Rebecca Harding Davis, the oldest
of five children of Richard and Rachel Leet Wilson
Harding, was born in Washington, Pennsylvania,
home of her mother's prominent family. She spent
the first five years of her life in the Deep South
plantation country of Big Spring, Alabama, where
her British immigrant father first tried his entrepreneurial
hand. In 1836 the Hardings moved to Wheeling,
Virginia, a border town on the Ohio River poised
between the industrial North and the agricultural
South. Wheeling's rapid growth into a factory
town would profoundly affect the themes and the
vision of Davis's fiction. She was sent back to
her mother's country to attend the Washington
Female Seminary when she was 14, but her best
education came through instruction from her brother
Wilse, who received college training, which he
passed on to her. Returning to Wheeling in 1848,
she joined the staff of western Virginia's most
important newspaper, the Wheeling Intelligencer.
Its editor, Archibald Campbell, entrusted her
with editorials as well as reviews and poems.
In 1861 she submitted her long story, "Life in
Mills," to America's leading national magazine,
the Atlantic Monthly, whose assistant editor,
James Field, enthusiastically accepted a work
that has since been called "one of the revolutionary
documents in American literary history." Thus,
in the same year that her country became embroiled
in the Civil War, Davis, with brutal realism as
well as romantic exhortation, introduced readers
to the social cause of dehumanizing industrial
labor and poverty, drawing on life in the factories
that were rapidly expanding in her home city.
Davis's first novel, Margaret
Howth, was published in 1862, and in that
year she traveled east to meet her editor, James
Fields, and his wife, Annie, who in Boston introduced
her to leading authors of an earlier generation-Hawthorne,
Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott's father, Bronson.
She disliked Alcott and other transcendentalists
for what she felt was their naive idealism. In
Philadelphia, on her journey home, she visited
a lawyer who had been corresponding with her since
"Life in the Iron Mills" appeared in the Atlantic.
She and this ardent admirer, Clarke Davis, were
married the following year in March 1863. By 1864
the couple had the first of their three children,
son Richard Harding Davis, who would later become
a novelist of much greater renown than his mother.
Living in Philadelphia, Davis found her energies
consumed by the needs of her children and husband,
who had become editor of the Inquirer.
In spite of depression and exhaustion, Davis published
other pioneering works during the 1860s and 1870s.
Waiting for the Verdict (1868) dealt with
the Civil War, with miscegenation, and with racism
as a national problem. "In the Market" (1868)
was concerned with women's issues, and John
Andross (1874) exposed the political corruption
of Boss Tweed.
Throughout her long career, Davis
challenged both traditional subject matter and
older literary styles. By the time of her death,
she had published ten novels, more than 100 shorter
pieces, and in 1904 an autobiographical work,
Bits of Gossip, one of the only works in
which she was willing to air elements of her personal
life. She died of a stroke in 1910 and was memorialized
primarily as the mother of the famous journalist
Richard Harding Davis, whose career she had encouraged.
A push by Tillie Olsen, the important twentieth-century
American feminist writer, to publish "Life in
the Iron Mills," with her own long biographical
interpretation, in 1972 marked the beginning of
a resurgence of interest in a woman whose first
major work wrought radical changes in how fiction
would be written and read in America. -Lucinda H. MacKethan
Photograph courtesy of Henry Holt and Company