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Author Rebecca Harding Davis (June 24, 1831-September 29, 1910) was born Rebecca Blaine Harding in Washington, Pennsylvania. She moved with her parents, Richard and Rachel Wilson Harding, to Wheeling about 1836. She later attended the Washington (Pennsylvania) Female Seminary, where she graduated as valedictorian in 1848. She then returned to Wheeling and honed her literary skills as a writer for the Intelligencer. Ignored by literary critics for much of the past century, she is now recognized for her role in the development of realistic fiction. During the 1860s, she published a number of stories and serialized novels in the Atlantic Monthly and benefited from the encouragement of its editor, James Fields. Her best-known story, ‘‘Life in the Iron Mills: A Story of Today,’’ published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1861, is a powerful depiction of the plight of mill workers in a town based on Wheeling, the author’s home for most of the first half of her life. Her first two novels, both published in 1862, echo the social realism of ‘‘Life in the Iron Mills.’’ Margret Howth again focuses on the exploitation of workers, while David Gaunt probes moral and political conflicts raised by the Civil War.

The publication of ‘‘Life in the Iron Mills’’ led to the author’s correspondence with a young Philadelphia journalist and law student, Lemuel Clarke Davis. They met in 1862, and when they married the following year she moved to Philadelphia. Between 1864 and 1872, Rebecca Davis gave birth to three children and built a career as a writer for newspapers and magazines. Many of her later works of fiction dealt with conflicts she faced as she tried to combine her personal and professional lives.

Public issues, however, remained at the forefront of her concerns. In one of her best novels, John Andross (1874), she attacked the political corruption of Boss Tweed’s New York. She wrote for the New York Tribune for 20 years, breaking her ties only when advertisers pressured the paper to end her series exposing industrial problems. She continued as a regular columnist on economic and political topics for another newspaper, the Independent, well into her 70s. Davis’s last book was an autobiography, Bits of Gossip (1904). She died in Mount Kisko, New York, at the home of her son, Richard Harding Davis, a popular journalist who was by then far better known than his mother.

This Article was written by Elizabeth Johnston Lipscomb

Last Revised on June 25, 2020


Davis, Rebecca Harding. Life in the Iron Mills: With a Biographical Interpretation by Tillie Olsen. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1972.

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

Cite This Article

Lipscomb, Elizabeth Johnston "Rebecca Harding Davis." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 25 June 2020. Web. 22 July 2024.


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