Date of Award

Spring 5-11-2012

Degree Type

Honors College Thesis



First Advisor

Ellen Weinauer

Advisor Department



In her 1904 memoir, Bits of Gossip, American journalist and fiction writer Rebecca Harding Davis wrote that “nobody has sketched those uneasy, unsuccessful ghosts who haunt the gates and hedges of the scribbling world; always outside, yet always hoping to enter in” (142). In this remark, Davis reveals her desire to write about ordinary people in ordinary situations and to give her writings a sense of realism that had not been portrayed by the idealistic Romantic writers that preceded her. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, American writers had emphasized emotion and imagination over reason, allowing them to ideally and heroically portray their characters in unlikely situations (“American Novel”). However, mindful of a number of urgent social conditions, which included issues of race and abolition, the Civil War, Reconstruction, women’s changing role in society, temperance, imperialism, and the harms of industrialization, Davis saw a need to write in a new manner in order to portray the problems of the time period and encourage reform (“Society”).

I hope to fill in some of the gaps of present day literary scholarship by bringing attention to Davis’s treatment of a classic theme, examining some of her lesser-known work, and bringing to light Davis’s belief in art as a means of social reform. That belief, I would argue, helped to radically change the literary landscape of nineteenth century America. By writing the bleak stories of untraditional characters- artistic individuals who should have the ability to transcend their environment and become self-reliant creators of beautiful art- Davis reveals the plight of the oppressed artist. Her focus on this group, one to which she belongs as a female writer, becomes a literary device enabling her to both assert her own artistic voice and to inspire readers to reform the oppressive institutions and ideologies that defeat the artist.