American Literature Rebecca Harding Davis
Robin Cadwallader
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0123


Rebecca Blaine Harding was born 24 June 1831, in Washington, Pennsylvania, at the home of her mother’s sister, Rebecca Blaine, for whom she was named. Although Rachel Harding and her baby daughter soon returned to Alabama, where the Hardings were living at the time, Rebecca grew up in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), her family having moved there when she was five. During her years in Wheeling, Rebecca would have traveled back and forth between her mother’s family and her own, Washington being only about thirty miles away. In fact, Rebecca attended the Female Seminary in Washington from 1845–1848, graduating valedictorian of her class; she did not board at the school, but lived with her mother’s family for these three years. Following her graduation, Rebecca returned to Wheeling, where she remained in her family’s home until her marriage to L. Clarke Davis (December 1862) and her subsequent move to his home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Rebecca and Clarke Davis had three children: Richard Harding, Charles Belmont, and Nora. She died at her son Richard’s home in Mt. Kisko, New York, in 1910. According to Jane Atteridge Rose in Rebecca Harding Davis (Rose 1993, cited under Biographical Studies), Rebecca Harding “began writing reviews, poems, stories, and editorials for the Wheeling Intelligencer” in 1850, “serving briefly as its editor in 1859” (p. 7). In 1860, Rebecca Harding submitted “Life in the Iron-Mills” to the Atlantic Monthly; the story appeared in the April issue of the magazine. Harding was paid $50 for her first story and was offered $100 for her next, a proposal she rejected, claiming she would rather write without the pressure of having already been paid for what she might produce. Within the next year, Harding’s work appeared in eight of the twelve issues of the Atlantic. Her first extended work, Margret Howth, serialized in the Atlantic from October 1861 through March 1862, was published in novel form by Ticknor and Fields later that year. With hundreds of works (short stories, essays, and books) to her credit, Rebecca Harding Davis’s writing was published in all of the well-known literary magazines of her day. In addition to being a professional writer of fiction, Davis performed editorial work for several major newspapers, including the New York Tribune, for which she wrote nonfiction essays as a contributing editor from 1869–1889. Recognized today as the first American realist, a title given her by Sharon M. Harris in Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism (Harris 1991, cited under Comprehensive Critical Studies), Davis used her writing to emphasize the realities of life. While she critiqued the industrialism she saw consume her hometown of Wheeling, she also explored various other 19th-century social causes, such as abolition, woman’s rights, and temperance, becoming Pfaelzer 1996 (cited under Comprehensive Critical Studies) called a “parlor radical.”

Biographical Studies

Most biographical studies of Rebecca Harding Davis begin with information gleaned from her Bits of Gossip (Davis 1904); in Lasseter and Harris 2001, an annotated edition of Davis’s text, the editors add family photos and an essay titled “A Family History,” written by Davis for her children, to Davis’s original publication. Langford 1961 and Lubow 1992 describe Davis’s influence on her oldest son Richard Harding Davis, also a well-known, popular writer. In Olsen 1985, the author provides brief biographical information on Davis, but her text highlights her recovery of Davis’s story rather than Davis as a writer, while Rose 1993 draws on the critical work of Harris 1991, Pfaelzer 1996, and Shaeffer 1947 (all three cited under Comprehensive Critical Studies) to create an accessible basic biography of the author.

  • Davis, Rebecca Harding. Bits of Gossip. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1904.

    Davis’s “remembrances” of her early life and times; this text has been used as the basis for much of the biographical material on Davis. Published in 1904, toward the end of Davis’s life, Bits of Gossip should be read in the same way as anything else drawn from memory and written down long after the events happened.

  • Langford, Gerald. “Book I: Rebecca.” In The Richard Harding Davis Years: A Biography of a Mother and Son. By Gerald Langford, 3–58. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961.

    A good source for understanding Davis’s relationship with her son Richard and her influence on him as a writer, Langford’s biography examines the author’s life and career in relation to her son’s. Some of the biographical information on Davis is drawn from private, primarily family-owned, materials that are no longer accessible because they were not archived or otherwise preserved by the holders.

  • Lasseter, Janice Milner, and Sharon M. Harris, eds. Rebecca Harding Davis: Writing Cultural Autobiography. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

    Family pictures and an essay written by Davis for her family are added to this annotated reprint of Bits of Gossip. In their introduction, Lasseter and Harris argue for the text being “cultural autobiography.” Davis’s essay “A Family History” provides important genealogical information not found in Bits of Gossip.

  • Lubow, Arthur. The Reporter Who Would Be King: A Biography of Richard Harding Davis. New York: Scribner’s, 1992.

    A study of Richard Harding Davis, Lubow’s biography expands our understanding of the relationship between mother and son. Lubow includes references to other family members, such as the author’s husband, Clarke, and her other two children, Charles and Nora. Some of the primary sources used are inaccessible or may no longer be available because they were either family owned or privately held and were not archived or otherwise preserved by the holders.

  • Olsen, Tillie. “A Biographical Interpretation” and “Notes.”In Life in the Iron Mills and Other Stories. Edited by Rebecca Harding Davis, 69–156, 157–174. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist, 1985.

    These two sections of Olsen’s text have been used to provide a foundation for Davis scholarship; they are important for their historical value in documenting the rediscovery of Davis as an author and of her “Life in the Iron-Mills.” Olsen’s commentary was first published in 1972 by the Feminist Press in Life in the Iron Mills; or, the Korl Woman.

  • Rose, Jane Atteridge. Rebecca Harding Davis. New York: Twayne, 1993.

    An accessible basic biography, Rose’s text provides an analysis of individual works interwoven with details on the author’s life; includes a select bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

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