Rebecca Harding Davis Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 reconciliation between domesticity and artistry. In 1863, at the age of thirty-two—an age considered relatively late by Victorian standards—she married impoverished attorney L. Clarke Davis and bore three children. Her periodical publications served not only as artistic expression but also as economic sustenance for the family. During her first pregnancy, Davis suffered from depression and endured the “rest cure” made famous by Philadelphia physician Silas Weir Mitchell. Davis’s bout with depression subsided and never resurfaced in her lifetime, although both her son Richard, an author, and her daughter periodically suffered symptomatic bouts.

Davis was an intensely private woman, and as a writer she preferred to express herself through the situations and voices of others. In The Atlantic Monthly, she published works that depicted “commonplace” voices such as the nonfiction account “Blind Tom,” describing an idiot-savant slave whose musical talent was exploited for financial profit. Such stories as “The Wife’s Story” and “The Harmonists” serve as pragmatic countervoice to the Transcendental philosophies espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Davis visited in Concord, Massachusetts. The suffering and degradation Davis witnessed living in a border state during the Civil War caused her to disagree strongly with what she saw as elitist philosophies, rhetoric detached from reality.

While a contributor to The Atlantic Monthly, Davis also initiated her lifelong affiliations with popular periodicals such as Peterson’s, Harper’s, and Scribner’s with narratives such as “Put Out of the Way,” which aided the reformation of Pennsylvania state laws regarding institutionalization of the insane, and “The Man in the Cage,” which denounced the penal system. Davis’s works also confronted society’s marginalization of women. In the Gray Cabins of New England , “The Middle-Aged Woman,” and “Anne” exemplify her...

(The entire section is 1,684 words.)