Rebecca Harding Davis Essay - Critical Essays

Davis, Rebecca Harding


Rebecca Harding Davis 1831–-1910

Full name Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis. American short story writer, novelist, and journalist.

Davis is regarded as a pioneer of American realism. Her first published story, “Life in the Iron Mills,” introduced the Industrial Revolution, along with its dehumanizing and desensitizing effects on the factory worker, into American literature. Davis was also among the first to write realistically about the Civil War and racial prejudice, as well as incorporate African-American characters as protagonists. The majority of Davis's scholarship has revolved around “Life in the Iron Mills,” which is considered to be her best work and identified as “one of the revolutionary documents in American writing.” The story has been criticized for being grimly true to life and praised for helping to shape the naturalistic and realistic fiction that was soon to emerge in America.

Biographical Information

Davis was born on June 24, 1831, in Washington, Pennsylvania. In 1836, her family moved to Wheeling, Virginia. Living in Virginia afforded Davis the unique opportunity to witness the Civil War from a border slave state. In fact, the city of Wheeling was an industrial area with iron mills that inspired Davis's most acclaimed story. Davis was educated for three years at Washington Female Seminary, where she was valedictorian of her class. After her formal education, she relied on her younger brother, Wilson, who attended Washington College in Pennsylvania, to pass along his knowledge and textbooks. In 1863 after the publication of “Life in the Iron Mills” and Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, Davis visited Boston and was honored by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bronson Alcott, his daughter Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became a great literary influence for Davis. While in Boston she also met L. Clarke Davis, a journalist and law student, who she later married. On April 18, 1864, Davis gave birth to Richard Harding Davis, who also became a successful writer.

Following her marriage, Davis supported her family by writing Gothic mysteries and love stories for popular magazines while producing more refined works about the social status of slaves and women for journals such as The Atlantic Monthly. She published ten novels; more than one hundred short stories in The Atlantic Monthly, Scribners, and Peterson's; and topical essays in The Independent and Saturday Evening Post. She also worked as the managing editor of the New York Daily Tribune from 1867 until 1889. Davis continued to write and publish in The Independent until her death on September 29, 1910.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Davis's first two works, “Life in the Iron Mills” and Margret Howth, have received the most critical attention of any of her writings. It is in this fiction, with Davis's images of hunger, silence, and imprisonment, that her stark realism is at its best. Davis struggled throughout her career with the pressure to remove uncomfortable and “unfeminine” social realities from her works. Because of this, her realistic style is often infused with awkward strains of sentimentality and romanticism. Major themes in Davis's works include poverty, gender, and race. She often wrote about how industrialization impoverished the factory worker, how social attitudes confined women in the prison of the household, and how attitudes following the Civil War continued to hamper African-Americans. She explored slavery in stories such as “John Lamar” and the novel Waiting for the Verdict. Stories such as “Blind Tom,” “David Gaunt,” and “The Yares of Black Mountain,” are among those works with African-American protagonists. She also used the plight of the worker and the African-American as an analogy for the marginality of women; moreover, “Marcia” and “The Story of Christine” are stories about slavery that can be read as metaphors for domestic life. Many of her later works deal directly with the illusions that domestic culture can transcend political culture, that motherhood gives women a position of power and moral redemption, and that women can develop their artistic selves despite social circumstances. She explores these feminist issues in “The Wife's Story” and “The Harmonists.” Most of Davis's stories remain uncollected and are only found in the journals in which they were originally published. However, in 1892, Davis had a collection published under the title Silhouettes of American Life. Also, there is a 1985 collection, entitled Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories.

Critical Reception

After the publication of “Life in the Iron Mills” and Margret Howth, Davis received a warm critical reception from the literary elite in Boston, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others. But many of her later works were stunted by her need to make her works marketable for the popular journals. Davis faded from literary circles as the years passed. By the time she published her autobiography, Bits of Gossip, in 1904, Davis was all but forgotten. Modern critics tend to dismiss Davis as someone who did not live up to the literary promise shown in her early works. In addition, the misattribution to Davis of an anti-suffrage work, “Pro Aris et Focis” (“A Plea for our Altars and Hearths”), continued to go unnoticed by literary critics, leading them to believe that Davis had turned her back on the cause of social and political advancement of women. The republication of “Life in the Iron Mills” by the Feminist Press in 1972 brought a resurgence of interest in Davis and her works. Recent feminist literary critics have begun to examine Davis's later works and are now reassessing the contribution in her later fiction to the causes of social reform. Davis's restoration to a place of importance in literary history and her growing reputation as an innovative realist who introduced the commonplace into American literature is a recent and ongoing phenomenon.

