Rebecca Harding Davis: An Introduction to Her Life, Faith, and Literature

 

 

 

Gregory Hadley

Department of General Education

Nagaoka National College of Technology

 

 

Introduction

 

Rebecca Harding Davis was pioneering American writer of the late 19th century.  Her works are generally considered as classic examples of early American realism.  Her passionate, prosaic writings sometimes harbored naturalistic sentiments, other times she resembled the style of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  As a realist and a social activist, her tales were mostly concerned with the burning issues of her era, the gstories of to-dayh -- an idea which preceded William Dean Howellsf gtheory of the commonplaceh by over twenty years.[1]  Of this comparison to Howell, a contemporary review of Davisf work noted that she

 

g...succeeds in giving a truer impression of American conditions than any writer we know except Mr. Howells, while there is a vast difference between his delicately illuminated preparations of our social absurdities and Mrs. Davisfs grim and powerful etchings.  Somehow she contrives to get the American atmosphere, its vague excitement, its strife for effort, its varying possibilities.[2]  


 

Rebecca Harding Davisf writings often preceded the works of other well-known authors of her day.  Her portrayal of the psychological pain of soldiers during the American Civil War was written years before that of Stephen Crane.  Davisf study of the social imprisonment of Victorian women anticipated Kate Chopin, and her riveting denouncement of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and capitalism were written well before Upton Sinclairfs novels.     

 

Although credited with over 500 published works, most of Rebecca Harding Davisf writings were already forgotten by the time she died in 1910.  Her work was rediscovered in the early 1970's by the feminist writer Tillie Olson, who found a serialized version of one of Davisf books moldering in a junk shop.[3]  The timing could not have been more fortuitous, for in the 1970's, American society was once again forced to deal with the sorts of social issues that Rebecca Harding Davis addressed: Greed, Corruption, the Oppression of Immigrant Workers, Racism and the Exploitation of Women. 

 

It has been these similar social problems in recent years that have caused some Japanese scholars to show interest in Davisf writings, and it is expected that translations of her works will soon follow.  However, before any serious study of her work can take place, it is necessary to know something of her life and cultural background.  This paper will introduce readers to the life of Rebecca Harding Davis, and survey some of the significant cultural forces of the time which motivated her as a writer.  Special attention also will be given to the considerable influence her Christian faith had in the shaping of her stories. 

 

Life of Rebecca Harding Davis: A Brief Biography


Much of what we know about Rebecca Harding Davis is found in her autobiography, Bits of Gossip.[4] Davis was born June 24, 1831 in Washington, Virginia to Richard Harding and Rachel Wilson.  Richard Harding was an Englishman who had immigrated to the United States, and Rachel Wilson was from a respected well-to-do family in Pennsylvania.  Rebecca lived for a few years in Alabama, and soon after her brother Wilson was born, she and her family moved to steel mill town of Wheeling, Virginia in 1837.

 

It was in Wheeling that Rebeccafs father became a prominent businessman and city official.  She remembers him as a strict, bigoted man who considered women as little more than servants.  Rebeccafs father privately thought that American culture was gvulgarh, and shunned the outside world as much as possible.   He spent his free time holed up in his room, reading the works of Shakespeare.[5]  Nevertheless, Richard Harding was not a cruel man, and his success as a businessman provided Rebecca and her family with a comfortable life.  She was nurtured by her father, who had some skill as a storyteller, and educated by her mother, who taught her to read and write.  In such an environment, Rebecca was soon reading the many books in her house.  Davis fondly remembered the summer afternoons she spent in her backyard treehouse reading books by Sir Walter Scott, John Bunyan or Nathaniel Hawthorne.[6] 

 


