Richard Harding Davis

The American journalist Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) was also a fiction writer and dramatist whose swashbuckling adventures were popular with the American public.

Richard Harding Davis was born into a well-to-do and rather pious Episcopalian family in Philadelphia. His father, an editorial writer, and his mother, a well-known fiction writer, often entertained Philadelphia artists and visiting actors and actresses, and the boy from the start was completely at ease with celebrities. After graduating from Episcopal Academy and Lehigh University, he studied political economy during a postgraduate year at Johns Hopkins University. In 1886 Davis became a reporter for the Philadelphia Press. The editor and other reporters confidently expected the cocky young dandy to fall on his face, but he shortly proved to be a superb reporter and a talented writer. From 1888 to 1890 he was in New York writing special stories for the Sun. He also published two volumes of short stories, Gallegher and Other Stories (1891) and Van Bibber and Others (1892). At the age of 26 he became the managing editor of Harper's Weekly and soon was writing accounts of his worldwide travels, which were collected in books such as Rulers of the Mediterranean (1894), About Paris (1895), and Three Gringos in Venezuela and Central America (1896).

As a picturesque and alert correspondent for New York and London newspapers, always appropriately attired for each adventure, Davis covered the Spanish War and the Spanish-American War in Cuba, the Greco-Turkish War, the Boer War, and—toward the end of his life (he died in 1916)—World War I. He based a number of books upon his experiences. More short stories filled 10 volumes, including The Lion and the Unicorn (1899), Ranson's Folly (1902), and The Scarlet Car (1907). A number of Davis's novels covered the international scene; notable were Soldiers of Fortune (1897), The King's Jackal (1898), Captain Macklin (1902), and The White Mice (1909). In addition, Davis wrote about two dozen plays, of which dramatizations of Ranson's Folly (1904), The Dictator (1904), and Miss Civilization (1906) were the most successful.

The critic Larzer Ziff in The American 1890's admirably summarized Davis's significance: "He demonstrated to those … who would listen that their capacity for excitement was matched by the doings in the wide world. But he also demonstrated to an uneasy plutocracy … that their gospel of wealth coming to the virtuous and their public dedication to genteel manners and gentlemanly Christian behavior were indeed justified."

Further Reading on Richard Harding Davis

For a complete list of Davis's writings consult Henry Cole Quinby, Richard Harding Davis: A Bibliography (1924). Two studies relate the author to his background admirably: Fairfax D. Downey, Richard Harding Davis: His Day (1933), and Gerald Langford, The Richard Harding Davis Years: A Biography of a Mother and Son (1961).

Additional Biography Sources

Lubow, Arthur, The reporter who would be king: a biography of Richard Harding Davis, New York: Scribner; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992.

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