Seeing Both Sides of the Shield: On Rebecca Harding Davis

She writes,
The faces of these people, I am bound to confess were of a far higher type than those of the same class of whites, American, English or Irish, would have been in a like condition. Her social power was as considerable as her influence in the publishing world — more considerable on both accounts, Harris likes to note, than that of the three male literary professionals in her nuclear family. Her editorials and stories on the topic posed solutions to the circumstances that led to sex work, such as training in alternative professions that could be conducted through mail-order manuals and literature — like bee-keeping and herbalism. In a 1902 editorial, she wrote that “the best work for any woman is that which she understands best — which lies nearest to her, no matter how ignoble or mean it may be in itself […] What does the color of your horse matter if you know how to ride it with dignity and if it carries you through the battle?”
Her humanitarian impulses centered on pragmatic, case-by-case solutions rather than holistic positions. Though she advocated teetotaling, she did not align herself with the strategies of the temperance movement, which cited morality as both the cause and cure of alcohol abuse. Wheeling was rife with what sound like East-German levels of espionage and enforcement — children were arrested for playing “Dixie” on the piano. Perhaps this is because when we look for meaning in the lives of historical figures, what we’re often looking for is the reflected image of our own ideas and beliefs. Davis responded to her editors’ complaints about the subject matter by referencing the prostitution epidemic in Wheeling: “[I]n a town like this it is easy to come into direct contact with every class and the longer I live — the more practical my observation is — the more I am concerned that the two natures remain in the most degraded soul.” She believed that prostitutes were not beneath salvation and insinuated that any woman could be driven to prostitution in dire circumstances. The biographer cut out the passages that related to his subject, turning the most important record of Davis’s life into a pile of confetti. Davis’s complex stance on wedge issues like the war and women’s rights might suggest the hemming and hawing of a milquetoast centrist, but her views lack easy explanation — not intensity. The documentary traces of her life are scattered across the country and largely organized around the lives of men — Davis’s sons, her male friends, her publishers, and her editors. When asked to deliver a Christmas story for the January 1863 issue of The Atlantic, she sent a tale about prostitute who dies on Christmas Eve because no one will take her in. Her 1883 story “John Sorby” made the unusual connection between insanity and social conditions like unfair labor practices. Eventually, she worked with her husband, Clarke, on a governor-assigned state committee in Pennsylvania that studied the practices of asylums, leading to some of the earliest legislation to regulate the treatment of the mentally ill in the United States. Davis’s later depictions of racial others reveal a personal growth and development. Harris’s biography, subtitled “A Life Among Writers,” is not wholly an exception to this rule. One was lost in a fire many years after her death; the other was destroyed by a biographer of Richard Harding Davis, one of Davis’s sons. “New Virginia,” as the local papers called the region, was at the forefront of industrial growth in America. The piece goes on to propose that rather than send white missionaries to Qualla to help abate the poverty and alcoholism there, it would be better to educate younger members of the community to serve as effective leaders of and spokespeople for their own tribe. If you could only see the other side enough to see the wrong, the tyranny on both.” Davis’s ability to see “both sides of the question” of abolition expressed her belief that no one benefited from the representation of the wartime national discourse as one of moral clarity and certitudes. Wheeling was a slave-owning city set directly on the banks of the Ohio River, where many enslaved people dreamed of crossing to freedom. These texts express a political ideology that is neither progressive nor conservative by any period’s definition. Davis’s letters and stories critique both slavery and what Harris calls the “self-aggrandizing intellectualism” of New England abolitionists. While a reexamination of Davis’s work began in earnest in the 1970s, she is not as studied today as Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman — quotable women about whom it’s easy to generate feminist memes. She travels to Philadelphia from a small Mississippi town on the banks of the Yazoo River to try her luck with the big magazines. She gave no interviews, provided no portraits, and wrote no public accounts of her personal life. If Emerson is right and “there is properly no history; only biography,” the story of a life that places others at its center might be the biography we need most. Davis was particularly sensitive to the complex causes of alcoholism and, as with prostitution, she avoided demonizing its victims. Rebecca attended society balls and teas with her daughter, Nora, not only in Philadelphia but also in New York and Europe. Davis wrote that “[t]he man who sees both sides of the shield may be right, but he is most uncomfortable”; that discomfort seems a small price to pay for a step in the direction of truth. It seems like “Marcia” protests the misogyny of men like the heroine’s editors and her father, who thinks that women “are like mares — only useful to bring forth children.” But that critique comes with a hearty side of derision for the uneducated hack attempting a serious literary career: “There could be but one kind of advice to give her — to put away pen and ink, and for three years at least devote herself to hard study. Still, we like less to hear it. Then it might read as a triumph of the imagination, a coming of age for the 19th-century female literary genius. Mitchell, himself a fiction writer, later became a close family friend. It’s tempting to search for clues to such literary puzzles in the author’s life. The plight of sex workers was a theme that would emerge throughout her writings, and often in not-so-subtle comparison to the financial lines along which many legal marriages were forged. Both her husband and their well-known son, Richard Harding Davis, experienced long bouts of depression throughout their lives that kept Rebecca by their bedsides as nurse and confidante. In a letter to his brother Charley, he joked that “[i]f one of her sons was in Sing Sing she would be proud of his making better shivs than Billy the Bilk.”
