Rebecca Harding Davis was born in Washington, Pa., while her mother was visiting relatives. She and her family lived in Big Spring (now Florence), Ala., until 1837, when they moved to Wheeling, Va. (now W. Va.). Davis received her early education from her mother and read widely as a child. At age fourteen, Davis entered Washington Female Academy. She graduated in 1848 and returned to Wheeling, continuing to read and study on her own. She also began writing and contributing articles and stories to the Wheeling Intelligencer. In April of 1861, her short story “Life in the Iron-Mills” was published in The Atlantic Monthly. That fall, the same magazine began publishing, in serial form, her novel Margret Howth. Around the same time, Davis published a mystery story “Murder of the Glenn Ross” in Peterson’s Magazine. For many years afterward, she published “popular” stories and novels in magazines such as Peterson’s and The Galaxy and “literary” stories and novels in publications like The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine.
Davis married in 1863 and moved to Philadelphia, where she soon became ill. She recovered from her illness (probably an episode of depression) late in 1864 and resumed writing. In 1869, Davis became a contributing editor of the New York Daily Tribune. She began writing juvenile fiction the following year, publishing in magazines like The Youth’s Companion and St. Nicholas. In 1889, Davis left the Tribune and became a regular contributor to the New York Independent. In 1892, Silhouettes of American Life, a collection of her short stories, was published. In 1902, Davis began writing personal reminiscences for The Saturday Evening Post. A collection of these, Bits of Gossip, was published in 1904. Late that year, Davis’s husband died. Her eyesight began failing, but her finances required her to continue writing. Her last short story for adults appeared in 1909, and a children’s story was published a few months prior to her death. In 1910, while visiting her oldest son (author Richard Harding Davis) at his home in Mt. Kisco, N.Y., Davis suffered a stroke and died two days later. After cremation, her ashes were interred in Roxborough, Pa., with those of her husband.
Rebecca Harding Davis’s “literary” short stories and novels are early examples of realism in American fiction. She also wrote Gothic-style mystery stories, essays, and stories for children. A portion of her book Bits of Gossip describes life in Big Spring (now Florence), Ala.
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Photo courtesy of the Wheeling Hall of Fame and the Ohio County [W.Va.] Public Library.
Last updated on Oct 10, 2009.