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A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader

A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader: “Life in the Iron Mills,” Selected Fiction, and Essays

Edited, with a Critical Introduction Jean Pfaelzer
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 536
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  • Book Info
    A Rebecca Harding Davis Reader
    Book Description:

    Rebecca Harding Davis was a prolific writer who published chiefly in popular periodicals over the latter half of the nineteenth century. In tales that combine realism with sentimentalism and in topical essays, Davis confronted a wide range of current issues-notably women's problems-as one who knew the frustration caused by the genteel female's helpless social position and barriers against women entering the working world. In an excellent critical introduction, Jean Pfaelzer integrates cultural, historical, and psychological approaches in penetrating readings of Davis's work. She emphasizes how Davis's fictional embrace of the commonplace was instrumental in the demise of American romanticism and in eroding the repressive cultural expectations for women.

    In both fiction and nonfiction, Davis attacked contemporary questions such as slavery, prostitution, divorce, the Spanish-American War, the colonization of Africa, the plight of the rural South, northern racism, environmental pollution, and degraded work conditions generated by the rise of heavy industry. Written from the standpoint of a critical observer in the midst of things, Davis's work vividly recreates the social and ideological ferment of the post-Civil War United States. The American literary canon is enriched by this collection, nearly all of which is reprinted for the first time.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8067-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. The Common Stories of Rebecca Harding Davis: AN INTRODUCTION
    (pp. xi-lii)

    On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began. With the smell of jasmine in the air, families with laden picnic baskets watched from their carriages as secessionist Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot at Fort Sumter in a war in which six hundred thousand people would die and four hundred thousand would be maimed. As Harriet Tubman recalled the war, “And then we saw the lightning and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling and that was the drops of blood falling, and when...


    • Life in the Iron-Mills Atlantic Monthly, April 1861
      (pp. 3-34)

      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. I open the window, and, looking out, can scarcely see through the rain the grocer’s shop opposite, where a crowd of drunken Irishmen are puffing Lynchburg tobacco in their pipes. I can detect the scent through all the foul smells ranging loose in the air.

      The idiosyncrasy of this town is smoke. It rolls sullenly in slow folds from the great chimneys...

    • John Lamar Atlantic Monthly, April 1862
      (pp. 35-53)

      The guard-house was, in fact, nothing but a shed in the middle of a stubblefield. It had been built for a cider-press last summer; but since Captain Dorr had gone into the army, his regiment had camped over half his plantation, and the shed was boarded up, with heavy wickets at either end, to hold whatever prisoners might fall into their hands from Floyd’s forces. It was a strong point for the Federal troops, his farm,—a sort of wedge in the Rebel Cheat counties¹ of Western Virginia. Only one prisoner was in the guard-house now. The sentry, a raw...

    • David Gaunt Atlantic Monthly, September 1862
      (pp. 54-103)

      What kind of sword, do you think, was that which old Christian had in that famous fight of his with Apollyon,¹ long ago? He cut the fiend to the marrow with it, you remember, at last; though the battle went hardly with him, too, for a time. Some of his blood, Bunyan says, is on the stones of the valley to this day. That is a vague record of the combat between the man and the dragon in that strange little valley, with its perpetual evening twilight and calm, its meadows crusted with lilies, its herd-boy with his quiet song,...

    • Blind Tom Atlantic Monthly, November 1862
      (pp. 104-111)

      Sometime in the year 1850, a tobacco-planter in Southern Georgia (Perry H. Oliver by name) bought a likely negro woman with some other field-hands. She was stout, tough-muscled, willing, promised to be a remunerative servant; her baby, however, a boy a few months old, was only thrown in as a makeweight to the bargain, or rather because Mr. Oliver would not consent to separate mother and child. Charity only could have induced him to take the picaninny, in fact, for he was but a lump of black flesh, born blind, and with the vacant grin of idiocy, they thought, already...

    • The Wife’s Story Atlantic Monthly, July 1864
      (pp. 112-138)

      I will tell you the story of my life, since you ask it; for, though the meaning of the life of any woman of my character would be the same, I believe, the facts of mine, being sharp and compressed, may make it, perhaps, more apparent. It will be enough for me to give you the history of one day,—that of our first coming to Newport; for it seems to me as if it held and spoke out plainly whatever gist and significance there was in all the years for me. I know many people hold the theory, that...