Accounts of Dick’s bad behavior provide some of the most entertaining passages to be found in the biography, but the greatest surprise to readers who only know Rebecca Harding Davis as an author of grim, working-class fiction will be the portrait of the Davis family’s life in the three-story brick Philadelphia row house where they lived from 1870 until their deaths. But Rebecca Harding Davis didn’t write it that way, and so readers are left to wonder if “Marcia” praises women who sought a vocation outside of marriage, condemns them, or presents something in between. In his own time, he was more celebrated as a man-about-town than a writer, posing for the popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and often profiled in the society pages. Sharon M. Davis was resolutely private and refused to participate in the emerging cult of celebrity surrounding authors’ lives. O Annie if I could put into your and every true woman’s heart the inexpressible loathing I have for it! ¤
Arielle Zibrak is assistant professor of English, adjunct assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, and director of the UW Casper Honors Program. It’s not surprising that her interest in mental health had some root in her own life. Digital archives hold hundreds of Davis’s stories, novels, and articles. She wrote about Native Americans, immigrants, laborers, the rising class of African-American professionals, the disabled, and the mentally ill — in terms that would alternately impress and repulse the present-day liberal reader. Still, Davis’s devotion to her children was unflagging, and Dick himself was aware of how frequently he tested it. Harris channels Davis’s ability to offer us a history that engages the ideas we’ve come to embrace alongside those we’ve come to distance ourselves from, our heroes in conversation with our villains. There were some restrictions on women’s conduct that Davis chafed against, but others she seemed not to mind so much. They were neither vicious nor vulgar in a single instance. Harris’s new biography of Davis, Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life Among Writers, avoids this problem by situating Davis’s life deeply in her own time and place through close examinations of Davis’s social and professional circles. In Davis’s case, a search like that only mirrors the puzzle; it doesn’t solve it. It’s hard to understand Marcia’s suffering or untangle a moral from the story’s various threads. Of the writer Gail Hamilton she wrote, “What a thoroughly Western woman she is! She joined the faculty at the University of Wyoming in 2014. She also serves on the Executive Board of the International Edith Wharton Society and the Advisory Board of the Rebecca Harding Davis online archive. Silas Weir Mitchell. Rebecca’s brother Richard was imprisoned for treason by the Union army when he tried to flee to the South through Cincinnati to join the Confederacy. She wrote to her friend Annie Fields, “The war is surging up close about us. She championed her own causes outside of the auspices of organizations or movements. As Harris writes, “Just as she would have preferred slavery to be abolished without a war, so too did she want new kinds of work and opportunities for women to come without war between the sexes.”
Harris paints a portrait of a successful professional woman who remained single into her 30s but nevertheless championed the domestic ideals of 19th-century womanhood. But it was also plagued with labor issues and civil unrest. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an acquaintance of Davis, wrote that we sympathize with history when “the blow was struck, for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded.” Many biographies entertain a love affair with their subject that encourages such Emersonian identifications. Her celebration of Davis’s ability to enjoy “continuing productivity” at home with two young children as a “testament to how well she had learned to balance work and family,” (adding “she even learned to write while in the nursery with [baby] Charley”) is the kind of victory only the most recent feminisms would write home about. “When you crossed into Pennsylvania you had to defend your slave-holding friends against the Abolitionists, who dubbed them all Legrees and Neros; and when you came home you quarreled with your kindly neighbors for calling the Abolitionists ‘emissaries of hell,’” she wrote. These histories underscore Davis’s own tendency to create worlds and then, once made, recede into their peripheries. Her writings of the 1860s refer to African and Native Americans as “savages,” a tendency Harris admirably refuses to omit from her rigorous consideration of Davis’s race politics. In that way, she is not unlike like the mysterious, unidentified narrator of “Life in the Iron-Mills.” “My story is very simple,” that narrator begins, “only what I remember of the life of one of these men.”
