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A Groundbreaking Realist: Rebecca Harding Davis

In celebration of women's history month, Documenting the American South remembers journalist and novelist Rebecca Harding Davis. Davis is best remembered for the groundbreaking novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861), a tale of workers' struggles. This story employs a realistic style over two decades before the height of American literary realism.

Born June 24, 1831, to Rachel Leet Wilson and Richard W. Harding, Rebecca Blaine Harding graduated class valedictorian from Washington Female Seminary in Pennsylvania and worked for a time as a reporter for the Wheeling Intelligencer in West Virginia. After the critical and popular success of Life in the Iron Mills, Harding quickly rose to literary prominence. She 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. Her first novel, Margaret Howth: A Story of To-Day (1862), appeared soon after. 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. 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 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 and 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, but she 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). She later discusses famous abolitionists and the horrors, as well as the unforeseen benefits of, the Civil War. See this summary for a more exhaustive treatment of Bits of Gossip.

Davis's Bits of Gossip is part of DocSouth's "First Person Narratives of the American South" collection, which offers many Southerners' perspectives on their lives by presenting letters, memoirs, autobiographies, and other writings by slaves, laborers, women, aristocrats, soldiers, and officers.

Jennifer L. Larson