    • Out of the Sea Atlantic Monthly, May 1865
      (pp. 139-165)

      A raw, gusty afternoon: one of the last dragging breaths of a nor’easter, which swept, in the beginning of November, from the Atlantic coast to the base of the Alleghanies. It lasted a week, and brought the winter,—for autumn had lingered unusually late that year; the fat bottomlands of Pennsylvania, yet green, deadened into swamps, as it passed over them: summery, gay bits of lakes among the hills glazed over with muddy ice; the forests had been kept warm between the western mountains, and held thus late even their summer’s strength and darker autumn tints, but the fierce ploughing...

    • The Harmonists Atlantic Monthly, May 1866
      (pp. 166-180)

      My brother Josiah I call a successful man,—very successful, though only an attorney in a manufacturing town. But he fixed his goal, and reached it. He belongs to the ruling class,—men with slow, measuring eyes and bull-dog jaws,—men who know their own capacity to an atom’s weight, and who go through life with moderate, inflexible, unrepenting steps. He looks askance at me when I cross his path; he is in the great market making his way: I learned long ago that there was no place there for me. Yet I like to look in, out of the...

    • The Story of Christine Peterson’s Magazine, September 1866
      (pp. 181-197)

      “Dutch Christine,” as all the town called her, is one of the properties of my childhood. Perhaps that may have led me to overrate the interest of her story when I thought it would be worth telling to you; for you, all of you, know the curious glamour that hangs about any remembrance of the time when we were children; when we begin to look back to it—a sort of mystery and far-off charm impossible to define in words to our grown-up selves, and just as impossible to convey to others.

      Christine was an old Hollander, stiff, lean, and...

    • In the Market Peterson’s Magazine, January 1868
      (pp. 198-214)

      I remember a story which I would like to tell to young girls—girls, especially, who belong to that miserable border land between wealth and poverty, whose citizens struggle to meet the demands of the one state out of the necessities of the other. I hope that none but the class for whom it is written may read it. I think I remember enough of their guild language to make it intelligible to them; but to others it would, perhaps, be worse than meaningless. I have a man’s reverence for them; I dower them with all the beauty of both...

    • Earthen Pitchers Scribner’s Monthly, November 1873–April 1874
      (pp. 215-286)

      “We’ll drive?” said young Chalkley, anxiously, halting on the steps of the Continental Hotel. He had Mr. Burgess, the English magazinist, in charge. “Oh, drive, of course!” beckoning to a hackman. If heaven had but willed him in this crisis of fate a buggy of his own—a team of any sort! This Londoner, no doubt, dwelt in an atmosphere of rank where coroneted chariots and footmen were every-day matters. It is true, Chalkley hired a trotting-horse for an hour per day, and he would willingly have mounted Burgess upon it, and run behind, like an Egyptian donkey boy, if...

    • Dolly Scribner’s Monthly, November 1874
      (pp. 287-291)

      Just before young Fanning went to Rome—six or seven years ago—he showed me his sketch-book.

      “I have been up among the Moravians¹ all summer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania,” he said. “It’s the only place where one can catch a flavor of age in this cursedly new country.”

      The little fellow, from his yellow Dundreary whiskers to his dainty gaiters, was a mere exaggeration of his mother’s æsthetic sensibilities. If Nature had thrown in to boot a little back-bone, or stomach, or passions, it would have been better; but, no matter. As things were, one was not surprised the country...

    • The Yares of Black Mountain Lippincott’s Magazine, 1875
      (pp. 292-309)

      “Old fort!”

      The shackly little train jolted into the middle of an unploughed field and stopped. The railway was at an end. A group of Northern summer-tourists, with satchels and waterproofs in shawl-straps, came out of the car and looked about them. They had fallen together at Richmond, and by the time they had reached this out-of-the-way corner of North Carolina were the best of boon-companions, and wondered why they had never found each other out in the world before. Yet, according to American habit, it was a mere chance whether the acquaintance strengthened into lifelong friendship or ended with...

    • Marcia Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, November 1876
      (pp. 310-316)

      One winter morning a few years ago the mail brought me a roll of MS. (with one stamp too many, as if to bribe the post to care for so precious a thing) and a letter. Every publisher, editor, or even the obscurest of writers receives such packages so often as to know them at a glance. Half a dozen poems and a story—a blur of sunsets, duchesses, violets, bad French, and worse English; not a solid grain of common-sense, not a hint of reality or even of possibility, in the whole of it. The letter—truth in every...

    • A Day with Dr. Sarah Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1878
      (pp. 317-328)

      A dozen ladies were taking luncheon with Mrs. Harry Epps, of Murray Hill. That little matron’s luncheons are always ideal woman’s parties. This especial morning, for example.