Whether she should turn out to be the hero of her own life — the Dickensian question that animated so much of late 19th-century literature and thought — was immaterial to Davis. Telling the story like that detracts from history’s ability to instruct us on navigating the debates of our own historical moment. Here’s the problem according to Davis: “[Her] spelling was atrocious; the errors of grammar in every line beyond remedy. Richard, or “Dick,” is probably better known than his mother today. The lowest pupil in our public schools would have detected her ignorance on the first page.” She works herself nearly to death (“there was but a feeble flicker of life left in the emaciated little body”) to pursue her dream but eventually fails, returning to Mississippi to marry a plantation overseer who sees her as little better than the slaves he beats. This relationship between the historical figure and the present-day author allows readers to find validation for their own beliefs in an earlier time, ostensibly erasing the different valences of such beliefs in their respective contexts. Each reading of her tacks away from the last. Harris’s Davis is more Sheryl Sandberg than Susan Sontag. That would allow for an interpretation of her miserable marriage as a protest of the limited opportunities offered to promising young women of talent. JULY 14, 2018
MARCIA BARR, the heroine of Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1876 short story “Marcia,” dreams of supporting herself as a writer. He emerges unfavorably in Harris’s account — an attention hog in constant competition with his more talented and less recognized younger brother, a boor to the family servants, a poor companion to his affectionate sister, and a sloppy writer who refused his mother’s editorial advice. The careful examination of each piece yields no clear picture of a whole. Like many of her characters, both diaries she kept met with dismal ends. Without a figure to lionize or a worldview to champion, scholars have not quite known what to do with Davis. Davis’s complex attitudes toward the many social issues she treated in her editorials and fictions — slavery, labor, feminism — expose how the contemporary depiction of the American political spectrum from left to right, progressive to conservative, does not map neatly onto the political realities of the mid- to late 19th century. The house on 21st Street emerges as the lively scene of literary and theatrical salons, as well as dinners for visiting political and publishing dignitaries. The Harding household was divided as well. Davis once wrote a friend, “[T]he fact is when our sex get into corporate bodies I have an instinct that warns me off […] I am never less a woman than when I have been among women.” Harris’s biography demonstrates that though an author like Davis may not have always “struck the blow for us,” her life and work do offer us a fuller picture of her period. She considered herself a Westerner, and preferred the rugged existence she associated with that region to the etiolated lives of those who dwelt “in the gray cabins of New England,” to quote the title of one of her stories, which depicts depressed and drug-addicted women of leisure. At a time when the belief in hereditary insanity informed much fiction of the period as well as the theories of biological degeneracy that caused the mentally ill to be ostracized and abused, Davis raised awareness about the sociological causes of mental illness. On the contrary, they were grave, thoughtful, self-possessed. In an 1886 editorial, she wrote that “marriage, provided it to be based on pure, strong affection, is better for a woman, even under the worst circumstances, than a single life under the best.” In all things, she cast her lot with her family and her writerly colleagues (male and female) rather than with her sisters in struggle. Harris is also able to avoid a romantic identification with her subject in part because Davis resists it. Later, she would take on the American Charity Organization Movement almost single-handedly in a series of editorials with an anarchistic bent that protested the ACOM’s discouragement of “indiscriminate charity” and, as Harris discovers, Davis also contributed to both individuals and institutions in need of aid throughout her life, usually anonymously. But Marcia’s fate is endless rejection. Histories of Davis’s life have typically said as much if not more about all the buzzing around her than about Davis herself. The group of scholars who study her work is called The Society for the Study of Rebecca Harding Davis and Her World. Bits of Gossip, Davis’s autobiography, uses her own life as more of an organizing principle than a subject, devoting most of its attention to observations of other celebrities. Her position on women’s rights was equally double-sided. She would, of course, have none of such counsel.”
The story would make far more sense to our present-day sensibilities if it ended with Marcia’s success. Rough, democratic, hardy, common sense is the strength of Western people.”
Despite her identification with the West, Davis also sympathized with the South, resenting the Northern insinuation that all Southerners were like Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s evil slave trader Simon Legree. Unlike Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who would base her 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” on her own horrifying experience with the rest cure, Davis ignored Mitchell’s advice to abstain from mental and physical activity. Instead, she sought solutions in a burgeoning medical field that was studying the science of physiological addiction. I don’t know how she made the mistake to be born in New England. In the mid-’70s, she traveled on mule back to the struggling Cheyenne community of Qualla in the North Carolina mountains to write a nonfictional account of the trip. Like many other 19th-century women writers, Davis had been a patient of the famous “rest cure” physician Dr. ¤
Rebecca Harding Davis spent most of her life in Wheeling, a newly thriving mill town in a state that did not yet exist. This seems an apt metaphor for Davis’s history overall. Alternatively, it might be easier to swallow the tragedy as is if Marcia were actually a talented writer. Harris’s biography unearths the drama and danger of living in a border city under Union control during the war years.