MARCIA BARR, the heroine of Rebecca Harding Davis’s 1876 short story “Marcia,” dreams of supporting herself as a writer. She travels to Philadelphia from a small Mississippi town on the banks of the Yazoo River to try her luck with the big magazines. But Marcia’s fate is endless rejection. Here’s the problem: “[Her] spelling was atrocious; the errors of grammar in every line beyond remedy. The lowest pupil in our public schools would have detected her ignorance on the first page.” She works herself nearly to death (“there was but a feeble flicker of life left in the emaciated little body”) to pursue her dream but eventually fails, returning to Mississippi to marry a plantation overseer who sees her as little better than the slaves he beats.

It’s hard to make sense of Marcia’s suffering or untangle a moral from the story’s various threads. One wants “Marcia” protests the misogyny of men like the heroine’s editors and her father, who thinks that women “are like mares — only useful to bring forth children.” But that critique comes with a hearty side of derision for the uneducated hack attempting a serious literary career: “There could be but one kind of advice to give her — to put away pen and ink, and for three years at least devote herself to hard study. She would, of course, have none of such counsel.”

The story would make far more sense to our present-day sensibilities if it ended in Marcia’s success. Then it might read as a triumph of the imagination, a coming of age for the 19th-century female literary genius. Or, alternatively, it might be easier to swallow the tragedy as is if Marcia were actually a talented writer. That would allow for an interpretation of her miserable marriage as a protest of the limited opportunities offered to promising young women of talent. But Rebecca Harding Davis didn’t write it that way, and so readers are left to wonder if “Marcia” praises women who sought a vocation outside of marriage, condemns them, or presents some inscrutable message in-between.

It’s tempting to search for clues to such literary puzzles in the author’s life, but a search like that with Davis only mirrors the puzzle; it doesn’t solve it. This is perhaps because when we look for meaning in the lives of historical figures, what we’re often looking for is the reflected image of our own ideas and beliefs. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an acquaintance of Davis, wrote that we sympathize with history when “the blow was struck, for us, as we ourselves in that place would have done or applauded.” Many biographies published today entertain a love affair with their subject that encourages such Emersonian identifications. This relationship between the historical figure and the present-day author allows readers to find validation for their own beliefs in an earlier time, ostensibly erasing the different valences of such beliefs in their respective contexts.

Sharon M. Harris’s new biography of Davis, Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life Among Writers, avoids this problem by situating Davis deeply in her own time and place through close examinations of Davis’s social and professional circles alongside the events of her life. Harris is also able to avoid a romantic identification with her subject in part because Davis herself resists it. Davis was resolutely private and refused to participate in the emerging cult of celebrity surrounding authors’ lives. She gave no interviews, provided no portraits, wrote no public accounts of her personal life. Like many of her characters, both of the diaries she kept met with dismal ends. One was lost in a fire many years after her death; the other was destroyed by a biographer of Richard Harding Davis, one of Davis’s sons. The biographer cut out the passages that related to his subject, turning the most important record of Davis’s life into a pile of confetti.

This seems an apt metaphor for Davis’s history overall. What remains of her personal life are documents scattered across the country and largely organized around the lives of men — Davis’s sons, her male friends, her publishers, and her editors. Digital archives hold hundreds of Davis’s stories, novels, and articles. These texts express a political ideology that is neither progressive nor conservative by any period’s definition. The careful examination of each piece yields no clear picture of a whole. Without a figure to lionize or a worldview to champion, scholars have not quite known what to do with Davis. Each reading of her tacks away from the last.

Today, Davis is mostly known for her 1861 story “Life in the Iron-Mills,” a widely anthologized work about exploited laborers that many cite as the first example of naturalism in American fiction. Though her fame in the 19th century was extraordinary (her vacations with President and First Lady Cleveland and the Barrymore family of actors were covered in the popular press), throughout the 20th, she remained a shadowy figure in studies of American arts and letters.

While a Davis revival began in earnest in the 1970s, she is not as studied today as Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman — quotable women about whom it’s easy to generate feminist memes. Davis once wrote a friend, “[T]he fact is when our sex get into corporate bodies I have an instinct that warns me off […] I am never less a woman than when I have been among women.” Today, she still seems to stand apart from her literary sisters. Harris’s biography demonstrates that though an author like Davis may not have always “struck the blow for us,” her richly nuanced life and work do offer a fuller picture of her period. This remarkable close study of Davis within the context of the turbulent period in both politics and the publishing industry during which she lived has something to tell us about our own time if not, directly, ourselves.

Davis’s complex attitudes toward the many social issues she treated in her editorials and fictions expose how the depiction of the American political spectrum from left to right, progressive to conservative, does not map neatly onto the political realities of the mid- to late-19th century. Despite the fact that, like Davis, we live in politically polarized times, the definitions of that spectrum — which is a creation of mid-20th-century thinking — may no longer be applicable to the political realities of today either. Perhaps this means Davis’s time has finally come.