      There was plenty of space and sunshine in the pretty pale-tinted rooms. No great pictures nor distracting array of bric-à-brac. Nobody wanted to climb into regions of high art, or to admire—the day was too warm. There were flowers instead, flowers every where; a vine waving in at the bay-window. From the other windows you could hear the rustle of the trees of Central Park, and catch glimpses of slopes of grass...

    • Anne Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, April 1889
      (pp. 329-340)

      It was a strange thing, the like of which had never before happened to Anne. In her matter-of-fact, orderly life mysterious impressions were rare. She tried to account for it afterward by remembering that she had fallen asleep out-of-doors. And out-of-doors, where there is the hot sun and the sea and the teeming earth and tireless winds, there are perhaps great forces at work, both good and evil, mighty creatures of God going to and fro, who do not enter into the little wooden or brick boxes in which we cage ourselves. One of these, it may be, had made...


    • Men’s Rights Putnam’s Magazine, February 1869
      (pp. 343-361)

      I have always had a perverse inclination to the other side of the question, especially if there was little to be said for it. One hates to be smothered even under truth. What if all the world, as well as our senses, say that the shield is silver? One wants the more to creep round to that solitary, dark corner yonder, and look out of the eyes of the one poor ghost who says that it is gold.

      For instance: this question of Woman’s Wrongs, or Woman’s Needs, as I prefer to call it. It is a truth so self-evident,...

    • A Faded Leaf of History Atlantic Monthly, January 1873
      (pp. 362-373)

      One quiet, snowy afternoon this winter, I found in a dark corner of one of the oldest libraries in the country a curious pamphlet. It fell into my hands like a bit of old age and darkness itself. The pages were coffee-colored and worn thin and ragged at the edges, like rotting leaves in fall; they had grown clammy to the touch, too, from the grasp of so many dead years. There was a peculiar smell about the book which it had carried down from the days when young William Penn went up and down the clay-paths of his village...

    • The Middle-Aged Woman Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, July 1875
      (pp. 374-379)

      Choose any artist that you know—the one with the kindliest nature and the finest perceptions—and ask him to give you his idea of the genius of the commonplace, and my word for it, he paints you a middle-aged woman. The thing, he will say, proves itself. Here is a creature jogging on leisurely at midday in the sight of all men along a well-tramped road. The mists of dawn are far behind her; she has not yet reached the shadows of evening. The softness and blushes, and shy, sparkling glances of the girl she was, have long been...

    • The House on the Beach Lippincott’s Magazine, January 1876
      (pp. 380-392)

      “What is that black mass yonder, far up the beach, just at the edge of the breakers?”

      The fisherman to whom we put the question drew in his squid-line, hand over hand, without turning his head, having given the same answer for half a dozen years to summer tourists: “Wreck. Steamer. Creole.”

      “Were there many lives lost?”

      “It’s likely. This is the worst bit of coast in the country. The Creole was a three-decker,” looking at it reflectively. “Lot of good timber there.”

      As we turned our field-glasses to the black lump hunched out of the water, like a great...

    • Some Testimony in the Case Atlantic Monthly, November 1885
      (pp. 393-401)

      The discussions of the negro problem in Northern and Southern reviews last winter, it is true, showed us the subject from widely different points of view. But if any Northerner, living quietly at home, surrounded only by white faces, supposes that these pictures of the great struggle of race in the South have discovered the whole of it to him, he is greatly mistaken.

      An impartial traveler through the Southern States just now must feel that he is in the middle of a great game, which will decide the future of the negro, and in which every man or woman...

    • Women in Literature Independent, May 7, 1891
      (pp. 402-404)

      There can surely be little doubt that women will occupy a much wider space in American literature during the next thirty years than they have done hitherto. Chatauquan circles, University Extension lectures, the innumerable literary, scientific, religious and charitable classes and clubs which young women are forming from Murray Hill to Montana ranches, are all doing a quickening work. They are, if one might say it, manuring the brain soil of the country. Some kind of crop must soon follow, and it will be a large one.

      It is but reasonable to expect that all the avenues now open to...

    • The Newly Discovered Woman Independent, November 30, 1893
      (pp. 405-408)

      I have intended for several weeks to call the attention of the readers of The Independent to an article by Helen Watterson Moody¹ in the September number ofThe Forum. It is on “Women’s Excitement over Woman.” And of all the countless arguments concerning my uneasy sex, which I have heard in the last twenty years, it seems to me the most rational and sane. It comes in the midst of the shrill feminine hurlyburly everywhere, like the sound of the bell in the church tower, calm and steady, striking the correct time, high over the babel of the marketplace....

