Davis wrote not only fiction, but also essays on a variety of social concerns (including women's issues) for a number of newspapers and periodicals. Toward the end of her life, her fame was eclipsed by that of her son Richard Harding Davis who had become a glamorous celebrity, novelist, and journalist. Although she had been well known in her own day, Davis virtually disappeared for almost eighty years.
Her works currently in print are: Life in the Iron Mills, Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day, Waiting for the Verdict, and a selection of stories and essays in Rebecca Harding Davis: A Reader. This last book is an excellent collection of previously unavailable short fiction and essays as well as "Life in the Iron Mills."
She also addressed other contemporary issues in her works such as the Civil War, slavery, and the rights of the poor. While some of her contemporaries (particularly Henry James) did not like the darker nature of the subject matter and her style, this broadening of subject matter suitable for novels and her style have made her highly praised nowadays.
Rebecca Harding Davis did more than take notice of people. She absorbed them. She accepted their differences. She valued their differences. She recognized that differences, both good and bad, not only formed an individual’s character, but also influenced her own and had the potential to influence the character of others. Davis realized her employment of words could unlock a door to power, a door often closed to nineteenth-century women. Once that door opened, Davis fully exercised that power with distinct, literary portraits.
Rebecca Harding Davis died on September 29, 1910, at her son Richard's home in Mount Kisco, New York. She published more than 500 works in her lifetime.
Born Rebecca Blaine Harding in Wheeling, she spent most of her early life in what is now West Virginia, becoming familiar with the steel mills, the farms of the Pennsylvania Dutch and the Quakers, the coal mining towns, and the institutions of slavery. Although she left the region upon her marriage to L. Clark Davis in 1863, she wrote of it frequently
Besides writing about the exploited laborer, the author was also among the first of American fiction writers to deal realistically with war and with race prejudice. In "David Gaunt" she described the splitting apart of families and friends that the Civil War brought to the region that was yet to become West Virginia. In "Waiting for the Verdict" (1867), she attacked prejudice against Negroes without indulging in the violent biases of either the North or South.
She graduated valedictorian of her class in June 1848 at eighteen years old and went home to assume the domestic life expected of a young woman of her age and class. While still at home, Rebecca “began writing reviews, poems, stories, and editorials for the Wheeling Intelligencer” in 1850, “serving briefly as its editor in 1859.” In 1860, she submitted her first piece, “Life in the Iron-Mills,” to the Atlantic Monthly, which was accepted in January and published in April 1861.
In 1861, Rebecca Harding Davis, a heretofore unpublished author, sought to write her way out of this trap by devising a literary form that could make the foul mud "a real thing." Transcendentalism, she believed, was a philosophy of masculine egotism and imploded spiritualism that floated literature above the commonplace. Even so, Davis found in transcendentalism motifs that expressed a woman's plight: anxiety about aggression and violence, suspicion of authority, a critique of hierarchical ways of knowing, commitment to cognitive validity of feeling, identification with a victim, fascination with the social function of suffering, and an interest in the construction of subjectivity.
Rebecca attended Washington Female Seminary, graduating in 1848 with highest honors. A life of uneventful spinsterhood seemed her destiny when, at age thirty, she published anonymously "Life in the Iron Mills" in the Atlantic Monthly.