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Davis, Richard Harding (1864-1916)
by Huculak, Matt

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Richard Harding Davis 1864-1916

Journalist, editor, playwright and novelist, Richard Harding Davis secured lasting national prominence as a war-correspondent during the brief Spanish-American War in 1898. Born into a literary family in Philadelphia, Davis got his start in journalism as a copy-boy for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, which was then edited by his father, Lemuel Clarke. He later fictionalized this experience for Scribner’s Magazine in Gallegher and Other Stories in 1891. His mother, Rebecca Harding Davis, was a well-known realist writer and a champion of America’s marginalized and oppressed groups.

Harding Davis was known for his good-looks, his dashing charm, and infallible character, which he capitalized upon as a professional writer and correspondent. Roger Burlingame, in his history of Scribner’s, writes:

Davis was not only a good reporter; he was a sort of matinee idol of the period […] he was a symbol; his character was held up to boys as an example. There had never been a whisper against his morals; his ideals were brave and pure; he seemed to be the very inventor—and certainly the most active personal promoter—of sportsmanship. (302-303)

It is no surprise, then, that Harding-Davis became a close friend and champion of Theodore Roosevelt; Harding-Davis was the first to write about the Rough Riders’ drive up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and indeed, the conflict was almost his journalistic creation. Harding Davis’s reputation is colored by the “Yellow-Journalism,” practiced by William Randolph Hearst’s papers, to sway America into war against the Spanish. Davis did eventually become so disgusted by Hearst's distortion of his writings in the New York Journal that “to the end of his life [he] would never write for Hearst again” (Burlingame 304).

By all accounts, Harding Davis’s career is based on conflict. He saw war as the “apex of romance” (Burlingame 304). He covered the Greco-Turkish War in 1897 and before the print had dried on his Cuban journalism in 1898, he was in South Africa reporting on the Boer War (1899), where he befriended a fellow journalist, Winston Churchill. Next, he traveled east in order to cover the Russo-Japanese War (1904) and in 1910 he went south for the Mexican Revolution. The apex of Harding Davis’s writing came in 1914, when he was pulled out of retirement at his home in Mount Kisco, New York, to cover the European conflict for the Wheeler syndicate ($600 a week plus expenses) and Scribner’s Magazine ($1000 an article). Because Harding Davis was such a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt, the administration of Woodrow Wilson (Roosevelt’s rival) refused to grant Davis a press pass with the British Army, so Davis set out on his own and arrived in Belgium just in time to see the Germans marching into Brussels. Davis recognized that romance and war were no longer compatible in the modern world, and his descriptions of the “grim, minute efficiency of the might of the German war machine” (Burlingame 310) moved the world and testified to his talent and legacy as a war journalist. Davis’s entries for Scribner’s Magazine during this time are sobering, and one can trace the progression of his moral involvement in the First World War as his view of its inhumanity became more and more apparent. By 1915, after witnessing the unjustified shelling of Rheims Cathedral by the Germans, Davis saw America’s potential involvement in the war as a moral duty. In 1915, he returned home to train with the army in New York. Weakened by this event, he died in April 1916 at the age of 51 at his home.

Over his lifetime, Davis was a contributor to Century Magazine, Collier’s Weekly, Everybody’s Magazine, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Metropolitan Magazine, the New York Evening Sun, the New York Times Magazine, Philadelphia Record, the Philadelphia Press, Outing, Saturday Evening Post, and Stage, and for a short while he was the editor of Harper’s Weekly.

—Matt Huculak

Further Reading

  • Burlingame, Roger. Of Making Many Books: a Hundred Years of Reading, Writing, and Publishing. University Park: The Pennsylvania UP, 1996.
  • “Davis, Richard Harding.” The Standard Index to Short Stories, 1900-1914. Compiled by Francis J. Hannigan. Boston: Small, Maynard and Company, 1918.
  • “Richard Harding Davis.” Dictionary of American Biography Base Set. American Council of Learned Societies, 1928-1936.
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