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Davis, Rebecca Harding

DAVIS, Rebecca Harding

Born 24 June 1831, Washington, Pennsylvania; died 29 September 1910, Mt. Kisco, New York

Daughter of Richard and Rachel Leet Harding; married Lemuel C.Davis, 1863

Rebecca Harding Davis's major work "Life in the Iron Mills" was published in the April 1861 Atlantic Monthly. "Life in the Iron Mills" depicts the hardships of Hugh Wolfe, a sensitive artist fated to a life of deprivation, harshness, and futility as a furnace tender in a Virginia mill. Although occasionally veering toward emotionalism, in spite of Davis' conscious effort to write objectively, the novella has a gripping quality that earned it an enthusiastic reception. Grimly naturalistic, "Life in the Iron Mills" is a landmark in the history of American literature. Also noteworthy are "John LaMar" and "David Gaunt," the country's first realistic accounts of the horrors of the Civil War, published in 1862 in the Atlantic Monthly. In them Davis expressed her reaction to the "filthy spewings" of the war.

Sadly, Davis did not live up to her promise. Her career had begun with the publication in little magazines of a few book reviews, verses, and stories of "dark conspiracies" and "stately romances." She continued to write in the prevailing sentimental and melodramatic modes. Davis wrote essays for the New York Tribune, the North American Review, and Harper's Bazaar, numerous children's stories, historical essays for the Youth's Companion, and gothic thrillers for Peterson's.

Of her longer works, the most significant is Waiting for the Verdict (1868), a melodramatic study of the problems that befall a prominent Philadelphia surgeon when he reveals he is part black. Awkward rendition of the black dialect and unconvincing characterization brought uncomplimentary reviews. Davis, undeterred by the criticism, brought out another novel the same year—Dallas Galbraith.

In Davis' middle years, her views became exceedingly conservative. In Pro Aris et Focis (1870), for example, she declared that a woman's ordained role is motherhood, and only the woman with "no chance of rest in a husband's house" should enter the professions. In her lifetime Davis was best known for her journalistic observations. She was never again to achieve the artistry of "Life in the Iron Mills." Today, few of her works have survived, and her career is of interest only within the context of American literary history.

Other Works:

Margaret Howth (1862). Berrytown (1872). John Andross (1874). Kitty's Choice (1874). A Law Unto Herself (1878). Natasqua (1886). Kent Hampden (1892). Silhouettes of American Life (1892). Dr. Warrick's Daughters (1896). Frances Waldeaux (1897). Bits of Gossip (1904).

Bibliography:

Langford, G., The Richard Harding Davis Years: A Biography of Mother and Son (1961). Quinn, A. H., American Fiction (1936). Sheaffer, H. W., "Rebecca Harding Davis, Pioneer Realist" (dissertation, 1947). Wann, L., The Rise of Realism (1942). Wyman, M., "Women in the American Realistic Novel" (dissertation, 1950).

Reference Works:

American Authors 1600-1900 (1938). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).

Other reference:

Legacy (Fall 1990). NYT (30 Sept. 1910).

—DOROTHY KISH

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