Rebecca Harding Davis was a prominent author of radical social fiction during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In stories that combine realism with sentimentalism, Davis confronted a wide range of contemporary American issues, giving voice to working women, prostitutes, wives seeking divorce, celibate utopians, and female authors. Davis broke down distinctions between the private and the public worlds, distinctions that trapped women in the ideology of domesticity.
By engaging current strategies in literary hermeneutics with a strong sense of historical radicalism in the Gilded Age, Jean Pfaelzer reads Davis through the public issues that she forcefully inscribed in her fiction. In this study, Davis's realistic narratives actively construct a coherent social work, not in a fictional vacuum but in direct engagement with the explosive movements of social change from the Civil War through the turn of the century.
Rebecca Harding Davis is best remembered for her 1861 story 'Life in the Iron Mills.' Her image of the korl woman, the sculpted figure who symbolized the plight of mill workers in the industrializing United States, still haunts us. . . . Parlor Radical is a substantive work that contextualizes Davis's writings in provocative ways.
Jean Pfaelzer's Parlor Radical documents Davis's literary engagement with virtually every social and political issue of the second half of the nineteenth century, including temperance, racism and Reconstruction, women's suffrage, and 'New Womanhood.' . . . Readers who know Davis only as the author of 'Life in the Iron Mills' will find here a literary career as rich as that of any nineteenth-century writer, male or female, and a persuasive argument that American social realism was always in dialogue with forms, such as sentimentalism, to which it has usually been opposed.
This present volume provides an extended commentary of impressive critical sophistication and historical insight, . . . furnishing the modern reader with one of the most valuable guides available to the life and work of an author who urged her contemporaries to write 'the inner life and history of their time with a power which shall make that time alive for future ages,' a challenge she proved herself worthy of in her stories.