Rebecca Harding Davis

Rebecca Harding Davis Author Rebecca Harding Davis’s (1831-1910) writings appeared in national magazines, newspapers, and books throughout the second half of nineteenth-century America. She lived in Florence, Lauderdale County, for approximately five years as a young child and is remembered also for her descriptions of life in the city’s early years and life in the South after the Civil War. Over her career, she published some 500 works. She is considered a pioneering social historian and portrayer of the working class, women’s rights, and racial conditions. Life in the Iron-Mills is her most widely read work.

Davis’s work is primarily realistic. In addition to Realism, Romanticism and, some would argue, Naturalism appear in her work as well. Her tendency toward Realism arose from her desire to write about American life and culture as she saw it. Social reform, in one way or another, pervades all of her work. Rarely have male writers, in particular, written specifically about these matters. Her work depicts human beings attempting to achieve the American dream, an ideal usually denied laborers, slaves, freedmen, working women, prostitutes (even child prostitutes), and women authors.

Early Life

Rebecca Blaine Harding was born on June 24, 1831, to Rachel Leet Wilson and Richard W. Harding in Washington, Pennsylvania. She was the eldest of seven children. Her parents had been living in Florence, but her mother chose to give birth in her hometown of Washington at the home of her sister. The family returned to Florence afterward, although some sources incorrectly mention Huntsville, Madison County, based upon Davis’s descriptions of a “Big Spring.” Those sources, however, did not have access to Davis’s letters in which she specified Florence. In 1837, the family moved to Wheeling, Virginia (present-day West Virginia). Richard Harding, an English immigrant educated in the humanities, managed the city’s financial affairs and also those of a large insurance company, providing a comfortable living for his family. Harding’s parents’ education, integrity, work ethic, and story-telling and her mother’s cheerful personality piqued and sustained her curiosity. She also was close to her cousin, future politician James G. Blaine, and was influenced by his support for Abraham Lincoln and abolition. Her views on slavery and her future writings were also influenced by the Unionist political culture of Wheeling, a culture that provided her with a many-sided view of the issues surrounding slavery and the Civil War. She attended and graduated from the Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania and went on to write editorials, book reviews, articles, and stories for the local newspaper.

Davis Highlights Social Issues

Davis first came to public attention as a writer, although anonymously, for her first story “Life in the Iron-Mills,” which was published in April 1861 in the Atlantic Monthly. This work—a startling portrayal of the dismal, hopeless lives of iron mill workers—is an early form of Realism in American literature. It awoke the public to pressing social issues in American life and launched her long writing career. It also brought her the attention and friendship of many noted writers, including Nathanial Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), as well as Philadelphia attorney Lemuel Clarke Davis, her future husband.

[em]Life in the Iron-Mills[/em] Rebecca wed Davis in 1863. The couple then moved to Philadelphia and would have three children: Richard Harding Davis, Charles Belmont Davis, and Nora Davis. The sons became writers and lived notable lives. The daughter, a socialite, traveled widely with her mother until Davis’s death. During this period, Davis continued to publish in the Atlantic Monthly and through correspondence became close friends with Annie Adams Fields, wife of its publisher, James T. Fields. Clarke had trained in law but eventually became a leading American journalist and editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and associate editor of Philadelphia’s Public Ledger; he also published fiction. From the late 1860s through 1870s, Davis continued to publish in a variety of periodicals, including Hearth and Home, Putnam’s Magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and Harper’s.

Civil War and Reconstruction

Davis’s Waiting for the Verdict was published as a novel in 1868. The book addresses the need for racial reconciliation and restitution to freed people in the wake of the Civil War. The novel hovers around a question expressed by a runaway slave. White southern society had done a great wrong to the black people it enslaved, but how were white southerners going to make it up to them? In another subplot, an African American doctor who has been passing as white is financially ruined when he reveals his heritage to his white fiancé. Though an abolitionist, she cannot overcome her prejudice. He can no longer practice medicine because whites will not see a black doctor and blacks can rarely afford his care or transportation to his office.

