Life in the Iron Mills | Study Guide

Rebecca Harding Davis

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Rebecca Harding Davis | Biography


Early Life and Marriage

Born Rebecca Blaine Harding in Washington, Pennsylvania, on June 24, 1831, the American author known as Rebecca Harding Davis came from a privileged, educated background. She married newspaper editor L. Clarke Davis in March 1863. She lived most of her adult life in Wheeling, West Virginia, a mill town in a booming industrial area along the Ohio River.

Writing and Influences

"Life in the Iron Mills" appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in April 1861. It was one of the first works of fiction to explore the lives of working-class factory laborers in the United States. As such, it is considered an early entry in the genre of literary realism, which gained popularity in Europe in the 1860s and in the United States two decades later. Davis published her first novel, Margret Howth: A Story of To-day, in 1862, adding to a prolific career in literature and letters that contained over 500 individual works.

Davis's work is influenced by transcendentalist writers, such as the American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82). American transcendentalism flourished in New England from 1830 to 1855 and was shaped primarily by Emerson, who urged the achievement of wisdom by practicing solitude and communing with nature. He believed such behavior would lead to intellectual originality and understanding of human connectedness with nature and with the divine. Another influence was the "sentimental" tradition of early 19th-century writers, including Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–96) and Lydia Maria Child (1802–80). Sentimental writers sought to engage their readers' emotions and rouse them to feel sympathy and compassion for others. In Davis's autobiography Bits of Gossip (1904) she explains her belief that a writer should offer up an account "of the time in which he lived—as he saw it." In this way the writer could "make history live and breathe" for future generations.

Death and Legacy

Davis died at age 79 on September 29, 1910, in New York. She is remembered primarily for "Life in the Iron Mills" and its contribution to the development of literary realism in the United States.

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