Early in 1971, a few months after The Feminist Press had been founded at the end of 1970, the writer Tillie Olsen gave me a worn copy of a novella that had been published anonymously in an 1861 issue of the Atlantic, then the most prestigious literary journal of its day. Olsen had found this story at the end of the 1920s in an Omaha, Nebraska, second-hand bookstore. Its characters – dirt poor, young Welsh immigrants working alongside poor Black people in Wheeling, West Virginia, a divided border state during the Civil War – convinced the precocious teenager that ordinary people’s lives might appear in great literature. More than 40 years later, reading Emily Dickinson’s journals, Olsen found a reference to this story and the name of its writer. Not surprised to find the writer a woman, Olsen searched for records of her life and read all she could find by Rebecca Harding Davis.
Florence Howe is emerita professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and emerita publisher/director of The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. She has published more than a dozen books and over 100 essays. She holds many honors as well as six honorary doctorates, the most recent from the University of Wisconsin/Madison. Currently, she is co-director of Women Writing Africa and text editor of the four volumes emerging from that project. She is also writing a memoir.
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Life in the Iron Mills, by Rebecca Harding Davis. First edition of Feminist Press reprint, 1972.
Credit: Courtesy of The Feminist Press.