    • In the Gray Cabins of New England Century Magazine, February 1895
      (pp. 409-416)

      An Englishman who recently visited this country wrote from Boston to a friend:

      As I have so little time in America, I have decided to spend it all in New England. It is the American race that I wish to study, not their scenery nor towns. I have always heard that in New England was the brain of the country, and that the Puritan blood first gave the distinctive character to your people. My friends in Boston assure me that the influence of this section is still dominant throughout the States, and that the leaders of the nation in politics,...

    • Two Points of View Independent, September 9, 1887
      (pp. 417-421)

      Two papers have just been published which are of unusual significance to the friends of the Negro, as they express the different opinions held by the advanced men and women of that race as to its present condition, and its chances for the future. The first appeared in theAtlanticfor August. It is by Mr. W. E. du Bois, an educated Negro, and is a summary of the prejudices of the whites and their injustice to the freedmen during the thirty years just passed. It is a bitter, vehement protest, as passionate as that despairing cry of Esau when...

    • Two Methods with the Negro Independent, March 31, 1898
      (pp. 422-425)

      The recent Negro Conference at Tuskegee was especially useful, as it set before the public more clearly than ever before the black actor who is playing his part with the others on the national stage; and, what was more important, showed him the full meaning of his part and how he ought to play it. The public unfortunately was not very attentive to the Conference; with the noise of the “Maine”¹ explosion in its ears, it did not listen as it should have done to the plans of these earnest black leaders for the uplifting of their race, much less...

    • The Work Before Us Independent, January 19, 1899
      (pp. 426-429)

      A suggestive item of news comes to us this week from England. The Sirdar,¹ it will be remembered, asked a month or two ago for £100,000 to found a Gordon² memorial college in Khartum. Having successfully avenged Gordon’s death by the slaughter (planned for fourteen years) of tens of thousands of Dervishes and negroes, he now proposes at once to elevate the miserable conquered residue. A huge university is to be built in Africa. British teachers are to be sent out, and the sons of the headmen of the villages are to be the first pupils. It is distinctly stated...

    • The Mean Face of War Independent, July 20, 1899
      (pp. 430-433)

      Of all the gods on Olympus Mars is always the most popular figure. Especially is he heroic in the eyes of a nation which is just about to set the crown of Imperialism on its brows, to gird a sword on its thighs and drive another nation into civilization and Christianity—at the point of the bayonet.

      By all means let us look this god of war closely in the face and see what he really is like. His features at a distance are noble and heroic, but seen at nearer range there are ugly smirches and meanings in them....

    • Lord Kitchener’s Methods Independent, February 7, 1901
      (pp. 434-438)

      An English naturalist, who kept close company with the birds and reptiles for many years, used to say:

      “There’s no limit to the queerness of beasts! The longer you live with them the less you know about them!”

      As we grow old, if we think at all, we have the same feeling about men and women. The countless millions of them that people the earth, renewed every thirty years, with all of their varieties, have not exhausted the “queerness” of the human stuff out of which they are made. You spend your life with a friend or a family or...

    • The “Black North” Independent, February 6, 1902
      (pp. 439-442)

      Mr. W. E. Burghardt du Bois¹ has lately finished his series of advisory lectures to the negroes. Just now our poor black brother is the most advised man in Christendom. First of all, he has as counselor Booker T. Washington,² whom God has sent to pull him out of the slough as surely as he sent Moses to bring his people to the promised land. The next generation may appreciate the common sense, the piercing sagacity, the moderation of this black leader, but his race do not appreciate it now. Each man among them who has achieved any kind of...

    • Boston in the Sixties Bits of Gossip, 1904
      (pp. 443-457)

      In the garden of our old house there were some huge cherry-trees, with low growing branches, and in one of them our nurse, Barbara, having an architectural turn of mind, once built me a house. Really, even now, old as I am, and after I have seen St. James’s and the Vatican, I can’t imagine any house as satisfactory as Barbara’s.

      You went up as far as you could by a ladder to the dizzy height of twelve feet, and then you kicked the ladder down and climbed on, up and up, breathless with terror and triumph, and—there it...

    • Undistinguished Americans Independent, April 26, 1906
      (pp. 458-462)

      As far as I know, Mr. Hamilton Holt, in compiling this book, has struck an absolutely untrodden path in the field of literature. I have not seen anything so interesting or suggestive for years as it is. The thing that he has done is so satisfactory, so thoroughly well done, and withal so easy a thing to do that the reader wonders why he himself did not do it long ago. We all have felt the same uneasy grudge against Edison or Marconi or any other successful discoverer of every day wonders to which we ourselves have been stupidly blind....