Richard Beale Davis (3 June 1907–30 March 1981), literary historian and documentary editor, was the son of Henry Woodhouse Davis, a Methodist minister, and Margaret Josephine Wills Davis. Born in Accomac, he moved frequently as his father took church assignments in Portsmouth, Danville, Newport News, Richmond, Farmville, and Norfolk, among other places. After receiving a B.A. from Randolph-Macon College in 1927, Davis taught at McGuire's University School, in Richmond, from 1927 to 1930 and at Randolph-Macon Academy, in Bedford, from 1930 to 1932. He entered the University of Virginia in the last year and received an M.A. in 1933 and a Ph.D. in English in 1936 after completing a dissertation entitled "The Life, Letters, and Essays of Francis Walker Gilmer: A Study in Virginia Literary Culture in the First Quarter of the Nineteenth Century." Davis married Lois Camp Bullard on 25 August 1936 in Franklin, Virginia. They had no children.
From 1936 to 1940 Davis taught at Mary Washington College (later the University of Mary Washington) and from 1940 to 1947 at the University of South Carolina, though from 1943 to 1946 during World War II he was on leave serving in the United States Navy. In 1947 he joined the English department of the University of Tennessee, where he taught until he retired in 1977. Davis became the preeminent literary historian of the early South. The intensity of his writing was such that unless he protected his hand with a handkerchief, he gripped his pen or pencil so tightly that his fingers bled. Davis published more than twenty books and nearly a hundred scholarly essays, many of them treating important or neglected Virginia writers. His major books include Francis Walker Gilmer: Life and Learning in Jefferson's Virginia (1939); The Abbé Correa in America, 1812–1820 (1955); George Sandys, Poet-Adventurer: A Study in Anglo-American Culture in the Seventeenth Century (1955); Intellectual Life in Jefferson's Virginia, 1790–1830 (1964), which won an award from the American Association for State and Local History; Literature and Society in Early Virginia, 1608–1840 (1973); and A Colonial Southern Bookshelf: Reading in the Eighteenth Century (1979). His magisterial three-volume Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585–1763 (1978) won the National Book Award for history in 1979. Davis anticipated by several decades the scholarly recognition that the colonial South had played as great a role in the creation of the future American culture as Puritan New England had.
Davis also edited a number of key writings of early Virginia and the South, including The Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and Francis Walker Gilmer, 1814–1826 (1946); Jeffersonian America: Notes on the United States…by Sir Augustus John Foster, Bart. (1954); William Fitzhugh and His Chesapeake World, 1676–1701 (1963); The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society (1967), which printed the "Dinwidianae," attributed to John Mercer, and "The Religion of the Bible and the Religion of K[ing] W[illiam] County Compared," by James Reid; and Collected Poems of Samuel Davies, 1723–1761 (1968). During the time that he studied and published on George Sandys, the treasurer of the Virginia colony during its second decade who while in Jamestown completed much of a celebrated translation of Ovid's works, Davis accumulated a major collection of Sandys's writings, which he donated to the library of the University of Virginia. He later gave his large and valuable personal library to Randolph-Macon College.
Davis received numerous honors, including Guggenheim Fellowships awarded in 1945 and 1959. He was a Fulbright visiting professor at the University of Oslo during the 1953–1954 academic year and a Department of State specialist lecturer in American literature in India in 1957. Davis served as president of the South Atlantic Modern Language Association in 1965, was elected an honorary member of the Virginia Historical Society (later the Virginia Museum of History and Culture) in 1972, chaired the American Literature Section of the Modern Language Association in 1975, and was named Honored Scholar of Early American Literature in 1977. He was a National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow during the 1974–1975 academic year, a chancellor's research scholar at the University of Tennessee (1976–1977), and a National Humanities Center fellow (1979–1980). Davis received honorary doctorates from Randolph-Macon College in 1955, from the College of William and Mary in 1979, and from Eastern Kentucky University in 1980. In 1962 he became Alumni Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Tennessee. Several of his graduate students made important contributions to the field of American literature, and he inspired a host of younger scholars, whom he encouraged with advice, praise, and long, thoughtful letters of recommendation.
At the time of his retirement, Davis published in Early American Literature an essay anticipating his next major project, "Southern Writing of the Revolutionary Period, c. 1760–1790," which judiciously evaluated and, in a few cases, celebrated a number of little-known and unknown writers and writings, just as he had repeatedly done throughout his career. He had also undertaken a census of manuscript and printed southern colonial sermons and planned to collect and edit them in a multivolume edition. Richard Beale Davis died of a heart attack in Knoxville, Tennessee, on 30 March 1981. An urn containing his cremated ashes was buried at Blandford Cemetery, in Petersburg.
Biography, bibliography of publications, and frontispiece portrait in J. A. Leo Lemay, ed., Essays in Early Virginia Literature Honoring Richard Beale Davis (1977), i–iv, vii–xii; Richard Beale Davis Papers, Hoskins Library, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and other Davis papers in Modern Language Association of America, American Literature Section, Papers, 1922–1999, Duke University, Durham, N.C., at Randolph-Macon College (uncataloged), Ashland, Va., and at Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Marriage Certificate, Southampton Co., Bureau of Vital Statistics, Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Health, Record Group 36, Library of Virginia; scholarly appreciations by Robert D. Arner, "A Tribute to Professor Richard Beale Davis," Early American Literature 12 (1977): 105, Michael A. Lofaro, ed., "A Colloquium on the Present State of the Study of Early American Literature and the Contributions of Richard Beale Davis to this Study," Tennessee Studies in Literature 26 (1981): 1–47, Lemay in Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 91 (1982): 173–175, and James H. Justus, "Introduction," No Fairer Land: Studies in Southern Literature before 1900, ed. J. Lasley Dameron and James W. Mathews (1986), 1–7; obituaries in Knoxville News-Sentinel and Richmond News Leader, both 31 Mar. 1981.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by J. A. Leo Lemay.
How to cite this page:
>J. A. Leo Lemay,"Richard Beale Davis (1907–1981)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 2018 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.asp?b=Davis_Richard_Beale, accessed [today's date]).
Return to the Dictionary of Virginia Biography Search page.