Rebecca Harding Davis Criticism - Essay

The Nation (review date 1892)

(Short Story Criticism)

“‘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 or obtrusive, before which man acts his tragi-comedy of life. And so, as extremes meet, the average reader usually finds his liking following in similar lines. Long and labored descriptions bore him, or, more often, merely serve as an opportunity for indulging in the art of skipping. Mrs. Davis is always ready to place her mountains and her woods in due prominence, and is evidently a lover of the out-door world; but it is the human interest; after all, which is first with her and which gives the best value to her work. It helps to make the tales natural as well; for in a short story which has a genuine bit of human interest to start with, there is no need for striving after effects, either scenic or dramatic. “A Wayside Episode” is perhaps the poorest, because the most artificial, of the collection. The situation seems impossible, and that is enough to spoil it, even had the incidents actually happened. Amoug the rest, where there is such an even range of excellence, it would be hard to pick.

James Austin (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.)