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”Life in the Iron-Mills” launched Rebecca Harding Davis’s fifty-year career, during which she wrote some five hundred published works, including short stories, novellas, novels, sketches, and social commentary. She was one of the first writers to portray the American Civil war impartially, to expose political corruption in the North, and to unmask bias in legal constraints on women.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Experiences Lead to Working Class Sympathy
Born in Pennsylvania in 1831, Rebecca Blaine Harding spent her first five years in Alabama. Her mother came from a prominent Washington, Pennsylvania, family; her father was an English immigrant. In 1837 Richard and Rachel Harding took the nearly six-year-old Rebecca and her one-year-old brother, Wilson, to live in wheeling, in the western part of Virginia that later became West Virginia. With her imagination and creative expression nurtured by her mother’s linguistic virtuosity and her father’s storytelling and love of classic literature, young Rebecca Harding was an avid reader and often climbed into the backyard tree house to read books. She was most influenced by nineteenth-century American romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom she attributed her choice of commonplace subject matter in her writing.
Schooled at home by her mother and various tutors until she was fourteen, Harding entered Washington Female Seminary in 1845. After graduating in 1848 as valedictorian, the seventeen-year-old returned home to help her mother manage a bustling household of seven. Twelve years elapsed between graduation and her first published literary work. During this time Harding honed her writing skills by working occasionally for the Wheeling Intelligence. She was transformed from obscure spinster to renowned writer when James T. Fields, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, accepted Life in the Iron-Mills” for his prestigious journal. According to literary critic Sharon M. Harris, that initial publication was so compel ling and daring that when it appeared in April 1861, it shook the eastern intellectual community to its foundations, launching Harding’s social reform efforts not only for the working class, but eventually for blacks, women, and others she believed to be essentially powerless.
Politics and the Civil War Influence Writing
The nineteenth century brought vast changes for black, female, and working Americans. Slavery was hotly debated all across the United States, as abolitionists pro tested human bondage until civil war broke out in 1861. Nearly splitting the young United States in half over states rights, specifically the right to own slaves, the American Civil War ended in 1865, after the southern states were defeated and President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves through the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Women’s roles were also controversial as a large movement arose in the mid-century to give women the right to vote; that privilege did not come until 1920, although black American men were given the right to vote in 1870. Industrialization also began in the nineteenth century, with the construction of national railroads and the new factory model of work. With mass labor came poor working conditions, however, and Davis, like British writer Charles Dickens, helped expose the difficulties of living a working-class life.
As a result of Life in the Iron-Mills”, Davis was offered an advance to write another story. At this point she was still living in Virginia, a border state that was put under martial law during the Civil War. Not only was Wheeling a crossroads for the Underground Railroad, but Federal troops had recently set up headquarters across the street from her home. Davis became one of the few writers of her era to depict the national catastrophe realistically.
During this time of national and local crisis, the fledgling writer was working on a second work of fiction. Her novel Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day was serial ized and then published as a book in 1862. The novel, about American industrialism, is considered less artful than it could have been because Davis succumbed to her editor’s substantial changes, making the story much more sentimental than it was originally. The profession of authorship in nineteenth-century America was increasingly subject to the restraints of polite society, but for writers who attempted to create accurate portraits of crushing social conditions, their efforts were especially constrained.
The Atlantic Monthly then published four of Harding’s stories about slavery in 1862 and 1863. In these stories she treated the personalities and experiences of blacks as complex rather than one-dimensional, as in most renderings of her era. The stories also take issue with the tacit approval of the war by mainstream Southern churches, while also revealing her disgust of the institution of slavery and suggesting that women’s inferior position in American life allowed them a better understanding of the suffering of slaves. Davis’s frank portrayal of racial privilege and animosity was unusual for that period. She offered a female perspective on suffering without employing Christian language to gloss over abject degradation and dehumanization.
She married editor Clarke Davis in 1863 and moved into the home of his widowed sister and her children in Philadelphia. Living with her husband’s relatives at the same time she was adjusting to marriage was trying for her physically and emotionally. Her plans to write at the Philadelphia Library went awry. Soon after the wedding, Davis was faced with nursing her sick husband and his sister. About the time they recovered, Davis herself became ill and then learned she was pregnant. The illness was not named, but was considered to be a disease of the “nerves,” which required her to cease all reading or writing. Her severe depression lasted until the spring of 1864, when she gave birth to a son. Soon the new family moved into their own home, and they began associating with nationally prominent figures, remaining in those circles for the rest of their lives.
Successful Career Championing the Oppressed
In 1866, she gave birth to her second son. In February 1867, nearly two years after the assassination of President Lincoln, Davis’s ambitious Civil War novel, Waiting for the Verdict, began to appear serially, and then in book form in 1868. The central issue in Waiting for the Verdict was a major question of the Reconstruction era: How would the nation integrate the freed slaves into the main stream of American life? Davis believed that Americans needed to redefine what they meant by humanity and democracy. Waiting for the Verdict suggests that dehumanizing some of the members of the human family finally brutalizes the whole.
After years of publishing short stories in various literary journals during the 1870s, Davis expanded her range to include juvenile literature, the political novel, and journalism, the form best suited to her feminist leanings and social conscience. She gave birth to a daughter in 1872. Davis’s most impressive writing of the 1870s was her journalism, as she carried through the social protest she had voiced in her fiction. From this time forward, Davis was a full-fledged journalist.
