Stories of Today: Rebecca Harding Davis' Investigative Fiction

Article excerpt

Long before her son, Richard Harding Davis, became a star reporter, Rebecca Harding Davis worked for the Wheeling Intelligencer in her home state of Virginia. Throughout a writing career that spanned five decades and produced hundreds of stories, novels, and articles, she retained an interest in journalism. Beginning with an 1861 story, "Life in the Iron-Mills," she used fiction to report on current events. Later works, such as Put Out of the Way, an exposé of the system for institutionalizing the supposedly insane, and John Andross, a study of the effects of the Whiskey Ring on an individual, constituted a distinctive literary form: investigative fiction. Her work in this genre anticipated the major achievements of several other American writers, including Stephen Crane, Upton Sinclair, Truman Capote, and Tom Wolfe.

For most scholars of journalism history, Rebecca Harding Davis has long been known, if at all, as the mother of Richard Harding Davis, the star reporter who traveled the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, wrote for the New York Herald and the New York World, hobnobbed with Theodore Roosevelt, and penned "Gallegher, A Newspaper Story," one of the most famous fictional treatments of journalism. However, some historians may know that she also was an important literary figure, known today primarily for her 1861 short story, "Life in the Iron-Mills," which was a pioneering work of American realism. But what has largely escaped attention is her role in combining journalism and literature in something that she once called the "story of today." In fact, she was a pioneer not only in realism but in a genre that might be called "investigative fiction." In this hybrid of literature and journalism, authors employ the tools of fiction - characters, plot, dialogue, imagery, and more - to shed light on contemporary events and issues.1

Davis' remarkably prolific career, which spanned a halfcentury and produced hundreds of stories, novels, and other works, yielded some striking examples of investigative fiction. For instance, she plumbed the depths of poverty and despair among the working classes in Margret Howth, wrote a fictional counterpart to her husband's journalistic exposé of flaws in the system for institutionalizing the supposedly insane in Put Out of the Way, and examined the effects of the Whiskey Ring on an individual in John Andross. In works such as these, she answered newspapers' ostensibly truthful coverage of the news with a form of fiction that reported on current events but also considered their causes and consequences, especially for human participants. A study of these works, as well as the author and the world that shaped them, sheds light on the question of how best to tell the truth with the written word, a question that fascinated Davis and her nineteenthcentury counterparts, just as it has continued to fascinate authors and journalists who have followed from Stephen Crane and Upton Sinclair to Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe to modern producers of "creative nonfiction" and "fake news."

Davis entered the world of American letters at a time of dramatic change. Beginning with the advent of the penny press in the 1830s, editors such as James Gordon Bennett were steering the early course of America's first mass medium. At the same time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and their fellow authors were driving a literary revolution that would come to be known as the "American Renaissance." Journalists and authors alike celebrated the power of the word, particularly its capacity for delivering something they called "truth, " to readers. "Books have had their day - the theatres have had their day - the temple of religion has had its day," Bennett wrote in his New York Herald in 1836. "A newspaper can be made to take the lead of all of these in the great movements of human thought and human civilization."2 In the following year, in "The American Scholar," Emerson asked, "Who can doubt, that poetry will revive and lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp which now flames in our zenith, astronomers announce, [and] shall one day be the pole-star for a thousand years? …