When Davis got older, she wanted to attend college.  However, her father felt it was a waste of money to provide more than a rudimentary education for women.  This was evidenced by the fact that he hired private tutors to teach Rebeccafs younger brother, but none for her.  At the time, Oberlin College was the only school in the country that accepted women, but her parents would not allow her to go there because they considered it too liberal.  Rebecca eventually went to Washington Womenfs Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania, a school which trained women to become missionaries, pastorfs wives and teachers.  During this time she studied the Bible intensively.  Washington, Pennsylvania was also on the American lecture circuit, which meant that scholars and political thinkers regularly came to the city to lecture on abolitionism, human rights, womenfs rights and the plight of immigrants.  Couched within the ethical teachings of Christianity, Rebecca Harding Davis was challenged to explore ideas, read widely, and think for herself about social as well as religious issues.  Judging from her later writings, it is likely that during this time in her life, Davis began to reach the conclusion that in order to be faithful to the ethical teachings of Christ, one should work for to bring justice to those who were suffering injustice.     

 

After three years, she graduated at the top of her class and returned home, where she found her family hostile to her liberal ideas.  Rebecca was expected to stay at home and help her mother take care of her brothers and sisters, who now numbered five.  In her spare time, Rebecca tried to continue her education at home by studying her brotherfs old college textbooks, but under the psychological pressure of her parentfs constant opposition and the chore of taking care of little children,  she became deeply depressed.  She felt that life had become a curse because she was unable to use anything that she had learned.[7]  From the pit of this despair, she found strength to make a break from the bondage imposed upon her by her family and social class. Soon afterwards, she got a job writing for the local newspaper, the Wheeling Intelligencer.[8]  This allowed her to get away from the oppressive influence of her family a few hours each day, and to make a little money.  More importantly, during the twelve years that she worked the Intelligencer, Davis was able to hone her writing skills and witness the real life drama of peoplefs lives unfold in front of her eyes on a regular basis.

 

In 1861 Davisf first novella, Life in the Iron Mills, appeared in the prestigious literary paper, the Atlantic Monthly.  Her work immediately received national acclaim, and she received a letter of approval from Nathaniel Hawthorne, who encouraged her to continue writing.  She wrote other stories regularly for the Atlantic Monthly and Petersonfs Magazine, and in a short time became well-known in literary circles.  She was soon befriended by thinkers and literary giants such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bronson Alcott, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.   A couple of years later, she married Lemuel Clarke Davis, an abolitionist writer for Petersonfs and admirer of her stories and novels. 

 


Davisf literary career never again reached the level of acclaim that it had with her first short stories and novellas.  Soon after marrying, her father had taken ill, and needed constant care.  She frequently spent time at her parents house to take care of him, but he vehemently opposed her views on abolition and womenfs rights, and so made her visits unbearable.  Soon before his death, she had a nervous breakdown, and needed to be sent away for some months to recuperate.  With the passing of her father, Davis life stabilized, and she and her husband had two boys and a girl.  About the same time, she began working as a contributing editor to the New York Tribune.  It must be remembered that the idea of a gworking motherh was unheard of in Victorian middle and upper class families.  Rebecca Harding Davis decision to maintain a  career while at the same time taking care of a family was certainly a century ahead of her time.  Because of the financial needs to support her growing family, she began to write her literary pieces for magazines which would pay more. During this time she wrote In the Market, which began her many works centering on feminist issues, John Andross, a novel about political corruption, Kittyfs Choice, and A Law Unto Herself.  She also published a collection of her short stories in Silhouettes of American Life.  Davis wrote that the purpose of this last work was, to borrow from her father, g...to dig into this commonplace, this vulgar American life, and see what is in it.h[9]   Nevertheless, although she wrote a astonishing number of short stories and novels from the late 1860's to the 1890's, the quality of her literary work suffered as a result of  responsibilities as a mother. 

 

In her later years, Davisf stories dealt with how women are frequently denied careers or the opportunity to develop their talents because of oppressive marriages, class or gender-discrimination.  She felt that the social conditions for Victorian women were g...a tragedy more real than...any other in life.h It seems however that, at least for a short period, Davis was able to overcome some of the oppression and discrimination she regularly experienced for being a woman.  She and her husband became one of the prominent American families of the 1890's.  One of her sons, through their friendship with President Grover Cleveland, became an ambassador to Italy.  Her other son, Richard Harding Davis, became a writer, journalist and playwright more famous than she. 

