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Legacy 19.1 (2002) 44-52

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Rebecca Harding Davis's "Second Life"; or "Her Hands Could Be Trained as Well as His"

Ruth Stoner
Universidad de Málaga

No woman ever did better for her time than you and no shrieking suffragette will ever understand the influence you wielded, greater than hundreds of thousands of women's votes.

Letter from Richard Harding Davis to his mother (qtd. in Charles Belmont Davis, 293)

Rebecca Harding Davis was one of the most popular writers in the nineteenth century, not because of "Life in the Iron-Mills," as any contemporary student of American literature might assume, but rather because for thirty-three years she was a regular contributor to a "ladies" magazine, Peterson's. 1 Her biographers argue that this was work she did to "pay the rent." It is my contention that this huge corpus of literature by Rebecca Harding Davis, often described by such epithets as "hackwork," "potboilers," and "gothic thrillers," actually contains some of the most subversive literature written in the nineteenth century—radical declarations of women's status as chattel and portraits of women's sexual repression, embedded within very conventional imagery and formulaic sentimental plots. This body of literature joins a rapidly mounting collection of women's writing that, until recently, has been relegated to the subliterary classification of cultural artifacts, of some use to the social historian, of no use as works of art.

At the time Davis commenced her enduring and endearing association with Peterson's Magazine, it was the most widely read magazine in the United States and held that position for many years, over both Godey's and Graham's (Tebbel and Zuckerman 36; Harris 72). Davis's long-lasting association with Peterson's, as well as with many other of the most widely read magazines and newspapers of the day (Atlantic Monthly, Galaxy, Century, Lippincott's, Hearth and Home, Putnam's, Scribner's, Youth's Companion, St. Nicholas, Appleton's, Harper's, Independent, New York Tribune, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, North American Review, etc.), dramatically illustrates her command of the marketplace. That command, I argue, was undeniably determined by Davis's ability to fulfill the needs of the women who bought and read those magazines. And this satisfaction was reciprocal—such writing fulfilled Davis's own needs—financial and, in my opinion, emotional.

It is my belief that Davis's long and happy life (she died at age 79) hinged decisively on the freedom of expression she exercised in what has now come to be seen as her "minor" literature. 2 This is a prolific collection of short stories and serial novels, nearly all "mysteries," spanning fifty years. In one way or another, these works [End Page 44] all overtly offer a symbolic display of Davis's obsession with inheritance. Furthermore, these same works all subversively focus on female sexuality and desire, often frustrated. Davis's apparent opposition to the concept of survival and natural selection generated the pioneering naturalism of "Life in the Iron-Mills," her "elite" work, submitted for judgment by "the select" male readers such as her editor at the Atlantic Monthly, James T. Fields, or her reviewer, Henry James. However, survival was ironically the chosen subject of much of her "other" fiction and the overriding force in her own life. Thus, the woman who earliest and best condemned social Darwinism by "str[iking] the first blow for labor, in The Iron Mills [sic]" (C. B. Davis 293-94), was the very same one to illustrate, in plot after plot, that a woman's survival depended on obtaining and maintaining her inheritance.

Inheritance was a theme preoccupying many writers at the time, especially after the publication of the Origin of the Species in 1859. Consequently, women's property inheritance was the perfect motif to provide women with a practical formula for physical survival in an unjust world. But Davis also addressed emotional survival, which depended on alleviating the sexual starvation Victorian mores imposed on women. Although women dared not openly discuss...