- Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life among Writers by Sharon M. Harris
Sharon M. Harris's Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life among Writers is by far the most exhaustive biography to date on this pioneering and yet understudied American author. The volume dramatically extends Harris's biographical work in Rebecca Harding Davis and American Realism (Philadelphia, 1991), primarily a work of literary criticism, and in Davis's autobiographical writings that Harris and Janice Milner Lasseter coedited under the title Rebecca Harding Davis: Writing Cultural Autobiography (Nashville, 2001). Harris's new release also deepens the biographical writing of Jane Atteridge Rose and Jean Pfaelzer, neither of whose monographs aims at so comprehensive an account of Rebecca Harding Davis's life. The new book, then, combining analysis of Davis's literature, social activism, and private life in a finely detailed portrait of the woman, will become an indispensable resource for Davis scholars.
Of particular use will be Harris's encyclopedic coverage of the author's voluminous oeuvre. The extremely thorough catalog will enable researchers to situate even obscure texts in the wider context of Davis's life. In addition to facilitating such specific searching, Harris's all-inclusive approach highlights the sheer scope of Davis's output, which runs the gamut from serious literature to commercial fiction and from bold exposés to light opinion pieces. Thus, Harris's book valuably reveals just how disproportionate one's appreciation of Davis is if confined to her oft-anthologized short story "Life in the Iron-Mills" (1861). Harris's monograph further suggests the reach of Davis's influence by depicting her not only as the literary leader of a gifted family of professional writers—Harris compares the Davises to the Jameses—but also as a recognized [End Page 435] host to the literati of Philadelphia and beyond. The implicit, and eminently defensible, thesis seems to be that Davis deserves a wider hearing than she has yet received.
In that implicit quality of Harris's argument, though, lies a weakness. The book positions Davis in the thick of a vibrant, East Coast intelligentsia and records her consistently provocative voice from within that milieu. However, Harris does not advance a clear thesis about how Davis appropriated or influenced that literate culture in which she attained a degree of renown. Why, after all, does it matter that she knew all of these people? What mark did they make on her, and how did she change them? In calling Davis "A Conservative Progressive," Harris does illuminate a crucial feature of the author's moral vision—namely, that Davis's perennial agitation for social justice emerged from a set of traditional and Christian convictions that, while sometimes harmonizing and sometimes clashing with one another, often made her advocacy as unsettling to the political Left as to the Right (chap. 6). However, this claim is not entirely new to Davis scholarship, or even to Harris's own writing about Davis. Indeed, her previous monograph on Davis does more to commend a particular understanding of the author's legacy than the newer book does. The rich detail offered here about Davis's writing and relationships will certainly benefit scholars of her work; it could serve them even more if it were enlisted in support of a more focused and probing thesis about the literary, social, or historical meaning of Davis's life.