Rebecca Harding Davis: A Biographical Sketch & Bibliography

by Janice Milner Lasseter

Rebecca Harding Davis was born June 24, 1831 and spent her first five years in Huntsville Alabama. Her family then moved to Wheeling, Virginia (later West Virginia) where she lived until her marriage. She graduated with honors from Washington Female Seminary in 1848. Little is known about the period of her life between 1848 and1861, the year her first and most significant work, Life in the Iron Mills, was published. A startling story about the laboring class, the book began her pioneer work as a writer of realistic fiction. Davis wrote not only fiction, but also essays on a variety of social concerns (including women's issues) for a number of newspapers and periodicals. Toward the end of her life, her fame was eclipsed by that of her son Richard Harding Davis who had become a glamorous celebrity, novelist, and journalist. Although she had been well known in her own day, Davis virtually disappeared for almost eighty years. Tillie Olsen discovered Davis' first book serialized in musty, coverless copies of The Atlantic Monthly in an Omaha junkshop. Since the rescue of Life in the Iron Mills started her climb toward canonical stature, Davis' work has gotten mixed reviews, but it continues to attract readers and critics. The generic niche is usually realism, although some deem it naturalistic. Most scholars now recognize her as the realist writer whose theory of the "commonplace" preceded William Dean Howells' similar dictum by two decades, a legacy that may be traced from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Davis to Howells. Her critique of industrialism and important nineteenth-century social issues is matched only by the fervor of her compassionate spirit.

Her works currently in print are: Life in the Iron Mills, Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, Waiting for the Verdict, and a selection of stories and essays in Rebecca Harding Davis: A Reader. This last book is an excellent collection of previously unavailable short fiction and essays as well as "Life in the Iron Mills."


Davis, Rebecca Harding. Bits of Gossip. New York: Houghton, 1904.

Grayburn, William F. Grayburn. "The Major Fiction of Rebecca Harding Davis " Ph.D. Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 1965.

Harris, Sharon M. Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991.

Hesford, Walter. "Literary Contexts of 'Life in the Iron-Mills.'" Journal of American Literature 49 (1977-78): 70-85.

Langford, Gerald. The Richard Harding Davis Years: A Biography of A Mother and Son. New York: Holt, 1961.

Lasseter, Janice Milner. "'Boston in the Sixties': Rebecca Harding Davis'sView of Boston and Concord During the Civil War." The Concord Saunterer, The Thoreau Society Bulletin 3 (1995): 65-72/

Pfaelzer, Jean. "Domesticity and the Discourse of Slavery: 'John Lamar' and 'Blind Tom' by Rebecca Harding Davis." ESQ 38 (1992): 31-56.

--. Introduction. "Marcia" by Rebecca Harding Davis. Legacy 4 (1987): 3-10.

--, ed. A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1995.

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

Schaeffer, Helen Woodward. "Rebecca Harding Davis,Pioneer Realist." Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1947.

Yellin, Jean Fagin. Afterword. Margret Howth: A Story of To-day. New York: Feminist, 1990.