Racial issues continued to dominate Davis’s writing throughout the 1880s and 1890s, as she directed her readers’ attention to poverty-stricken blacks, entering a national conversation led by pragmatic thinker Booker T. Washington and intellectual W.E.B. DuBois. Throughout her writings on the subject, Davis consistently stressed the connections between racism and economic struggle.
A Prominent Family
By the mid-1890s, both Davis’s sons, Richard and Charles, had become writers. During the 1890s the Davis family became one of the most prominent families in America, frequent companions of two U.S. presidents. In 1904 Houghton, Mifflin published Davis’s memoir Bits of Gossip, a book far more substantive than its title implies. The compelling human story of Davis’s time, Bits of Gossip is a significant book, helpful for understanding the nineteenth-century American society.
Following her husband’s death in 1904, Davis continued writing, publishing seventeen more pieces, including social commentaries and two works of fiction. In 1910 Davis suffered a stroke while visiting her son in New York. She died there of heart failure on September 29, at the age of seventy-nine.
Works in Literary Context
Realism and Naturalism
Partly in reaction to the devastation of the American Civil War, nineteenth century writers began popularly espousing realism, using not only a simple writing style but also maintaining that humans were not in control of their destiny. Outside forces were as powerful in determining an individual’s fate as that individual’s choices. Naturalism specifically focuses on this fatalistic approach to human life. Roman tic writers believed that the individual was the wellspring of opportunity and destiny. ”Life in the Iron-Mills” is one of the first detailed and realistic pictures of the factory in American fiction. The characters in ”Life in the Iron-Mills” speak in authentic vernacular and varying dialects. The story announces its commonplace perspective, not only in its realistic language, but also in the narrator’s vow to be honest, to make real the lives of the working class. The main character’s consuming hunger, which could have been satisfied by education and opportunity, instead brutally determines his descent and ultimate death. Thus, he is one of the first naturalistic portraits in American literature.
Writing and the Woman Question
The question of women’s roles in society was constantly debated throughout the nineteenth century. From the movement to give women the right to vote, to the revitalization of domestic image of women, writers continually presented arguments about how women should behave in the home and in public. Davis’s artistic achievement is distinguished not only by the aesthetic of realism but also by the essentially female perspective infusing her writing. Though she affirmed women’s traditional roles, she exposed suffocating attitudes or conditions that disrupted women’s professional pursuits, and she strategically challenged the ideology of domesticity.
Like the adverse effect of industrialism on American life, and the class distinctions that undermined Americans’ concept of democracy, the problems of the woman artist were an inspiration for her fiction. ”The Wife’s Story” (1864), for instance, explores Davis’s feelings about the effect of marriage on the woman artist’s struggle for creative expression and autonomy. Prior to her wedding, Davis had worried that familial and domestic duties would interfere with her literary work. This story introduces a motif that recurs frequently in Davis’s writing: the woman writer’s conscious and constant mediation of the public and private spheres. Davis can be considered a conservative feminist because, throughout her life, she insisted that a woman needed both personal fulfillment as wife and mother and professional fulfillment through meaningful work.
Works in Critical Context
Davis’s writing, particularly ”Life in the Iron-Mills,” caught the attention of such well-known figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Her work was influential in its stark depiction of the struggling working class. Critical assessment of Davis’s work increased significantly in the late twentieth century. Her primary contribution was to the development of literary realism, and her steadfast employment of subject matter previously considered unsuitable for literature, provoked criticism of her fiction from her contemporaries— on the same grounds for which twentieth-century readers and scholars praised her work, that is, for her realistic portrayal of oppressed working class characters.
“Life in the Iron-Mills”
Davis’s writing, while popular during her lifetime, was often criticized for awkwardness. As it turns out, this may have been as a result of her editor’s changes to original stories. Her work has been re-examined, however, by late twentieth- and early twenty-first century feminist critics. Jean Fagan Yellin, for instance, importantly sketches the changes Davis was compelled to make to her writings by her editor, softening the harsh social criticisms in favor of mild storylines.
Yellin states that although ”Rebecca Harding Davis was to produce steadily for the commercial press for more than forty years,” her editor’s influence meant that ”rarely would she again attempt to treat overtly themes like those that had ignited her early writings of social protest.” Janice Milner Lasseter further claims that the original text of ”Life in the Iron-Mills,” before the editor’s changes, ”is stylistically superior—more poetic, more technically accurate, and less effusive and declamatory” than the published version. Critics have recovered Davis’s original texts in order to reclaim and reassert her artistic ability and skill.
- Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
- Olsen, Tillie. ”A Biographical Interpretation,” in Life in the Iron-Mills and Other Stories. Edited by Olsen. Old Westbury, New York: Feminist Press, 1985, pp. 69-174.
- Rose, Jane Atteridge. Rebecca Harding Davis. New York: Twayne, 1993.
- Harris, Sharon M. ”Rebecca Harding Davis: From Romanticism to Realism.” American Literary Realism 21 (1989): 4-20.
- Lasseter, Janice Milner. ”The Censored and Uncensored Literary Lives of Life in the Iron-Mills.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 20.1-2 (2003):175-190.
- Pfaelzer, Jean. ”Legacy Profile: Rebecca Harding Davis.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 7(1990): 39-45.
- Yellin, Jean Fagan. ”The ‘Feminization’ of Rebecca Harding Davis.” American Literary History 2.2 (1990): 203-219.
- ”Rebecca Harding Davis.” Textbook site for The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Retrieved September 28, 2008, from http://college. cengage.com/english/lauter/heath/4e/students/ author_pages/early_nineteenth/davis_re.html.
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