Rebecca Harding Davis was a prolific writer who published chiefly in popular periodicals over the latter half of the nineteenth century. In tales that combine realism with sentimentalism and in topical essays, Davis confronted a wide range of current issues—notably women’s problems—as one who knew the frustration caused by the genteel female’s helpless social position and barriers against women entering the working world. In an excellent critical introduction, Jean Pfaelzer integrates cultural, historical, and psychological approaches in penetrating readings of Davis’s work. She emphasizes how Davis’s fictional embrace of the commonplace was instrumental in the demise of American romanticism and in eroding the repressive cultural expectations for women.
In both fiction and nonfiction, Davis attacked contemporary questions such as slavery, prostitution, divorce, the Spanish-American War, the colonization of Africa, the plight of the rural South, northern racism, environmental pollution, and degraded work conditions generated by the rise of heavy industry. Written from the standpoint of a critical observer in the midst of things, Davis’s work vividly recreates the social and ideological ferment of the post-Civil War United States. The American literary canon is enriched by this collection, nearly all of which is reprinted for the first time.