 


Rebecca Harding Davis once wrote that g. . .some women write because there is in them a message to be given, and they cannot die until they have spoken it.h[10]  Sadly however, interest in Davisf message waned by the turn of the century.  She was all but forgotten by the time she died in 1910.  Her tombstone painfully reflects this decline, as well as the tide of chauvinism which erased her name: gL. Clarke Davis 1834 - 1904 and his Wife.h[11]     

 

What urged Rebecca Harding Davis to fight against personal indifference, inaction and hypocrisy, and instead make a stand for justice in an unjust world?  What was it that gave Rebecca Harding Davis the courage to stand against what seemed to be a hopeless struggle against bigotry, racism and exploitation?  From where did she derive her strength and inspiration?  To understand the answer to these questions, one must first look at the cultural and socioreligious forces which shaped life of Rebecca Harding Davis and many other women in her social class.  Our attention will now shift to a survey of American Christianity in the 19th century, itfs effect upon the lives of middle-class women, and to the influence that the Bible had in Rebecca Harding Davisf writings.

       

American Protestantism in the 1800's

Because Christian societies such as the Puritans, Pilgrims and Quakers were some of the foundational groups of North American Culture, it is commonly believed that the United States of America has always been a Christian country.  While these and other groups have had considerable influence on American thought, the culture as a whole has historically fluctuated between Christian zeal and practical agnosticism.  For example, in the 1790's only ten percent of the total American population claimed to be Christian.[12]  By the beginning of the 19th century, however, America experienced a renewed interest in Christianity.  Called the Second Great Awakening, it swept across the country in a series of ebbs and flows which lasted for over fifty years.  Protestant denominations such as the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians grew remarkably during this period, and by the 1850's literally millions of Americans had converted to the Christian faith.[13]

 


The emphasis of the movement was two-fold:  Personal Faith and Social Action.  These two aspects of American Protestant faith were seen as inseparable, with one unable to function without the other.[14]   Personal faith was defined by repentance, a conscious decision to believe in Christ as Savior, and living a pure life as defined by the moral teachings of the Bible.  Social action meant that Christians should be actively involved in either evangelism or attacking the social evils of the American establishment.[15]

 

The evangelical efforts of American missionaries abroad during the 1800's is well known.   In Japan they founded schools, womenfs colleges and helped improve the conditions of social outcasts like the burakumin and lepers.[16]  What is less known is the strong element of social reform which took place in America as a result of the Second Great Awakening, and of the pivotal role that women held in this moral crusade.  

 

Christian Women in 19th Century America

With the exception of a season of decline following its defeat in the War of 1812, America experienced significant economic growth during the early 1800's.  This caused an increase in middle-class families, affluence and more leisure time for women.  Because personal faith and social action were seen as inseparable, it was common to find middle-class American women devoting time and money to one of any number of different Christian social reform movements.[17]   In what one writer of the time called gtheir prodigious influence,h[18] from the late 1830's up until the beginning of the 20th century, several movements which fought for social justice were both started and lead by Christian women.  In all of their efforts for social reform, the teachings of the Bible were seen as the blueprint for building a new American society.[19]  With the Bible as their guide, women militantly fought for equal education opportunities for women and minorities, improved pay and working conditions, the abolition of slavery, womenfs rights and liberation from exploitation such as prostitution.[20]

 

Christian Sentiment in Rebecca Harding Davisf Writings


There have been a number of commentaries written on the life of Rebecca Harding Davis, but it is remarkable that few make mention of her Christian faith, and none have recognized the considerable influence that her faith has had in the formation of her stories.  Raised in a middle-class Christian family, educated in a conservative womenfs seminary, and influenced by the social conscious coming from the Second Great Awakening, Rebecca Harding Davisf works are clearly address with the problems that Christians of her day were concerned with:  Slavery, worker exploitation, equal education, and justice for women locked in the bondage of prostitution or sexual discrimination.  There is also a spiritual dimension to her stories, for sometimes Godfs judgment breaks out in a supernatural manner.  

