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July 22, 2003

Bits of Gossip by Rebecca Harding Davis
Posted by Teresa at 02:47 PM *

Now, I forget just what it was I was looking for when I stumbled across Rebecca Harding Davis’s Bits of Gossip, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1904 and now available online. At the time, I didn’t know anything about her. All I knew was that her style was remarkably readable, and that I liked her approach:

It always has seemed to me that each human being, before going out into the silence, should leave behind him, not the story of his own life, but of the time in which he lived, - as he saw it, - its creed, its purpose, its queer habits, and the work which it did or left undone in the world.

Taken singly, these accounts might be weak and trivial, but together, they would make history live and breathe. Think what flesh and color the diaries of an English tailor and an Italian vagabond have given to their times!

Some such vague consideration as this has made me collect these scattered remembrances of my own generation, and of some of the men and women in it whom I have known.
She speaks modestly, but her lifetime, 1831 to 1910, spanned a period of astonishing change, and she saw some interesting bits of it at first hand. She grew up in Wheeling, (not yet West) Virginia, when it was still settling into being settled:
The world that we lived in when I was a child would seem silent and empty to this generation. There were no railways in it, no automobiles or trolleys, no telegraphs, no sky-scraping houses. Not a single man in the country was the possessor of huge accumulations of money such as are so common now. There was not, from sea to sea, a trust or a labor union. Even the names of those things had not yet been invented.

The village in Virginia which was our home consisted of two sleepy streets lined with Lombardy poplars, creeping between a slow-moving river and silent, brooding hills. Important news from the world outside was brought to us when necessary by a man on a galloping horse.

But such haste seldom was thought necessary. Nobody was in a hurry to hear the news. Nobody was in a hurry to do anything, least of all to work or to make money. It mattered little then whether you had money or not. If you were born into a good family, and were “converted,” you were considered safe for this world and the next.

Incomes were all small alike. Indeed, among gentlefolk it was considered vulgar to talk of money at all - either to boast that you had it, or to complain of your lack of it. This was a peculiar trait of the times, and, I suspect, grew out of one dogma of the religious training which then was universal. Every child was taught from his cradle that money was Mammon, the chief agent of the flesh and the devil. As he grew up it was his duty as a Christian and a gentleman to appear to despise filthy lucre, whatever his secret opinion of it might be.

Besides, the country was so new, so raw, that there were few uses for wealth. You must remember that in the early thirties Philadelphia, New York, and Boston were in the same condition as to population, wealth, and habits of life as the fourth-rate country town of to-day. Richmond and St. Louis boasted loudly of their eight thousand inhabitants. San Francisco was a bear den, and Chicago a hamlet. The majority of Americans, both men and women, were then busy with farming or other manual labor, and the so-called gentry had no operas, no art galleries, no yearly trips to Europe to drain their thin incomes.

Between the small towns scattered over the continent stretched the wilderness, broken here and there by the farms of squatters. Through this wilderness the rivers, canals, and one solitary road carried travelers and trade.

Our village was built on the Ohio River, and was a halting place on this great national road, then the only avenue of traffic between the South and the North. Every morning two stage-coaches with prancing horses and shrill horns dashed down the sleeping streets to the wharf, full of passengers from the East, who hurried on board the steamboats bound for St. Louis or New Orleans. Huge vans often passed, laden with merchandise for the plantations or with bales of cotton for the Northern mills. Now and then a white-topped Conestoga wagon drawn by eight horses, each carrying a chime of bells, came through the streets, bearing an emigrant family to the West. The mother and children peeped out of the high front, and the father, carrying a gun, walked with his dog. These emigrants often were from Norway or Poland or Germany, and wore their national costumes, as European peasants still did then. They put on their velvet jackets and high caps when they came near the town, and went about begging, in order to save the little hoard of money which they had brought with them until they reached “the Ohio,” as the whole West was then vaguely called.

These wagons were full of romance to us children. They came up with these strange people out of far-off lands of mystery, and took them into the wilderness, full of raging bears and panthers and painted warriors, all to be fought in turn. We used to look after the children peeping out at us with bitter envy; for, naturally, as we never left home, the world outside of our encircling hills was a vast secret to us. Boys and girls now usually rush in the course of every year through a dozen states, to the mountains or the seacoast. Most of them have been to Europe. Every morning before breakfast they can read what happened yesterday in Korea or South Africa.