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Rebecca Harding Davis (1831–1910) spent most of her life in Wheeling, a newly thriving mill town in a state that did not yet exist. “New Virginia,” as the local papers called the region, was at the forefront of industrial growth in America. But it was also plagued with labor issues and civil unrest. Wheeling was a slave-owning city set directly on the banks of the Ohio River, where many enslaved people dreamed of crossing to freedom. Davis’s letters and stories critique both slavery and what Harris calls the “self-aggrandizing intellectualism” of New England abolitionists. She considered herself a Westerner, and preferred the rugged existence she associated with that region to the etiolated lives of those who dwelt “in the gray cabins of New England,” to quote the title of her 1895 essay, which holds particular concern for isolated women of leisure in that region “overtaken by neurosis, or driven to spiritualism, to Buddhism, or to opium.” Of the writer Gail Hamilton she wrote, “What a thoroughly Western woman she is! I don’t know how she made the mistake to be born in New England. Rough, democratic, hardy, common sense is the strength of Western people.”

Despite her identification with the West, Davis also sympathized with the South, resenting the Northern insinuation that all Southerners were like Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s evil slave trader Simon Legree. She wrote of her time living in the border region that “[w]hen you crossed into Pennsylvania you had to defend your slave-holding friends against the Abolitionists, who dubbed them all Legrees and Neros; and when you came home you quarreled with your kindly neighbors for calling the Abolitionists ‘emissaries of hell.’”

Harris’s biography unearths the drama and danger of living in a border city under Union control during the war years. Wheeling was rife with what sound like East-German levels of espionage and enforcement — such as children were arrested for playing “Dixie” on the piano.

The Harding household was divided as well. Harris reveals that Rebecca’s brother, Richard, was imprisoned for treason by the Union army when he tried to flee to the South through Cincinnati to join the Confederacy. Davis wrote to her friend (and the wife of her Northern publisher) Annie Fields, “The war is surging up close about us. O Annie if I could put into your and every true woman’s heart the inexpressible loathing I have for it! If you could only see the other side enough to see the wrong, the tyranny on both.” Davis’s ability to see, in her own words, “both sides of the question” of abolition is a significant point of view to examine. No one benefits from the representation of the wartime national discourse as one of moral clarity and certitudes. Telling the story like that detracts from history’s ability to instruct us on navigating the debates of our own historical moment. Still, we like less to hear it.

Her position on women’s rights was equally double-sided. There were some restrictions on women that Davis chafed against, but others she seemed not to mind so much. In an 1886 editorial, she wrote that “marriage, provided it to be based on pure, strong affection, is better for a woman, even under the worst circumstances, than a single life under the best.” In all things, she cast her lot with her family and her writerly colleagues (male and female) rather than with her sisters in struggle. As Harris writes, “Just as she would have preferred slavery to be abolished without a war, so too did she want new kinds of work and opportunities for women to come without war between the sexes.”

Harris paints a portrait of a successful professional woman who remained single into her 30s but nevertheless championed the domestic ideals of 19th-century womanhood. Her celebration of Davis’s ability to enjoy “continuing productivity” at home with two young children as a “testament to how well she had learned to balance work and family,” (adding “she even learned to write while in the nursery with [baby] Charley”) is the kind of victory only the most recent feminisms would write home about. Harris’s Davis is more Sheryl Sandberg than Susan Sontag.

Davis’s complex stance on wedge issues like the war and women’s rights might suggest the hemming and hawing of a milquetoast centrist, but her views lack for easy explanation — not intensity. She championed her own causes outside of the auspices of organizations or movements. When asked to deliver a Christmas story for the January 1863 issue of The Atlantic, she sent a tale about prostitute who dies on Christmas Eve because no one will take her in. Davis responded to her editors’ complaints about the subject matter by referencing the prostitution epidemic in Wheeling: “[I]n a town like this it is easy to come into direct contact with every class and the longer I live — the more practical my observation is — the more I am concerned that the two natures remain in the most degraded soul.” She believed that prostitutes were not beneath salvation and insinuated that any woman could be driven to prostitution in dire circumstances. The plight of sex workers was a theme that would emerge throughout her writings, and often in not-so-subtle comparison to the financial lines along which many legal marriages were forged. Her editorials and stories on the topic posed solutions to the circumstances that led to sex work, such as training in alternative professions that could be conducted through mail-order manuals and literature — like bee-keeping and herbalism. In a 1902 editorial, she wrote that “the best work for any woman is that which she understands best — which lies nearest to her, no matter how ignoble or mean it may be in itself […] What does the color of your horse matter if you know how to ride it with dignity and if it carries you through the battle?”

Her humanitarian impulses centered on pragmatic, case-by-case solutions rather than holistic positions. Later, she would take on the American Charity Organization Movement almost single-handedly in a series of editorials with an anarchistic bent that protested the ACOM’s discouragement of “indiscriminate charity” and, as Harris discovers, Davis also contributed to both individuals and institutions in need of aid throughout her life, usually anonymously.

