim Reaper

Miller, T. (2019) Pollyanna and the Grim Reaper. Media+Environment, 1 (1).

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Herman Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids”[1] finds the story’s narrator in London. It’s “the smiling month of May”[2] 1849, and he’s carousing with affluent unmarried lawyers who welcome him to their “band of brothers.” Two years later, in a chilly New England mill where recycled cotton and linen are used to make paper, he encounters women workers preparing, pulping, pressing, and folding rags. Their faces are “pale with work, and blue with cold,” their eyes “supernatural with unrelated misery.” Speech is “banished from the spot.”

The two groups are separated by time, space, gender, class, climate, labor, communication, and risk, the bachelors’ fancy attire and healthy complexions worlds away from a toxic rag room where the “air swam with the fine, poisonous particles, which from all sides darted . . . into the lungs.” But the narrator connects the scenes and their actors. Realizing that London ragpickers regularly collected discarded clothing for export to US paper mills, he surmises that “among these heaps of rags there may be some old shirts, gathered from the dormitories of the Paradise of Bachelors” (Melville 1855).

Melville’s juxtaposition of the perilous labor of print technology’s women workers with the luxurious cloisters of the male ruling class has generated significant critical engagement (Serlin 1995; Thompson 2018). This remarkable work of short fiction alerts us to the media’s two historic environmental roles: representation and materiality.

Item Type: Journal Article
Publisher: University of California Press
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