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Wheeling Hall of Fame: Rebecca Harding Davis


Fine Arts

Rebecca Harding Davis

Inducted 1984

Rebecca Harding Davis was a pioneer in literary realism.

In 1861, when her story, "Life in the Iron Mills," was published anonymously in The Atlantic Monthly, few people in Wheeling could have imagined that this novella about human tragedy had been written by their 30-year-old spinster neighbor, Rebecca Harding.

Born in Washington, Pa., in 1831, she had lived in Wheeling from the age of five. Her English-born father, Richard, was an insurance executive and also city treasurer for 14 years.

As a teen-ager, she attended Washington Female Seminary, where she was graduated valedictorian in 1848. There was nothing in her upbringing to suggest she would be able to picture so vividly the grim life of immigrant industrial workers and their harsh working conditions.

However, she was obviously influenced by the change in Wheeling from an idyllic Virginia village to a smoke-filled milltown.

The Civil War created an even more dramatic change in Wheeling and in subsequent work, no longer anonymous, she told of the "general wretchedness, the squalid misery, which entered into every individual life." She described the savagery of war and her talent drew the admiration of the New England writers Emerson, Holmes, Alcott and her favorite, Nathaniel Hawthorne — all of whom she met while traveling with her brother to Boston.

She also caught the attention of Philadelphia lawyer L. Clarke Davis. They struck up a correspondence, soon met and were engaged. They were married in St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Wheeling during a March snowstorm in '63 and took up residence in Philadelphia.

Rebecca Harding Davis wrote "Waiting for the Verdict," which laid bare social hypocrisy and racism. Her novel, John Anderson published in 1874, was based on political corruption. Ever in the vanguard for human rights, she authored "Put Out of the Way," exposing mental institutions, and she and her husband helped reform Pennsylvania laws regarding treatment of the insane.

She became a contributor to Harper's and Scribner's and an associate editor of the New York Tribune. In the last decade of her life, she wrote children's stories, reflecting her continued concern with moral uplift.

She gave birth to three children, and one of them Richard Harding Davis, became the most celebrated journalist of his era. On his mother's seventieth birthday, he wrote in tribute, "From the day you struck the first blow for labor in 'The Iron Mills,' on to the editorials . . . with all the good the novels, the stories brought to people, you were always making the ways straighter, lifting up people, making them happier and better. No woman ever did better for her time than you and no shrieking suffragette will ever understand the influence you wielded, greater than hundreds of thousands of women's votes."

After her husband's death in 1904, she spent much of her time at Richard's estate at Mt. Kisko, N. Y. She died on September 29, 1910.

Text and pictures provided by Wheeling Hall of Fame. Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and partially funded by Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.

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