Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis (24 June 1831–29 September 1910), writer, was born in Washington, Pennsylvania, the home of her maternal aunt. Her parents, Rachel Leet Wilson Harding and Richard William Harding, an Irish immigrant, lived in Florence, Alabama, and about 1837 moved their family to Wheeling, Virginia. Instructed at home by her parents and by tutors, Harding became well-read. As a child she made annual visits to her mother's family in Washington. She matriculated at the Washington Female Seminary at age fourteen and graduated at the top of her class in 1848.

Harding returned to Wheeling to live with her family. Late in the 1850s she worked as an assistant editor at the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer with editor Archibald W. Campbell. During that time Harding published a few unsigned stories, but it was her novella Life in the Iron-Mills that thrust her into literary prominence. Published anonymously in the April 1861 issue of Atlantic Monthly, it was reprinted in Atlantic Tales: A Collection of Stories from the Atlantic Monthly (1866). Harding's novella impressed contemporary readers with its dark depictions of the conditions of the working classes and was later touted as one of the first examples of American literary realism. Beginning in October 1861 Atlantic Monthly serialized "A Story of To-Day," about a young woman working in a mill to support her family. It was published as the novel Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day (1862). Late in 1861 Harding's work first appeared in Peterson's Magazine, a women's journal less prestigious but better paying than Atlantic Monthly. Over the next thirty-two years Peterson's published about a hundred of her pieces.

The Civil War intruded directly on Harding's life when Union forces set up headquarters across the street from the family home and converted a nearby theater into a jail. In June 1862 Harding went to Boston to visit the editor of Atlantic Monthly. There she met the writers Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and her longtime favorite, Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work had influenced her own writing. Harding also traveled to Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia, where she visited Lemuel Clarke Davis, a journalist who in 1891 became managing editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger. The two had begun corresponding after Davis wrote her a letter praising Life in the Iron-Mills. They married in Wheeling on 5 March 1863 and moved to Philadelphia to live with his sister's family.

Davis and her husband settled into their permanent Philadelphia home in 1870 and in the next decade began spending summers in New England. Their daughter and two sons included the celebrated author and journalist Richard Harding Davis. Some critics feared that the time constraints and financial strain of family life caused Davis to begin writing too quickly and for income, rather than for the sake of literary art. Originally appearing in 1867 as a serial in Galaxy, her Civil War novel Waiting for the Verdict (1868) explored issues of race. In 1868 the inaugural issue of Lippincott's Magazine began serializing "Dallas Galbraith," a romance set in Manasquan, a coastal New Jersey community that she occasionally visited; it was separately published as a novel later that year.

Davis wrote stories and nonfiction articles for such national magazines as Harper's New Monthly, Putnam's Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and Scribner's Monthly. Collections of her stories include "Kitty's Choice, or Berrytown," and Other Stories (1873) and Silhouettes of American Life (1892). She published six more novels serially and in book form, including John Andross (1874), a story of political and moral corruption; Natasqua (1886); and Doctor Warrick's Daughters (1896), a well-received examination of wealth and class. Her final book was a memoir, Bits of Gossip (1904). Davis's work often included social commentary on such topics as the rights and treatment of children, African Americans, Indians, and working women. Critics have sometimes distorted her views on women as the result of a longtime misattribution to her of an antisuffragist tract, Pro Aris et Focis (1870). Progressive at the time, her views can sometimes strike modern readers as patronizing and elitist.

In 1869 Davis joined the editorial staff of the New-York Tribune, where she remained for almost twenty years. By February 1893 she was a regular contributing editor to the Youth's Companion, one of the many magazines to which she submitted juvenile fiction and nonfiction. Davis attempted to have her works published in Great Britain, but during her lifetime only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia publishers printed her titles.

Davis journeyed through the South and made at least three trips to Europe, where she visited Italy, England, Scotland, and her father's ancestral home in Ireland. Often accompanied by her daughter, Davis frequented the popular Virginia resort of Warm Springs. Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis died of heart disease on 29 September 1910 while visiting her son in Mount Kisco, New York. Her cremated remains were buried next to those of her husband, who had died on 14 December 1904, in Leverington Cemetery in the Roxborough neighborhood of Philadelphia.

After her death, Davis's writing fell into relative obscurity. Although Waiting for the Verdict and Silhouettes of American Life were reissued in 1968, it was not until the Feminist Press reprinted Life in the Iron-Mills in 1972 that Davis gained a new repute. Since then, the novella has been widely anthologized, and Davis's work is often featured in studies of realism in American literature and in discussions of Appalachian writers.

Sources Consulted:
Biographies in Helen Woodward Sheaffer, "Rebecca Harding Davis: Pioneer Realist" (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1947), Gerald Langford, The Richard Harding Davis Years: A Biography of a Mother and Son (1961), 3–58, and Janice Milner Lasseter and Sharon M. Harris, Rebecca Harding Davis: Writing Cultural Autobiography (2001), with portraits.; largest collection of correspondence and MSS in Rebecca Harding Davis Papers and in Richard Harding Davis Papers, both in Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; Jane Atteridge Rose, "A Bibliography of Fiction and Non-Fiction by Rebecca Harding Davis," American Literary Realism 22 (1990): 67–86; Sharon M. Harris, Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism (1991); Sharon M. Harris and Robin L. Cadwallader, eds., Rebecca Harding Davis's Stories of the Civil War Era: Selected Writings from the Borderlands (2010); obituaries in New York Times and Wheeling Daily News, both 30 Sept. 1910.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Maria Kimberly.

How to cite this page:
Maria Kimberly,"Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis (1831–1910)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2016 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Davis_Rebecca_Blaine_Harding, accessed [today's date]).

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