But with us, after a presidential election, a month often passed before the man on a galloping horse brought us the name of the successful candidate. …

Certain things were close and real to us then, as children, which to boys and girls now are misty legends. What do they care for the Revolution or the Indian wars?

But then, the smoke of the battles of Monmouth and Yorktown was still in the air. The old Indian forts were still standing in the streets. It was part of your religion to hate the British. It was your own grandfather who, when he was ten years old, had gone into the swamp, killed the huge beast that had threatened the settlement, and so won the proud title of Panther Jim. He showed you the very sword which he had carried at Valley Forge. It was your own grandmother who had danced with Lafayette, and who hinted that “Lady Washington” had an ugly habit of loudly scolding her husband and of boxing Nelly Custis’s ears, which was hardly befitting a gentlewoman.

Another odd peculiarity of that time, which I never have seen noticed, was our familiarity with the heathen gods and goddesses. If you talked of war you said Mars, of a beautiful woman you called her Venus; you accused your rhyming neighbor of “courting the Nine.” Sermons, letters, and ordinary talk were larded with scraps of Latin and Greek, which now would be laughed at. The reason is plain. Then, the educated boy and girl, first of all, must study the classics. Science, geography, even the history of their own people, were but secondary matters. Jupiter, Juno, and Ce6sar still held the stage. The rest of the world as yet were behind the curtain. …

The old house had its historic points, too. There were the big wooden chairs on which the three Indian chiefs had sat when they stopped to see my father on their way to Washington. These warriors were in state dress, their faces painted in scarlet streaks; they wore crowns of eagle feathers and robes embroidered with beads and quills. They were live horrors to remember for years, and to shiver over when you were in bed and the candles were out and you pulled the clothes over your head.

She urged us to come and welcome them and not to be outdone in good-breeding by savages. So we went into the room and sat on a row of chairs, stiff with terror when they laughed and grunted “papoose.” One of us even carried a plate of our own jumbles to them, and the big warrior dumped cakes, plate and all, into the corner of his robe and carried them away. When they were going they turned on the threshold and the great chief made a farewell speech. The meaning of that oration always remained a family mystery. Had he pronounced a curse or a blessing on us? Even at this late day I should really like to know what he did say.
By the 1860s she was a published writer with a growing reputation. Naturally, she went to New England to hang out with the Boston and Concord Brahmins and Transcendentalists, staying at the home of her great friend Nathaniel Hawthorne. She met the lot of them: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Alcotts pe8re et fille:
I wish I could summon these memorable ghosts before you as I saw them then and afterward. To the eyes of an observer, belonging to the commonplace world, they did not appear precisely as they do in the portraits drawn of them for posterity by their companions, the other Areopagites, who walked and talked with them apart - always apart from humanity.

That was the first peculiarity which struck an outsider in Emerson, Hawthorne, and the other members of the “Atlantic” coterie; that while they thought they were guiding the real world, they stood quite outside of it, and never would see it as it was.

For instance, during the Civil War, they had much to say of it, and all used the same strained high note of exaltation. It was to them “only the shining track,” as Lowell calls it, where
“… heroes mustered in a gleaming row, Beautiful evermore, and with the rays
Of morn on their white shields of expectation.”
These heroes were their bravest and their best, gone to die for the slave or for their country. They were “the army” to them.

I remember listening during one long summer morning to Louisa Alcott’s father as he chanted pe6ans to the war, the “armed angel which was wakening the nation to a lofty life unknown before.”

We were in the little parlor parlor of the Wayside, Mr. Hawthorne’s house in Concord. Mr. Alcott stood in front of the fireplace, his long gray hair streaming over his collar, his pale eyes turning quickly from one listener to another to hold them quiet, his hands waving to keep time with the orotund sentences which had a stale, familiar ring as if often repeated before. Mr. Emerson stood listening, his head sunk on his breast, with profound submissive attention, but Hawthorne sat astride of a chair, his arms folded on the back, his chin dropped on them, and his laughing, sagacious eyes watching us, full of mockery.

I had just come up from the border where I had seen the actual war; the filthy spewings of it; the political jobbery in Union and Confederate camps; the malignant personal hatreds wearing patriotic masks, and glutted by burning homes and outraged women; the chances in it, well improved on both sides, for brutish men to grow more brutish, and for honorable gentlemen to degenerate into thieves and sots. War may be an armed angel with a mission, but she has the personal habits of the slums. This would-be seer who was talking of it, and the real seer who listened, knew no more of war as it was, than I had done in my cherry-tree when I dreamed of bannered legions of crusaders debouching in the misty fields.

