June 24, 2010

Birth of Rebecca Harding Davis

In the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania (seat of what is believed to be the first county named after America's first president), Rebecca Blaine Harding (later, Davis) was born on June 24, 1831. After a short period in Alabama, her family settled in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), just as the town was becoming a major industrial center for the region. She later returned to Pennsylvania, where she graduated as valedictorian from the Washington Female Seminary in 1848.

Years later, Rebecca Harding Davis (as she is best known) wrote Life in the Iron Mills, her first work. When published in 1861 in The Atlantic Monthly by James T. Fields, it proved instantly popular. The short novella begins:

A cloudy day: do you know what that is in a town of iron-works? The sky sank down before dawn, muddy, flat, immovable. The air is thick, clammy with the breath of crowded human beings. It stifles me.

A major departure from the typical domestic women's fiction of the time, the dark plumes of smoke on the first page of Life in the Iron Mills represents the side of life Davis was emphasizing. The industrial revolution to her was dark, dirty, and dominated by greed. This life was not ideal.

The work launched Davis's career; she soon moved into the realm of journalism, though she left one newspaper for censoring her work. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps acknowledged her indebtedness to Davis, noting her writing had "grim picturesqueness." Phelps praised Davis's writing style: "Her men and women breathed and suffered, loved and missed of love, won life or wasted it with an ardor that was human, and a power that was art."

In the past three or four decades, Life in the Iron Mills has been reclaimed as a lost classic. It is recognized as a pioneering work in American Realism, decades before William Dean Howells. Further, the work is a major focus for scholars of labor issues and women's writing.

1 comment:

  1. Intriguing--thanks so much for this introduction to her.