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Around The World With Swash And Buckle
Newspaperman, novelist, playwright, adventurer, Richard Harding Davis was a legend in his own lifetime.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
He was the most celebrated journalist of his time before he was thirty, and he moved through the dangers and graces of his era with the daring insouciance of one of his fictional heroes. His by-line was a herald’s trumpet sounding across the timescape of fin de siècle, calling the nation to view the pageantry of destiny through his eyes, to live the high adventure of it with him.
Richard Harding Davis became the embodiment of all the hungry hopes of youth for early success. His newspaper career created, in fact, a new mold of socially acceptable accomplishment for ambitious and well-bred Americans. He was a star reporter among the shining company of Dana and Brisbane’s New York Sun men when he was twenty-five. Two years later he was managing editor of Harper’s Weekly .
In a time that prized short stories as much as novels he wrote both, prolifically. The contemporary satirist Finley Peter Dunne said that Davis “probably knew more waiters, generals, actors, and princes than any man who ever lived.” Dunne and others were constantly to pay him the compliment of wry criticism. One anonymous chronicler outlined a typical Davis day. It consisted, he wrote, of “a morning’s danger, taken as a matter of course. In the afternoon a little chivalry, equally a matter of course to a well-bred man, then a clash from hardship to some great city, a bath, a perfect dinner nobly planned. Shrapnel, chivalry, sauce mousseline, and so to work. …” Davis would have had to concede it was right on the mark, with the possible exception of the delayed bath: when he was in a battle area, he took a portable tub along.
Yet beneath the mannered pose was a person of substance. Davis believed that a code of gentlemanly conduct and rigid honesty was the proper mantle of the man who followed the high calling of telling others what to think. Much of what he wrote did not survive beyond his short lifetime and the first generation of legend that followed it. But the legend itself animated that enduring tradition of the newspaperman-turned-novelist, and it led the vanguard of literate young college men into the city rooms, whence some would depart to write their books but where others would remain—to change the forms and substance of American journalism.
For an almost insufferable young dandy who dropped out of two colleges and lost his first newspaper job, it was an achievement that made even Davis’ least likely fictional protagonists credible. Yet Davis had never doubted that he was born to succeed. His mother was a fiction writer whose promising early efforts brought her notice and kindly comment from the Boston Brahmins and their high-born spokesman, the Atlantic Monthly. The first of her stories to be accepted there appeared in 1861 and brought her fifty dollars. It was a propitious event for a spinster approaching thirty in wartime Wheeling, then in Virginia. The story and a subsequent novel, Margaret Howth, which the Atlantic serialized, attracted the attention of a young law student, L. (for Lemuel) Clarke Davis, a future editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He travelled to Wheeling to meet Rebecca Harding and married her in 1863. Richard, the first of three children, came along in 1864.
Of the two parents, Rebecca was the stronger. Her stark tale of “Life in the Iron Mills” of Wheeling anticipated the age of social realism by decades. Her social consciousness and a deep Christian faith dominated the Philadelphia household in which Richard, his brother, Charles, and his sister, Nora, grew up. It was a permissive and loving domination, however, and forever after Richard looked to his home as “the center of the universe.”
His father provided the balance of sophistication. He became a drama critic and later editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and into their lively home for pre-matinee luncheons came the Jeffersons, Drews, and Barrymores, Ellen Terry, and the venerable Edwin Forrest. Young Richard, captivated, staged his own plays, with himself as hero, Nora as heroine, and Charlie as villain. Charlie, in a volume of letters and commentary, recalled those dramas with discomfort: the villain always died by strangulation, and his big brother took his acting seriously.
From all this, and a lackluster career at the Philadelphia Episcopal Academy, Richard emerged with a knowledge that the great were human, a high sense of drama, a love of costumery, and a firm belief that he was uniquely blessed, through the intercession of his wise and saintly mother, by a kindly God. He was, in short, a bumptious, disconcerting young man.
He weathered a year at Swarthmore College Preparatory School, neglecting study and writing endless romances. Next he was shipped off to his bachelor uncle’s home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to prepare to enter Lehigh, where the upperclassmen marvelled at the resplendent newcomer—and plotted to haze him properly.