Her travel story “Here and There in the South,” serialized in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine between July and November 1887, highlights significant changes in the South. (She had gathered the material from various trips in the South, including an 1884 extended stay in Alabama.) The narrative exposes misperceptions among northerners of the South as “benighted” 20 years after the Civil War. The story’s protagonist is a minister from New York who rides with leisure-class northerners traveling from Atlanta to New Orleans. The group observes and comments upon the emergence of the New South. Traveling through the Black Belt in their approach to Montgomery by train, the travelers observe disparate scenes of the run-down homes of impoverished black sharecroppers and a college for black women in Talladega (likely Talladega College). In Birmingham, the travelers observe surprising, demonstrable progress, especially the plentiful coal and iron mines. The northern women are also struck by the independent, educated white southern women they encounter. Some of the men explore Mobile Bay and Dauphin Island and sites important in the Battle of Mobile Bay: Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan. They enjoy southern hospitality at the Battle House Hotel and take note of the estate of popular novelist Augusta Evans Wilson and her husband, Ashland Place. By the end of their time in Alabama, the northerners have come to see the significant potential in Alabama’s enormous mineral wealth, its rich soil and good waterways, and its hard-working people. Only capital and skilled labor, they learn, are needed.

Richard Harding Davis During the 1890s, the Davises were one of the most prominent families in America. They were close friends and companions of two U.S. presidents: Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, the Clevelands were the guests of the Davises for three days in 1891, garnering a great deal of publicity in the media. Clarke’s editorship of Public Ledger made him a household name. That same year, in May, Davis travelled with her daughter to Europe and toured France, Switzerland, and Italy. (She would revisit Europe several times in the ensuing years.) In 1892, she published a collection of short stories, Silhouettes of American Life, and a young adult novel, Kent Hampden. In 1897, she published her final novel, Frances Waldeaux.

Memoir and Later Life

Her 1904 memoir, Bits of Gossip, is best characterized as cultural autobiography. It tells readers as much about nineteenth-century American life as Davis’s own. In it, she recalls her first home as being Big Spring; however, later research has shown that it was Florence. She describes a village where woods crept in each year, live oaks grew in the streets, moss-covered roofs, sleepy oxen stood in the hot sunshine, drinking lazily from the huge trough where the spring dripped its water. She also tells, primarily in story form, about honor killings, feuds, and overconsumption of liquor in the form of socially acceptable mint juleps. Despite these approved activities, other kinds, such as dancing and card-playing, could land one in trouble with the church member whose list of forbidden acts seemed to imitate the strictures of descendants of American Puritans. Her mother Rachel recalls great one-storied houses built on piles with mud pits and pigs wallowing below.

Especially interesting in the memoir are Davis’s recollections of women’s roles filtered through her mother’s memory. She asserts that southern women did not lead the idle and romanticized lives pictured by northerners. Rather, they spent much of the day performing domestic work and providing support for the enslaved field hands. Furthermore, they had few books and no amusements other than an occasional social gathering. Even so, Davis believed, primarily because of her mother’s memories, that southern women were strong, intelligent, and kind. Davis argues that the intelligence, frugality, and industrious nature of women were the driving force in the recovery of the South after the Civil War. Davis also calls attention to the area’s agricultural cotton-based economy. The plantation owners were not energetic tenders of their livelihood but focused on their racing horses and gambling that for some resulted in lost livelihoods.

Despite the couple’s long and productive literary career, Clarke’s death in 1904 left Davis uncertain of her financial security. This is one reason she continued writing. She died some six years later on September 29, 1910, in Mount Kisco, New York, at the home of her son Richard. She was buried in Leverington Cemetery in Roxborough, Pennsylvania, with her husband. After her death, her work virtually disappeared until the 1970s, when “Life in the Iron-Mills” was published as a book. After inclusion in American literary anthologies and intense scholarly work on Davis’s life and work, “Iron-Mills” became part of the American literary canon. Now most of her 500 publications may be read in an online archive of her work.

Additional Resources

Harris, Sharon. Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life Among Writers. Morgantown, W.V.: West Virginia University Press, 2018.

Lasseter, Janice Milner, and Sharon M. Harris. Rebecca Harding Davis: Writing Cultural Autobiography. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.

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