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  • Davis, Inc.:The Business of Asylum Reform in the Periodical Press
  • David Dowling (bio)

Rebecca Harding Davis's concern for capitalist injustice made famous by "Life in the Iron Mills" inspired her legal and literary collaboration with her husband, L. Clarke Davis, to spearhead one of the most effective cultural and institutional reforms in nineteenth-century American periodical history.1 The Davises capitalized on the power of the periodical press—which Margaret Fuller called "the only efficient instrument for the general education of the people" at the time—to politicize asylum corruption and thus pave the way for legislative reform.2 Davis's3 serialized Peterson's tale, Put Out of the Way3 (1870), and Clarke's Atlantic article, "A Modern Lettre de Cachet" (1868), enflamed a nation-wide controversy, what she called a "bitter battle" fought heroically "through press and legislature," by exposing the common practice of committing sane individuals to mental institutions (usually for economic reasons) with no legal recourse.4 In 1868, the year Clarke's article appeared, escalating numbers of the already sizable population of 45,000 held in U.S. asylums were revealed to be sane, calling the legal and medical communities to arms. Just one year later, the Pennsylvania Law New Act Number 54, Sections 1 and 2 of 1869 passed, limiting those who could commit individuals to asylums to surviving guardians, and in the case of their absence, friends or relatives and two signatures from reputable doctors. The next year, Davis's Put Out of the Way pushed for further reform through the more popular venue of Peterson's Ladies' National Magazine (1842–1898), contributing a crucial humanistic portrait to legal appeals that would lead to the passage of an act for the protection of the insane by the Governor of Pennsylvania's May 1874 commission, which included her husband, Clarke.

The vast reach and influence of the Atlantic and Peterson's should not be underestimated as evidence suggesting the Davises' roles as the [End Page 23] catalysts politicizing the issue. There was a significant uproar in the medical community, discussed later in this essay, whose dissenting diatribes as well as carefully crafted defenses appeared in physicians' journals such as The Surgical Reporter. Due in large part to the popular tour de force of Davis's narrative serialized in four monthly installments, Peterson's circulation rose from 140,000 in 1869 to 165,000 a few years later, one of the most significant surges in the history of the magazine.5 Peterson's finances were of course more flush following the Civil War, yet the timing of Davis's publication appears more than coincidental, as the journal would surpass Godey's Lady's Book by 1866 as the premier ladies' periodical in the United States and maintain that status for a thirty-year span. Clarke's essay cannot be credited with boosting sales figures for the Atlantic the way a star like Davis had for Peterson's. Her exposé tale on the timely issue was told with pulpy flair, yet challenged readers by confronting their complacent social values and by avoiding a perfunctory happy ending. Clarke's essay was placed in an ideal venue given his objective, for the normally highbrow Atlantic was now trying to appeal to a broader audience under the editorship of James T. Fields. Under Fields, "the subject matter was not expected to appeal to the general public, but was to contain enough light literature and timely commentary to make it pay as a monthly," according to historian James Austin.6 Often categorized as a journal with no mass-market ambitions that catered only to the educated elite, the Atlantic was also experiencing a stunning rise in popularity while maintaining its lofty prestige, growing from 35,000 readers to 50,000 from 1861–1870 under Fields.7 The Atlantic recognized market pressures and thus aimed "to popularize what it estimated as the best salable literature of the day" and to court learned controversy with popular implications.8 The Davises could not have approached the periodical press at a better time, for both Peterson's and the Atlantic would prove to be among the most "efficient instrument[s] for...


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