DAVIS, REBECCA HARDING
Rescued from a century of critical neglect by the twentieth-century working-class feminist writer Tillie Olsen, Rebecca Harding Davis is recognized today as an important literary precursor to late nineteenth-century American naturalists, such as Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, and to twentieth-century feminists like Olsen. Her reputation rests primarily on Life in the Iron Mills (1861), a novella that unflinchingly chronicles the harsh life of mill workers under industrial capitalism. Born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, in 1831, the eldest of five children of Richard W. Harding and Rachel Leet Wilson Harding, Rebecca Harding Davis moved with her family to Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia), in 1836. This booming steel town presumably served as the setting for Life in the Iron Mills, an extraordinarily realistic portrayal of working-class men and women who lived well outside the sphere inhabited by (in Tillie Olsen's words) a “house-bound, class-bound, sex-bound” middle-class woman such as Davis herself.
Unconnected with literary circles of any kind, Davis's life changed dramatically after the acceptance of her first work by the prestigious Atlantic Monthly, which published Life in the Iron Mills anonymously in its April 1861 issue. Since the gender of the narrator was ambiguous, many assumed the novella's author was a man. The work met with instant acclaim, leading to a long-lasting friendship with Annie Fields, the wife of Atlantic editor James T. Fields, as well as briefer acquaintances with such notable literary figures as Hawthorne and Emerson. Following publication of the piece, Davis also began a correspondence with a reader-admirer, Lemuel Clarke Davis, several years her junior, whom she married in 1863. Davis moved to Philadelphia, where her husband was studying for the bar and working as a journalist.