Rebecca Harding Davis Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.