Rebecca Harding Davis Biography


Rebecca Harding Davis has been called the first critical realist; her story “Life in the Iron-Mills” precedes French realist Émile Zola’s work by six years. Davis’s philosophy of art embraced reform as well as realism. “Life in the Iron-Mills” exemplifies her amalgamation of realism and reform in her attention to the “commonplace,” in which every voice was significant. In her five decades of writing, Davis produced nearly five hundred works in both fictional and nonfictional prose. Her novels, periodical fictions, and topical essays embraced critical realism. Her themes urged reform through explorations of subjects such as class, gender, racism, abuses in the penal system and insanity laws, labor abuses against women and children, capitalistic avarice, and the necessity of economic self-sufficiency for women.{$S[A]Harding, Rebecca Blaine;Davis, Rebecca Harding}

Born in Pennsylvania in 1831, Rebecca Blaine Harding moved with her family in 1837 to the steel-manufacturing town of Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia). This environment was influential in the development of Davis’s realism and emphasis on reform. Educated at home until the age of fourteen, Davis then attended the Washington Female Seminary, where she graduated valedictorian of her class in 1848. Little is known about Davis’s next twelve years, other than that she took lengthy walks through Wheeling for exercise and contemplation. These solitary excursions enabled her to glimpse the realities of working-class life and to see the destruction that resulted from the Civil War.

In 1861, Davis published her first work, “Life in the Iron-Mills,” in the nation’s most prestigious periodical, The Atlantic Monthly. As did much of Davis’s work that had reformist goals, this realistic short story simultaneously depicted industrialization’s demoralizing effects upon society while it introduced working-class lives to upper-class readers.

Davis’s work represents a mediation between realism and sentimentalism, exemplifying her...

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Rebecca Harding Davis was born Rebecca Harding on June 24, 1831, at her aunt’s home in Washington, Pennsylvania, and soon was taken to the...

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Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991. Recovers many of Davis’s obscure works to hail her as a pioneering realist.

Lasseter, Janice Milner, and Sharon M. Harris, eds. Rebecca Harding Davis: Writing Cultural Autobiography, by Rebecca Harding Davis. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001. Originally published as Bits of Gossip in 1904. Includes an additional unpublished family history.

Olsen, Tillie, ed. Life in the Iron-Mills, and Other Stories, by Rebecca Harding Davis. Rev. and expanded ed. Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist Press, 1985. Includes a biographical essay by Olsen which offers the first feminist critique of Davis.

Pfaelzer, Jean. Parlor Radical: Rebecca Harding Davis and the Origins of American Social Realism. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996. A good examination of Davis’s work.

Rose, Jane Atteridge. Rebecca Harding Davis. New York: Twayne, 1993. A standard biography from Twayne’s United States Authors series.

Yellin, Jean Fagan. Afterword to Margret Howth: A Story of To-day, by Rebecca Harding Davis. New York: Feminist Press, 1990. Addresses the author’s feminization through editorial pressures.