Principal Works

“Life in the Iron Mills” (short story) 1861

“Blind Tom” (short story) 1862

“David Gaunt” (short story) 1862

“John Lamar” (short story) 1862

“The Wife's Story” (short story) 1864

“The Harmonists” (short story) 1866

“Yares of Black Mountain” (short story) 1875

“Marcia” (short story) 1876

Silhouettes of American Life 1892

Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories 1985

Margret Howth: A Story of To-day (novel) 1862

Dallas Galbraith (novel) 1868

Waiting for the Verdict (novel) 1868

John Andross (novel) 1874

Doctor Warrick's Daughters (novel) 1896

Frances Waldeaux (novel) 1897

Bits of Gossip (autobiography) 1904


The Nation (review date 1892)

“‘Silhouettes of American Life’ by Rebecca Harding Davis,” in The Nation, Vol. 55, No. 1423, Oct. 6, 1892, p. 262.

[In the following review of Silhouettes of American Life, the human aspect of Davis's stories is noted and warmly received.]

Mrs. Davis has gathered, under the suggestive title, Silhouettes of American Life, a baker's dozen of short stories—sketches rather—which, in spite of their lightness, their briefness both of matter and interest, are worth the reading. The great poets, as Lowell says, have found man more interesting than nature; have considered nature as no more than the necessary scenery, artistically harmful if too pompous...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

James Austin (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: “Success and Failure of Rebecca Harding Davis,” in Midcontinent American Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring, 1962, pp. 44-9.

[In the following essay, Austin details Davis's merits and shortcomings as an author, concluding that she succumbed to the mandates of the literary culture of her time.]

Pioneer realist and sociological fiction writer, Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910) was born too early. In her struggle with the nineteenth century, the century won too many of the victories. Yet because of her successes as well as her traceable failures, her story provides an informative light on the times.

Born Rebecca Blaine Harding in Wheeling, she...

(The entire section is 2232 words.)

Walter Hesford (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Literary Contexts of ‘Life in the Iron Mills’,” in American Literature, Vol. XLIX, No. 1, March, 1977, pp. 70-85.

[In the following essay, Hesford examines “Life in the Iron Mills” in the literary contexts of the achievement of Hawthorne, the tradition of the social novel, and the religious bias of mid-nineteenth-century American literature.]

Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills,” published in the April, 1861 Atlantic Monthly, is the first notable work of fiction to concern itself with the life of the factory worker in an industrial American town.1 In literary histories, the story is usually treated, if treated at...

(The entire section is 6253 words.)

Jean Pfaelzer (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “‘Marcia’ by Rebecca Harding Davis,” in Legacy, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 3-5.

[In the following essay, Pfaelzer explores the autobiographical aspects of “Marcia”.]

In “Marcia” (1876) Rebecca Harding Davis tells of sentiment and silence, of publishers, husbands, and a literary tradition that conspired to mute women.1 In this powerful story about telling stories, Davis projects her own ambivalence about ambition onto her heroine, who attempts a desperate challenge to sentimentality.2 Reversing the choices Davis made in her own life and fiction, “Marcia” tells of a young writer who suffers for her refusal to...

(The entire section is 1676 words.)

Sharon M. Harris (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Rebecca Harding Davis: From Romanticism to Realism,” in American Literary Realism 1870–1910, Vol. 21, No. 2, Winter, 1989, pp. 4-20.

[In the following essay, Harris analyzes the complex narrative structure of “Life in the Iron Mills” in terms of the movement from romanticism to realism, concluding that the story rejects transcendentalism and is a work of naturalism.]