Mr. Hawthorne at last gathered himself up lazily to his feet, and said quietly: “We cannot see that thing at so long a range. Let us go to dinner,” and Mr. Alcott suddenly checked the droning flow of his prophecy and quickly led the way to the dining-room.

Early that morning when his lank, gray figure had first appeared at the gate, Mr. Hawthorne said: “Here comes the Sage of Concord. He is anxious to know what kind of human beings come up from the back hills in Virginia. Now I will tell you,” his eyes gleaming with fun, “what he will talk to you about. Pears. Yes. You may begin at Plato or the day’s news, and he will come around to pears. He is now convinced that a vegetable diet affects both the body and soul, and that pears exercise a more direct and ennobling influence on us than any other vegetable or fruit. Wait. You’ll hear presently.”

When we went in to dinner, therefore, I was surprised to see the sage eat heartily of the fine sirloin of beef set before us. But with the dessert he began to advocate a vegetable diet and at last announced the spiritual influence of pears, to the great delight of his host, who laughed like a boy and was humored like one by the gentle old man.

Whether Alcott, Emerson, and their disciples discussed pears or the war, their views gave you the same sense of unreality, of having been taken, as Hawthorne said, at too long a range. You heard much sound philosophy and many sublime guesses at the eternal verities; in fact, never were the eternal verities so dissected and pawed over and turned inside out as they were about that time, in Boston, by Margaret Fuller and her successors. But the discussion left you with a vague, uneasy sense that something was lacking, some back-bone of fact. Their theories were like beautiful bubbles blown from a child’s pipe, floating overhead, with queer reflections on them of sky and earth and human beings, all in a glow of fairy color and all a little distorted.

Mr. Alcott once showed me an arbor which he had built with great pains and skill for Mr. Emerson to “do his thinking in.” It was made of unbarked saplings and boughs, a tiny round temple, two-storied, with chambers in which were seats, a desk, etc., all very artistic and complete, except that he had forgotten to make any door. You could look at it and admire it, but nobody could go in or use it. It seemed to me a fitting symbol for this guild of prophets and their scheme of life.
Check it out. There’s lots more like that. If she weren’t a woman who’d gone on to write about feminism and labor issues, I’d be astonished that such a charming and readable book had fallen into obscurity.
Comments on Bits of Gossip by Rebecca Harding Davis:
#1 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 12:06 AM:

What a wonderful find. Thank you.

#2 ::: Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 12:18 AM:

I am entranced and grareful. What this reminds me of is the writings of Lewis and Tolkien and Bede Griffiths about the England or Ireland of their childhood and how it had disappeared. I specifically remember one essay by Lewis, titled something like "The Great Divide", that hw wrote or gave as a talk when he was named Professor of Medieval and Reniassance English at Cambridge. He said that the truly great divide was not between the medieval and the reniassance, but between the modern 20th century culture and all that came before it. He felt that, as a person educated before the first World War with a strong grounding in the classices, he had more in common intellectually with any medieval scholar than with anyone with a "modern" education.

Again, thanks!

#3 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 01:29 AM:

While there are arguments for Lewis' opinion, it is also suspiciously common that agèd men tell us that Everything Changed just when they were young; just as Young Turks tell us that everything is about to change right now. (_Wired_ written by CS Lewis...)

More from _...Gossip_:

a0It is a good rule never to see or talk to the man whose words have wrung your heart, or helped it, just as it is wise not to look down too closely at the luminous glow which sometimes shines on your path on a summer night, if you would not see the ugly worm below.

a0a0a0a0a0a0a0a0But the poor unknown scribbler outside of the gates of literature has no reputation to keep up. He need not pose. Nobody mistakes his old hat for a halo. You have no illusions about him; nothing that he can do will disappoint you.

#4 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 01:34 AM:

Marvelous writing! Will have to check out some more of this lady when i get a chance. Was she any relation to Richard Harding Davis?
What it reminds me of most is a book by one of my favorite writers, Edmund G. Love, called The Situation in Flushing. The Flushing in question is not the one in Queens, but Flushing, Michigan, where the author spent his youth in the early part of the 20th century. He manages to re-create the richness of small-town life in that bygone era with the same skill that he used to portray New York City eccentrics in his best-known book, Subways Are for Sleeping.
I recently read Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, and there's more than one dig at Emerson in it. I have a feeling the New England Transendentalists were every bit as snide about each other, in their own WASPy way, as the Algonquin Round Table, Bloomsbury, or other well-known literary circles.

