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Rebecca Harding Davis, 1831-1910
Bits of Gossip
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1904.

Summary

Rebecca Blaine Harding, daughter of Rachel Leet Wilson and Richard W. Harding, was born June 24, 1831. The couple lived in Florence, Alabama; yet, Rachel traveled to her sister's home in Washington, Pennsylvania, to deliver Rebecca, the first of her seven children. In 1837, the Harding family moved to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), but Rebecca returned to her birthplace when she was fourteen to enter Washington Female Seminary, from which she graduated as class valedictorian in 1848. Since domestic duties prevented further study, she continued her education by reading and conversing with her brother Hugh, who was attending Washington College and frequently brought her books. She worked intermittently as a reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer. Her literary career began in 1861 when Atlantic Monthly published what is still her most famous work, the groundbreaking novella Life in the Iron Mills, a tale of workers' struggles in a realistic style over two decades before the height of American literary realism. She quickly rose to literary prominence, and just before the publication of her first novel, Margaret Howth: A Story of To-Day in 1862, Harding visited Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, staying in the homes of some of America's most eminent literati, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Atlantic editor James Fields. From Massachusetts, she traveled to Philadelphia to visit journalist Lemuel Clarke Davis, an admirer with whom she had been corresponding. The two were engaged and married on March 5, 1863. They had three children, Richard, Clark, and Nora. Although Davis briefly battled debilitating depression in the early years of her marriage, she went on to become a regular contributor to the New York Tribune and later the New York Independent and the Saturday Evening Post. Rebecca Harding Davis died on September 29, 1910, at her son Richard's home in Mount Kisco, New York. She had published more than 500 works in her lifetime.

Houghton-Mifflin published Davis's autobiography, Bits of Gossip, in 1904—the same year her husband died. In her preface, Davis explains that she will not be presenting a traditional memoir, but rather a cultural memoir that focuses on the people who influenced her as well as the historical and political events that shaped her life. She believed that every person should write "not the story of his own life, but of the time in which he lived,— as he saw it,— its creed, its purpose, its queer habits, and the work which it did or left undone in the world. Taken singly, these accounts might be weak and trivial, but together, they would make history live and breathe" (p. iii).

In the earliest chapters, Davis nostalgically describes average Americans in their everyday lives. The first chapter, for example, offers reflections on agrarian, small-town Virginia in the late 1830s and early 1840s, and chapter three looks at the lives of the Scots-Irish settlers in the middle states. She argues that life in general, and the news in particular, was much slower than in the early twentieth century, noting that there was instead an emphasis on cultivating the imagination. Neighbors' discussions focused primarily on the American Revolution, the Indian wars, and education based on the Greek and Roman classics. People lived more simply and adhered more strictly to religion—God was "always present," as He took "a personal interest" in all matters, sacred and secular (p. 98). But, she writes, when the farmers struck oil, the money changed everything. The new American has little time for religion because he is focused monomaniacally on progress. Davis argues that people's attention has shifted from the individual good to the collective good as they begin to perceive work as the key to American power. Juxtaposed with the chapters that follow, Davis's thoughts here offer a stinging indictment of late-nineteenth and early twentieth century American values.

Davis also dedicates a significant portion of her narrative to famous authors and politicians, particularly when she details her 1862 journey to Massachusetts. She describes walking with Oliver Wendell Holmes to look at old gravestones; dining with Bronson Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she labels a prophet and his blind follower, respectively; and being entertained at the home of the "necromancer" Nathaniel Hawthorne, an experience she remembers as one of the best in her life (p. 59). Later, she notes her dislike of the abrasive, yet sympathetic, Henry Ward Beecher and the "strange, bitter eloquence" of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's speeches (p.188).

She dedicates Chapter Seven, "A Peculiar People," to examining the abolitionists and their cause, noting they were a zealous people, undaunted by the violent hatred of southerners, and that those who distinguished themselves on both sides of the slavery debate were characterized best by their "simplicity—the total lack of posing, of self-consciousness" (p. 179). She also observes that twentieth-century politicians could learn much from earlier figures like Henry Clay, who made an effort to interact directly with people. With the exception of Hawthorne, whom she admires greatly, Davis explains that she is generally disappointed upon meeting famous people in their everyday lives, for, she explains, "you will find the poet who wrings the heart of the world, or the foremost captain of his time, driving a bargain or paring a potato, just as you would do. [...] You are aggrieved because their coats and trousers have not something of the cut of kingly robes" (p. 56). Thus, Davis seems to conclude that, with very few exceptions, those who achieve fame in America are seldom distinguishable from the common Americans who revere them.

The remainder of Bits of Gossip focuses on an event that affected all Americans, famous and not: the Civil War. She claims that she has "never have seen an adequate description anywhere of the amazement, the uncomprehending horror of the bulk of the American people which preceded the firing of that gun at Sumter" and adds that many of her elders thought people gathering together to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" would be an important step toward peace (p.109-110). She provides numerous moving stories of the hardships and sacrifices of war, but stresses the importance of passing down a well-rounded account to succeeding generations. She stresses that some soldiers on both sides fought simply for money. At the same time, she acknowledges the positive effects of the war: in addition to securing abolition, it "made of us a homogeneous people, which we never had been before. The Pennsylvania Dutchman and the Californian learned to know each other as they sat over the camp-fire at night, and when the war was over they knew the Southerner better and liked him more than they had done before they set out to kill him" (p. 138). In this vein, Davis closes her narrative by reflecting that time does not cloud judgment but clears it; does not reinforce divides but closes them.

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

Jennifer L. Larson

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