 

Yet her writings are in no way simplistic.  Davis recognized there were no easy answers to the issues she addressed, and the characters of her stories are complex -- people who are less black and white in terms of morality, and more varying shades of gray.  Quite often, however, the villains of her writings are people from Davis own social class, and possibly various manifestations of her father.  She was most critical of people who professed a Christian faith and knowledge of the Bible, but used that knowledge to justify a status quo resulting in the cruel exploitation and dehumanization of all who were not white, Anglo-Saxon males.   It is primarily to this audience that Davis wrote, as an attempt to stir them from their hypocrisy and self-satisfaction, and motivate them to truly live out the implications of their Christian faith.             

 

This is seen most vividly in John Lamar, a story written during the American Civil War, in which Davis condemns slavery.  In it we find a devout Christian slave owner who, while oppressing his Negro slaves, knows more of the results of freedom than his Northern captors.  His hypocritical Northern jailers, while involved in a cause which they believed to be holy and just, sadly misuse the Bible in order to justify the brutality of their actions.  We find a slave who, after hearing scripture and receiving his first taste of freedom, uses it to commit murder. 

 

In Life in the Iron Mills, Davis poignantly highlights the living hell of 19th century immigrant workers.  Exploited, underpaid and poorly educated, Davis compassionately pleads for their cause, and calls for the elimination of their inhumane working conditions. We also discover that the tormentors maintaining the hellish iron mills are middle-class Christians who quote the Bible as a means to justify their wanton exploitation and inaction. 

 


The call for equal opportunities in education for women is highlighted in Marcia.  In it, a woman of great courage and creativity attempts to become a writer, but because she was denied the right to get a formal education, fails in her endeavor.  Broken and desperate, she is eventually condemned to become the wife of an ignorant farmer.  The need to free women who are locked in various forms of bondage is dealt with in Promise of the Dawn and In the Market.   In Promise of the Dawn, we find a young homeless lady reaching out in desperation for someone to liberate her from the filth and moral decay of her environment.  She eventually dies after being rejected by middle-class Christians who had the ability to help her.  In the Market examines the effects of sexual discrimination and marriage upon 19th century American women.  The story features the lives of two sisters.  One marries for convenience, but after a short time of prosperity, ends up a defenseless and poor widow.  The other sister delays marriage and after years of struggle and sacrifice, eventually becomes independent enough to marry for love and take care of her impoverished sister.          

 

Hard work was a significant virtue for Davis.  If her characters were to find liberation and healing, it usually took place through personal effort and considerable sacrifice.  This is often referred to in her writings as gworking out one's salvation with fear and tremblingh, or gbearing onefs crossh  (Philippians 2:12 and Luke 14:27 KJV).  These elements can be seen in The Yares of the Black Mountain and An Ignoble Martyr.  In The Yares of the Black Mountain, several characters endured patient suffering  before eventually receiving the desire of their hearts.  In An Ignoble Martyr, the heroine denies herself the pleasures of riches and travel in order to serve her family.  Because her choice was made in love, she finds eventual salvation, while those who once tempted her to leave her family behind suffered misfortune and death.  Without minimizing the importance of human action, Davis also believed in a God who was able to intervene when necessary.  The mysterious and supernatural are dealt with in stories such as Mademoiselle Joan and A Strange Story from the Coast.  Both stories study the lives of people who make immoral life decisions.  In both cases, Godfs judgement is handed down through a vengeful spirit of a departed family member.

 

The Bible in Davisf Writings


Davisf writings are rich with references to biblical characters and stories which were well known to her readers. Often she used the Bible as a gmental canvash upon which she painted a contemporary picture in the minds of her readers.  Davis used these pictures as living examples to illustrate her opposition to the social evils of her day. For example, there is Kirby, the mill owner in Life in the Iron Mills who unwittingly quotes the word of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator who allowed Christ to die rather than inconvenience his political career.  Dave, the Northern soldier in John Lamar, quotes the words of Stephen the martyr, but contributes to the unjust murder of another.  Other times, quotes from the Bible are used as metaphors.  In The Promise of the Dawn, instead of calling Lot a whore who is getting her just desserts, a Quaker quotes scripture from the book of Proverbs which evokes the picture and fate of an adulteress.   

