- Seventy-Three Uncollected Short Works by Rebecca Harding Davis:A Bibliography
More than a century after her death, we are still rediscovering Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910). After exploding into American letters with her first major work, the realist novella Life in the Iron-Mills (1861), Davis spent the next fifty years publishing popular memoirs, serialized novels, and hundreds of short stories, essays, and editorials. Unfortunately, many of her writings were all too quickly forgotten, often within her lifetime. At the time of her death, Davis was probably best known as the mother of another writer, the journalist and war correspondent Richard Harding Davis; many obituaries noted her writing career somewhat offhandedly, as if it were primarily something she had passed on to her son. Within just a few decades, she would be all but forgotten, and her masterpiece effectively lost.
So she and her work may have remained were it not for the efforts of Tillie Olsen. A poet and storyteller, feminist and social commentator, Olsen happened, in the early 1970s, upon Life in the Iron-Mills, a novella about struggle, art, and death in the iron mills of West Virginia, one that spoke directly to Olsen’s own concerns about social inequality. The novella tells the story of an impoverished ironworker who spends his nights sculpting beautiful human figures in korl, or smelter’s sludge. His ultimate work of art is an exquisite, lifelike korl woman, but in a deviation from the Pygmalion myth, Davis offers no happy ending. There is no transcendence or salvation from want or hunger. Industrial society swallows the artist, and the korl woman is left to gather dust behind a curtain. Instantly recognizing an important and complex work of literature, Olsen brought the tale to the Feminist Press for republication, and it has been in print ever since.
Life in the Iron-Mills is today recognized as one of the earliest works of American realism, and Davis as a pillar of the realist school and a writer of depth. Articles on her literary craft and influence regularly appear in journals like Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, and American Literary Realism.1 Topic, the literary review of Washington and Jefferson College, recently devoted an entire issue to Davis.2 All this attention has substantially augmented the bibliography of her primary texts. In 1957, the Bulletin of Bibliography and Magazine Notes attributed just seventy-eight works to [End Page 229] Davis; by the time of her inclusion in the massive, multivolume bibliography Literary Writings in America (1977), that number had doubled.3 Most recently, biographer Jane Atteridge Rose has estimated Davis’s known writings at five hundred pieces, most of them periodical publications.4 The purpose of this article is to add another seventy-three short works to that number, three of which are reprinted here for the first time since Davis’s lifetime. These three pieces provide a glimpse into what the new texts have to offer scholars of Davis’s life and work.
Below, the reader will find a chronological checklist of the newly documented miscellaneous pieces. In it, I maintain Rose’s practice of labeling Davis’s work by genre: “J” for pieces of juvenile fiction, “F” for adult fiction, “NF” for nonfiction, and “F/NF” for pieces that, as Rose puts it, “are either thoroughly factual stories or thoroughly narrative essays” (p. 68). I have also noted in brackets those works for which I have been unable to locate the original publication.5 In several cases, separate entries have identical or nearly identical titles and should be cited with care.6 All of these works have gone largely unaccounted for until now. None of them appears in the most complete lists of Davis’s work: Rose’s 1990 bibliography in American Literary Realism and Ruth Ann Stoner Nieves’s well-organized 2000 follow-up.7
My interest in bibliographic work began with Bonnie James Shaker and Angela Gianoglio Pettitt’s rediscovery of Kate Chopin’s last, and long-lost, short story, “Her First Party”; I...