In an unusually long and productive literary career, she produced work on Native Americans, immigrants, laborers, the rising class of African-American professionals, the disabled, and the mentally ill — in terms that would alternately impress and repulse the present-day liberal reader. Her writings of the 1860s refer to African and Native Americans as “savages,” a tendency Harris admirably refuses to omit from her rigorous consideration of Davis’s race politics.

Davis’s later depictions of racial others, however, reveal a personal growth and development. In the mid-’70s, she traveled on mule back to the struggling Cheyenne community of Qualla in the North Carolina mountains to write a nonfictional account of the trip that sings a far different tune than her earlier work on similar subjects.

The faces of these people, I am bound to confess were of a far higher type than those of the same class of whites, American, English or Irish, would have been in a like condition. They were neither vicious nor vulgar in a single instance. On the contrary, they were grave, thoughtful, self-possessed.

The piece goes on to propose that rather than send white missionaries to Qualla to help abate the poverty and alcoholism there, it would be better to educate younger members of the community to serve as effective leaders of and spokespeople for their own tribe.

Davis was particularly sensitive to the complex causes of alcoholism and, as with prostitution, she avoided demonizing its victims. Though she advocated teetotaling, she did not align herself with the strategies of the temperance movement, which cited morality as both the cause and cure of alcohol abuse. Instead, she sought solutions in a burgeoning medical field that was studying the science of physiological addiction. At a time when the belief in hereditary insanity informed much fiction of the period as well as the theories of biological degeneracy that caused the mentally ill to be ostracized and abused, Davis raised awareness about the sociological causes of mental illness. Her 1883 story “John Sorby” made the unusual connection between insanity and social conditions like unfair labor practices. Eventually, she worked with her husband, Clarke, on a governor-assigned state committee in Pennsylvania that studied the practices of asylums, leading to some of the earliest legislation to regulate the treatment of the mentally ill in the United States.

It’s not surprising that her interest in mental health had some root in her own life. Like many other 19th-century women writers, Davis had been a patient of the famous “rest cure” physician Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell. Unlike Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who would base her 1892 short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” on her own horrifying experience with the rest cure, Davis ignored Mitchell’s advice to abstain from mental and physical activity. Mitchell, himself a fiction writer, later became a close family friend. Both her husband and their well-known son, Richard Harding Davis, experienced long bouts of depression throughout their lives that kept Rebecca by their bedsides as nurse and confidante.

Richard, or “Dick,” is probably better known than his mother today. In his own time, he was more celebrated as a man-about-town than a writer, posing for the popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and often profiled in the society pages. He emerges unfavorably in Harris’s account — an attention hog in constant competition with his more talented and less recognized younger brother, a boor to the family servants, a poor companion to his affectionate sister, and a sloppy writer who refused his mother’s editorial advice. Still, Davis’s devotion to her children was unflagging, and Dick himself was aware of how frequently he tested it. In a letter to his brother Charley, he joked that “[i]f one of her sons was in Sing Sing she would be proud of his making better shivs than Billy the Bilk.”

Accounts of Dick’s bad behavior provide some of the most entertaining passages to be found in Harris’s biography, but the greatest surprise to readers who only know Rebecca Harding Davis as an author of grim, working-class fiction will be the portrait of the Davis family’s life in the three-story brick Philadelphia row house where they lived from 1870 until their deaths. The house on 21st Street is brought to life as the lively scene of literary and theatrical salons, as well as dinners for visiting political and publishing dignitaries. Rebecca attended society balls and teas with her daughter, Nora, not only in Philadelphia but also in New York and Europe. Her social power was as considerable as her influence in the publishing world — more considerable on both accounts, Harris likes to note, than that of the three male literary professionals in her nuclear family.

Histories of Davis’s life have typically said as much if not more about all the buzzing around her than about Davis herself. The group of scholars who study her work is called The Society for the Study of Rebecca Harding Davis and Her World. Bits of Gossip, Davis’s autobiography, uses her own life as more of an organizing principle than a subject, devoting most of its attention to observations of other celebrities. Harris’s biography, subtitled “A Life Among Writers,” is not wholly an exception to this rule. These histories underscore Davis’s own tendency to create worlds and then, once made, recede into their peripheries. In that way, she is not unlike like the mysterious, unidentified narrator of “Life in the Iron-Mills.” “My story is very simple,” that narrator begins, “only what I remember of the life of one of these men.”

Whether she should turn out to be the hero of her own life — the Dickensian question that animated so much of late 19th-century literature and thought — was immaterial to Davis. If Emerson is right and “there is properly no history; only biography,” the story of a life that places others at its center might be the biography we need most. Harris channels Davis’s ability to offer us a history that engages the ideas we’ve come to embrace alongside those we’ve come to distance ourselves from, our heroes in conversation with our villains. Davis wrote that “[t]he man who sees both sides of the shield may be right, but he is most uncomfortable”; that discomfort seems a small price to pay for a step in the direction of truth.

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Arielle Zibrak is assistant professor of English at the University of Wyoming.