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Rebecca Harding Davis

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
September 29th, 2014

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.


Rebecca Harding Davis (June 24, 1831-September 29, 1910) was born Rebecca Blaine Harding in Washington, Pennsylvania.  Today marks 104 years since her death.  She is perhaps best known for her novella Life in the Iron Mills (1861) and for her pioneering role in literary realism.  

Author Rebecca Harding Davis In Later Years

Rebecca Harding Davis, later in life


The Davis family moved to Wheeling around 1836.  Rebecca attended Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania, where she graduated as valedictorian in 1848.  Upon returning to Wheeling, she worked for the local newspaper, the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, briefly serving as an editor in 1859.


It was probably through her work with the newspaper that she met Archibald W. Campbell, longtime proprietor and editor of the Intelligencer.  Among his papers are two letters that Davis wrote to him.  The letter pictured below seems to refer to their work with the newspaper, and illustrates one of the challenges of primary source research:  it can be very hard to read other people’s handwriting.


Note from Rebecca Harding Davis

Letter from Davis to Campbell, pasted onto a scrapbook page, allegedly dated January 30, 1859.  From A&M 14, Papers of Archibald W. Campbell, Newspaperman.  If anyone can read this letter in its entirety, please let us know!

Update on October 6, 2014:  We have a transcription!  Many thanks to Dan Bonenberger.

Monday afternoon

In the intervals of that all important working[,] today I have

written this “to order”[.]   You see like all new editors I am

going to define my position, with my say’s.  If it had not

been for a true regard for your prospects with your lady

readers[,] I should have been unmerciful.   Please

correct it + trust me to do better when you are safely

done + I am not afraid of your criticism[.]

                                Don’t forget the paper + calendar – if you put

this in at all it must go in as an editorial.  I have a most

                                                                insane ambition in that way[.]


Transcriber’s note: What a great letter; sure sounds like Rebecca!  Aside from the words in italics, I am fairly confident of the prose.  Any corrections or alternative interpretations are welcome. –djb

(Rebecca Harding (Davis) to Archibald Campbell. c.1859. Draft transcription by Dan Bonenberger, Associate Professor, Historic Preservation Program, Eastern Michigan University Department of Geography and Geology; 4 October 2014.)


Toward the end of her time with the Intelligencer, Davis published the novella that would catapult her to fame.  That same novella also led to her marriage–Rebecca’s relationship with her husband, Lemuel Clarke Davis, started with a fan letter.  They corresponded and later met in 1862, and they married the following year.  She moved to Philadelphia, where she would raise three children and build her writing career.  She wrote for newspapers as well as for herself, contributing to the New York Tribune and later the New York Independent and the Saturday Evening Post.  Her books and short stories touched on issues of the suffering of industrial workers (Margret Howth, her first novel), morals and politics of the Civil War (David Gaunt), the political corruption of Boss Tweed’s New York (John Andross), and many more issues of social justice.  It was unusual for women of her time to write books addressing and exposing such topics, especially in such a style—it is said that she embraced literary realism twenty years before that writing style would reach its peak popularity.


Cover of Frances Waldeaux

Frances Waldeaux was Davis’s second to last novel, published in an era when hardback book covers were decorated.  This copy can be found in the WVRHC.


Though she moved away from West Virginia and her writing brought her fame enough to rub elbows with great writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, she stayed in touch with old friends.  Jane Campbell Dawson, sister of Archibald Campbell, mentions Davis in her diary.  She writes, “I wrote to R.H.D. of Phila. [Philadelphia], an old time friend, herself an author and the mother of Richard Harding Davis, very well known among present day writers.”


Diary entry

Jane Campbell Dawson’s diary entry from January 7, 1910 (see A&M 3587); the bottom section is meant to be read first.


The last book Davis wrote was an autobiography, Bits of Gossip (1904). She died in Mount Kisko, New York, at the home of her son, journalist Richard Harding Davis.  In the time since her death, her works faded from memory and were later rediscovered.  She has now regained her place in the pantheon of great American authors.


Diary entry with newspaper clipping

Jane Campbell Dawson’s diary entry from September 29, 1910 (see A&M 3587): a brief obituary for Davis and the words “My friend gone from me.”




“Documenting the American South — A Groundbreaking Realist: Rebecca Harding Davis.”  University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Accessed September 26, 2014.

Elizabeth Johnston Lipscomb. “Rebecca Harding Davis.” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. Accessed September 26, 2014.

Janice Milner Lasseter and Sharon M. Harris, eds. Rebecca Harding Davis:  Writing Cultural Autobiography. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2001.

“Rebecca Harding Davis.”  Wikipedia.  Accessed September 25, 2014.

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