Woman, Nature, and the White Plague: Rebecca Harding Davis's "The Yares of the Black Mountains: A True Story".(Critical Essay)

By Mock, Michele L. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Woman, Nature, and the White Plague: Rebecca Harding Davis's "The Yares of the Black Mountains: A True Story".(Critical Essay)


Mock, Michele L., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


In an essay dedicated to dismantling romanticism's conceptual distortions of artistry, women, and nature, Rebecca Harding Davis describes a childhood encounter with a woman artist:

None of the children had ever before seen a woman who had written a book. She was to us something apart from the actual world, like a comet or a two-headed dog....Something monstrous she must be. Only a genius could write a book; and to our simple souls "a genius" was outside of nature--disguised, perhaps, with a body like other...women, but inside of it, an angel or a ravening beast. ("Some Hobgoblins in Literature" 229)

Davis concludes her recollection by depicting the schoolchildren as unable to breathe freely until the "monstrous" woman had left the room and "the door closed behind her" (229). Clearly a constructed recollection, Davis's iconoclasm nonetheless informs the remainder of her essay, which is devoted to demystifying nineteenth-century, transcendentalist conceptualizations of the woman artist, or "genius," and romantic rhetoric evoking society to either "canonize" or "damn" creative women as monstrous objects "outside of nature" (231, 229). A textual activist, Davis devoted her regionalism to "cultural work," to use Jane Tompkins's term, a dialogic strategy designed to open rhetorical doors in order to reveal monstrous practices directed toward women and nature. Revealing the rhetoric of alienation behind Emersonian idealism, Davis recognized, could indeed capture her audience's breath, (1) challenging such language, however, could provide all with space in which to breathe. Davis observed that "the party or sect which is to do any work in the world must breathe its own peculiar atmosphere ... and see but one side of the question on which it fights" (Bits of Gossip 165). Notwithstanding, "The Yares of the Black Mountains" (1875), a story punctuated by "air' is devoted to Davis's dialogic of cultural inversion and, thus, is characteristic of much of Davis's work, which she once described as "a perverse inclination to the other side of the question, especially if there was little to be said for it" ("Men's Rights" 212).

In essence, Davis's cultural work is dedicated to exposing gender biases in a call for feminine alliance and activism. "The Yares of the Black Mountains," a narrative of cultural inversion, dislocates iconoclastic polarities of gender, born of the nature/culture divide, while revealing componential constructs of class and ethnicity equally implicated in society's alienation of nature. The icon of the consumptive serves as a riveting example. Dismantling the architecture of the consumptive through her narrative, Davis not only reveals the debilitating ramifications of transcendentalist rhetoric and romantic iconography but she also expands the continuum of regional writing at the turn of the nineteenth century in respect to region and subjectivity. Recasting dyads of nature and culture codifying classic representations of regional literature, Davis's narrative then offers a practical alternative to "classic" regional literature, permeated by unnegotiable Emersonian idealism, while calling for a coalition of women activists. (2)

Ever pragmatic, Davis disparaged what she perceived to be transcendentalism's iconic idealism, but she more explicitly denounces its repercussions upon American life and letters for reinforcing the demarcation between nature and culture rather than dismantling it. A theorist devoted to the analysis of language and gender construction, Davis demonstrates through the gender economies that mark her fiction that romantic or transcendentalist discourses regarding women and nature are unstable indexes that perpetuate alienation and exploitation in many "other" conceptual formulations, such as class-riddled, stereotypic representations of Appalachian culture, and the "enobling" effects of war upon the human will. …

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