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Speakers Explore Wheeling Writer’s Legacy

Photos by Linda Comins Wheeling historians Rebekah Karelis, left, and Margaret Brennan greet audience members after presenting a Lunch With Books program on author Rebecca Harding Davis.

WHEELING — From penning editorials for The Intelligencer to writing stories in national publications, Rebecca Harding Davis became a leading author of the 19th-century.

Wheeling historians Margaret Brennan and Rebekah Karelis appeared last week at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books to discuss Davis’ life and literary legacy. The presenters said they were inspired by a new biography, “Rebecca Harding Davis: A Life Among Writers,” written by Sharon M. Harris and published by West Virginia University Press.

Rebecca was born at the Bradford House in Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1831 and spent her early years in Alabama. Her family moved to Wheeling in 1836. They lived on Webster (now 20th) Street and attended St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church.

She described their neighborhood as “two sleeping streets lined with Lombardy poplars,” situated between a slow-moving Ohio River and “silent, brooding hills,” Brennan said. She also wrote of iron foundries’ smoke that covered the wharf and river and clung to houses and faces of passersby.

The future author enrolled in the Washington Female Seminary and graduated as valedictorian in 1848. Upon returning home, she contributed editorials to West Virginia’s oldest newspaper for editor Archibald Campbell.

“He was a real influence on her writings in her early days,” Karelis said.

Brennan noted that Rebecca’s mother, Rachel Blaine Harding, had been educated by Campbell’s uncle, Bethany College founder Alexander Campbell.

Her first work, “Life in the Iron Mills,” set in Wheeling, was published in April 1861 by the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

“It was a sensation,” Brennan said.

“Life in the Iron Mills” offered “a critique of capitalism and the inherent inequities that accompanied it,” Karelis said.

Soon, every national newspaper and publication sought her skills as a writer, Karelis added.

Her Civil War-era writings were the most striking of a 50-year career.

“She really provided a snapshot of Wheeling during the Civil War,” Karelis said.

She wrote a 16-part serial, “A Story of To-Day,” for the Atlantic Monthly. Specific battles and war-related issues were incorporated into her stories as they happened, Karelis said. Renamed “Margaret Howth,” the work became her first book to be published as a stand-alone novel.

As her reputation grew, she met leading literary figures in New England. She married Philadelphia attorney L. Clarke Davis in Wheeling in March 1863 and they settled in Philadelphia. Their first child, Richard Harding Davis, who also became a well-known writer, was born in April 1864.

The Davises became “one of the most prominent families in the whole country,” Brennan said. As Rebecca continued to write, she supported Native American rights, African-American causes and care for the mentally ill.

Karelis said Davis, who was forward-thinking and progressive, demonstrated “strong integrity” in her life and work. Her stories marked the beginning of the realism movement.

Her writing “became a vehicle to articulate her opinions as a West Virginian,” Karelis said. For example, she wrote mysteries that were thinly-veiled attacks on the system of slavery. Her series, “Waiting for the Verdict,” exploring interracial relationships, was published by the Galaxy magazine in the 1860s.

After the Civil War, she wrote extensively about social issues.

“Her fiction, like her journalism, had to be invested with something to say,” Karelis said.

Her last book, the autobiographical “Bits of Gossip,” was published in 1904. She died in September 1910, at age 79, at her son’s home, Crossroads Farm, in Mount Kisco, New York.

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