Rebecca Harding Davis and the beginnings of American realism

December 12, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

If you know anything about journalism history, you probably know the name Richard Harding Davis. He was a reporter in the early 20th century known for his coverage of the Spanish-American Wa, the Boer War, and the beginnings of World War I. He was also one of the most handsome men of his day. His chiseled and rugged features served as the model for a new, clean-shaven look among 20th-century men.

What you may not know, however, is that his mother, Rebecca Harding Davis, was a writer who had once gained about as much fame as her future son and whose contributions to American letters are thought to be important and groundbreaking.

Although Harding was a prolific writer of short stories, novellas, and novels during the second half of the 19th century, she is known chiefly for one of her earliest works – a novella that was serialized by the Atlantic Monthly beginning in April 1861. That novella was titled Life in the Iron Mills, and it is looked upon today as a pioneering work in the genre of realistic fiction.

Life in the iron Mills describes the tragedy of a man in a small village where the available work has become largely industrialized. The environment in which he operates is polluted and oppressive, and he tries to escape from it. There Is no escape. Instead, the protagonist’s future is one of imprisonment and ultimately death. 

Coming as it did at the beginning of the American Civil War and its subsequent industrialization of much of the North, the novella anticipates what will happen to many towns and villages over the next decades. Its publication vaulted Davis into a position at the top of American literary circles. 

Following its popularity and success is a book, James Fields, the Atlantic Monthly editor, wanted another work from Davis. That request spurred her to produce her first novel, titled Margret Howth. In this novel, Davis’s’ protagonist is a female who must not only provide for her family but must also negotiate the hardships of a woman in a male-dominated  society. The novel gave Davis an opportunity to explore some of the social issues that concerned her for the rest of her life.

Davis had been born in 1831 in Pennsylvania, and she spent much of her early life there or in Wheeling, Virginia, (later West Virginia). She received some formal schooling and was also a prolific reader during her childhood. She spent some of her early adulthood working as a reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer to which she submitted reviews, stories, poems, and editorials. 

After the publication of Margaret Howth, Davis traveled with her brother to the northeast where she met the major literary lights of the day. They included Bronson Alcott, his daughter Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

After Life in the Iron Mills was published, Davis received an admiring letter from a young attorney in Philadelphia. His name was L. Clarke Davis. They exchanged several letters, and on her way back from the northeast, she and her brother stopped in Philadelphia to meet him. They soon fell in love and eventually married in 1863. They had three children, Richard, Charles, and Nora. 

While battling bouts of severe depression, Davis became the chief income provider for her family. As her husband was attempting to establish his law practice, Davis wrote mainly potboiler romances for Peterson’s magazine; she also contributed some melodramatic suspense stories to that and other publications .

Davis didn’t just write for money. She contributed many editorial to essays to most of the major publications of the day. With her fiction and nonfiction, she explored issues of social justice and change that became part of the larger social reform movement of the day. Her articles appeared in all of the major Publications of the time.

As the 19th century turned to the 20th century, Davis’s son, Richard Harding Davis, had become the most famous journalist in America. His war dispatches from warfront in Cuba and Africa held American newspaper readers breathless.

To celebrate his mother’s 70th birthday, Richard Harding Davis wrote this: 

From the day you struck the first blow for labor in the iron mills, on to the editorials… with all the good the novels, the stories brought to people, you were always making the ways straighter, lifting up people, making them happier and better. No woman ever did better for her time than you and no shrieking suffragette will ever understand the influence you wielded, greater than hundreds of thousands of women’s votes.

Rebecca Harding Davis continued her writing until close to the time of her death. Her last short story appeared in Scribner’s magazine in 1909, the year before she died.

Her life and her work remained in obscurity for another six decades. One day in the early 1970s, Tillie Olsen, a feminist writer and activist, found an old copy of Davis’s work in a junk shop. She recognized the talent Davis had as a writer and the place that her writing should occupy in the history of American letters. In 1972 the Feminist Press published a new edition of Life in the Iron Mills, along with a biographical interpretation of Davis by Olsen.

That provoked a new interest in the work of Rebecca Harding Davis – an interest that continues with many scholars today. 

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One comment on “Rebecca Harding Davis and the beginnings of American realism

  1. Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis (June 24, 1831 – September 29, 1910) was an American author and journalist. She was a pioneer of literary realism in American literature. She graduated valedictorian from Washington Female Seminary in Pennsylvania. Her most important literary work is the short story “Life in the Iron-Mills,” published in the April 1861 edition of which quickly made her an established female writer. Throughout her lifetime, Davis sought to effect social change for African Americans, women, Native Americans, immigrants, and the working class, by intentionally writing about the plight of these marginalized groups in the h century.

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