 

Conclusion

In this paper, we have looked at the life of Rebecca Harding Davis, and at a number of cultural influences which have shaped her writings.  In future articles, we will study a number of Rebecca Harding Davisf works in greater detail.  Such a literary study will be of interest to some in Japan, because Rebecca Harding Davisf stories represent a worldview held not only by conservative 19th century Christians, but also of many American Christians today.  By providing a glimpse into this remarkable American subculture, Japanese readers gain a better understanding of the action-oriented ethics and hypocrisy-hating spirituality which continues to influence a significant number of Americans today.  However, as mentioned in the beginning of this paper, many of the social problems that Davis addressed are similar to the challenges which face todayfs Japanese society.  We may yet learn something from Davisf insights, and highlight areas in our lives today which need further action and introspection.  

 

 

Endnotes

 

 



[1]. Yellin, J. F.  Afterword.  Margret Howth: A Story of Today. (New York: Feminist Press, 1990).

[2].  The Nation (1878).  Quoted in Reagan, D. ARebecca Harding Davis@. WWW URL: http://www.kutztown.edu/faculty/reagan/davis.html (March 20, 1998).

[3].  Lasseter, J. M.  ARebecca Harding Davis: A Biographical Sketch and Bibliography.@  URL WWW: http://www.unl.edu/legacy/19cwww/books/elibe/davis/bio.htm

(March 20, 1998).

[4].  Davis, R. H. Bits of Gossip.  (New York: Houghton, 1904).

[5].  Pfaelzer, J. (Ed). A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader.  (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 1995), pp. 247.

[6].  Davis, R. H. Bits of Gossip (1904).  WWW URL: http://www.unl.edu/legacy/19cwww/books/elibe/davis/bostonin.htm (March 20, 1998).

 

[7].  Pfaelzer, pp. 247

[8].  Lasseter, J. AIntroduction to Rebecca Harding Davis@ WWW URL:  http://www.sanford.edu/schools/artsci/english/lasseter/introrhd.htm (March 20, 1998).

[9].  Davis, R. H.  Silhouettes of American Life . (reprint, New York: Garrett Press, 1986).  Quoted in Gilbert, S.M and Gubar, S. (Eds.), The Norton Anthology of Women, 2nd Edition. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), pp. 919.

[10].  Harding Davis, R. AWomen in Literature@ (1891).  Quoted in Reagan, B. ABiography of

Rebecca Harding Davis@ WWW URL: http://www.kutztown.edu/faculty/reagan/davies.html (March 20, 1998).

[11].  Lasseter, J. ibid.

[12].  Walker, W.  A History of the Christian Church.  (New York: Charles Scribner=s Sons, 1985), pp. 652.

[13].  Walker, pp. 655-56.

[14].  Bass, D.C. A>Their Prodigious Influence=: Women, Religion and Reform in Antebellum America@, in McLaughlin, E., and Ruether, R. (Eds.),  Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), pp. 288.

[15].  Carlson, D.W. ADiscovering Their Heritage: Women and the American Past@, in J.S. Hagen (Ed.), Gender Matters: Women=s Studies for the Christian Community.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Acadamie Books, 1990), pp. 99-100.

[16].  Picken, S.D.B. Christianity and Japan.  (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1983).

[17].  Bass, pp. 282.

[18].  Child, L.M. The Liberator, vol. 9 (July 23, 1841), p. 118.

[19].  Swartley, W.M.  Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation: Slavery, Sabbath, War and Women.  (Scotsdale, Penn.: Herald Press, 1983).

[20].  Storkey, E. What=s Right with Feminism.  (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), pp. 140.