In April, 1861, the Atlantic Monthly published Rebecca Harding Davis' “Life in the Iron Mills,” a startlingly new experiment in literature and a pioneering document in American literature's transition from romanticism to realism. Further, the naturalistic plot of “Life”'s...

(The entire section is 7722 words.)

Sharon M. Harris (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Redefining the Feminine: Women and Work in Rebecca Harding Davis's ‘In the Market’,” in Legacy, Vol. 8, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 118-21.

[In the following essay, Harris maintains that “In the Market” is one of Davis's most feminist texts.]

In the 1860s, most of Rebecca Harding Davis's fiction focused upon the rise of industrial capitalism, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. A notable thematic shift in Davis's writings was evidenced, however, with the 1868 publication of one of her finest short stories,“In the Market”. The significance of that shift is twofold. First, instead of the Atlantic Monthly, where most of her best fiction appeared...

(The entire section is 2236 words.)

Jane Atteridge Rose (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “The Artist Manque in the Fiction of Rebecca Harding Davis,” in Writing the Woman Artist: Essays on Poetics, Politics, and Portraiture, edited by Suzanne W. Jones, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 155-74.

[In the following essay, Rose asserts that Davis uses the artist manque in “Life in the Iron Mills,” “Blind Tom,” and other stories to exorcise her desire to be an artist by simultaneously asserting her desire and denying it.]

The narrator of Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills, or The Korl Woman” 1 concludes the tragic tale of Hugh Wolfe's artistic failure by contemplating the artist's unfinished creation:...

(The entire section is 8768 words.)

William H. Shurr (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “‘Life in the Iron Mills': A Nineteenth-Century Conversion Narrative,” in The American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 4, December, 1991, pp. 245-57.

[In the following essay, Shurr contends that the narrator of “Life in the Iron Mills” is the character Mitchell, and that the story can be best understood as a conversion narrative.]

“Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis now occupies a secure place in the canon of American literature. Walter Hesford has shown that the story has deep roots in earlier American literary traditions; looking in the other direction, Jean Pfaelzer has declared that the story “must be considered as a...

(The entire section is 6782 words.)

Jean Pfaelzer (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Domesticity and the Discourse of Slavery: ‘John Lamar’ and ‘Blind Tom’ by Rebecca Harding Davis,” in ESQ, Vol. 38, 1st Quarter, 1992, pp. 31-56.

[In the following essay, Pfaelzer asserts that Davis challenges the notion that women and slaves thrive in confinement in her stories “John Lamar” and “Blind Tom”.]

In July of 1867, William Dean Howells concluded that “our war has not only left us the burden of a tremendous national debt, but has laid upon our literature a charge under which it has hitherto staggered very lamely.”1 Modern critics from Daniel Aaron to Hazel Carby have tended to agree: in terms of literature, the Civil...

(The entire section is 8867 words.)

Sheila Hassell Hughes (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “Between Bodies of Knowledge there is a Great Gulf Fixed: A Liberationist Reading of Class and Gender in ‘Life in the Iron Mills’,” in American Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 1, March, 1997, pp. 113-37.

[In the following essay, Hughes maintains that “Life in the Iron Mills” should be read as a religious parable and goes on to analyze the text in the context of liberation.]

Critics have recognized Rebecca Harding Davis's “Life in the Iron Mills” as “radical”—calling it “a startling new experiment in literature and a pioneering document in American literature's transition from romanticism to realism.”1 Davis's tale was first...

(The entire section is 10288 words.)

Further Reading


Boudreau, Kristen. “‘The Woman's Flesh of Me’: Rebecca Harding Davis's Response to Self-Reliance,” in The American Transcendental Quarterly 6, No. 2 (June 1992): 131-40.

Argues that Davis's “The Wife's Story” is an indictment of women who endorse Emerson's transcendentalism, and that Davis replaces reliance on self with reliance on religious and moral authority.

Buckley, J. F. “Living in the Iron Mills: A Tempering of Nineteenth-Century America's Orphic Poet.” Journal of American Culture 16, No. 1 (Spring 1993): 67-72.

Explores the influence of transcendentalism in “Life in the Iron...

(The entire section is 896 words.)