#5 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 04:30 AM:

The writing is good - but good writing should be like glass. Transparent, so you can see what the writer was talking about. She describes her time quite well, and the quietness there must have been seems remarkable. Finding that great cities used to have only 8,000 people or so in them in the 19th century also comes as a shock. The small town my mother lives in now has more than double that.

It was an interesting find but I am puzzled by the phrase "If she weren92t a woman who92d gone on to write about feminism and labor issues, I92d be astonished that such a charming and readable book had fallen into obscurity." - so is she obscure or not?

#6 ::: Jane Yolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 06:48 AM:

"War may be an armed angel but she has the personal habits of the slums."

I must find out more about this writer.


#7 ::: Janeyolen ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 06:49 AM:

"War may be an armed angel but she has the personal habits of the slums."

I must find out more about this writer.


#8 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 10:48 AM:

We don't seem to have any of her books, which is strange considering that she's a local author -- Washington, Pa. (where she went to "seminary"), and Wheeling are both only about 30 miles from here. We have a volume about her from the Twayne's U.S. Authors series, which I think I'm going to check out, and a bio of her son Richard Harding Davis, which I might also look at.

Life in the Iron Mills is available in several different editions on That and Margret Howth: A Story of To-Day seem to be the only ones of her books actually now in print. (Margret Howth is a novel, it seems.) I think I may try to get a copy of Life in the Iron Mills, at least, for our library. (Steelmaking in the Ohio Valley is always a big topic here.) There are some other bios and critical works about her listed too.

#9 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 11:29 AM:

Larry — had you ever heard of her before Teresa discovered her? I hadn’t. And if Teresa hadn’t, then I would suspect she must be very obscure indeed.

#10 ::: David Moles ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 11:37 AM:

This (on the effect of the Civil War upon the nation as individuals) is one of the most beautiful lines I’ve ever read:

A man cannot drink old Bourbon long and remain in his normal condition. We did not drink Bourbon, but blood.

#11 ::: Mr Ripley ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 11:13 PM:

Teresa said that the book, i.e. Bits of Gossip, had fallen into obscurity. If she'd said "Rebecca Harding Davis is an obscure author", using the present tense, I'd have disagreed. I think of RHD as one of the authors, along with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, and Zora Neale Hurston, who was recovered by second-wave feminism in the Seventies. Tillie Olsen's feminist classic Silences contains "Life in the Iron Mills" as an appendix, IIRC. But it seems like that recovery has only gone so far and, as with those other three authors, it can be hard to find someone who can name more than her One Famous Work.

It's not too surprising that Bits of Gossip in particular fell into obscurity --how many works of reminiscence/memoir from that era retained widespread currency? But it's full of gorgeous, wise, and/or charming material. Wow. Thanks.

#12 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: July 23, 2003, 11:27 PM:

Mr. Ripley, I don't mean to suggest that feminist classics aren't fun to read, but this book goes down as easy as alligators eating marshmallows. It should have more currency than it does.

#13 ::: Claire ::: (view all by) ::: July 24, 2003, 10:37 PM:

Thank you. Ben is studying American history this year and I have printed out a copy. Once again, you prove yourself as the wonderful scholarly treasure that we all know you are...

#14 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: July 27, 2003, 06:08 PM:

It always has seemed to me that each human being, before going out into the silence, should leave behind him, not the story of his own life, but of the time in which he lived, - as he saw it, - its creed, its purpose, its queer habits, and the work which it did or left undone in the world.

And alas! for the nature of the 'Net, some fifteen mintues after you depart this sphere (or you stop paying the bills to your ISP, or the ISP goes bankrupt), all of this writing will vanish, never to reappear. Not as collected letters in a trunk in someone's attic, not as a privately printed volume found in a used-book shop. Gone.

As will be so much else of this our written world.

#15 ::: David Foster ::: (view all by) ::: July 31, 2003, 06:30 PM:

This is really interesting stuff, Teresa. Thanks!

#16 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2003, 02:40 AM:

You're welcome, David.

James: All the more so if it's written on someone else's computer.

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