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Davis, Mary Evelyn Moorefree

(12 April 1852?–01 January 1909)
  • Lesliee Antonette

Davis, Mary Evelyn Moore (12 April 1852?–01 January 1909), author, was born in Talladega, Alabama, the daughter of John Moore, a physician, and Marian Lucinda Crutchfield. (Some sources cite her year of birth as 1844.) At a young age she moved with her family to a plantation in Texas, where she was home schooled and became an avid reader of both French and Spanish literature. Little is known about her early family history, except that her father was descended from two prominent Puritan families in Massachusetts and that her maternal uncles reportedly fought on both sides during the Civil War. In 1874 she married Thomas Edward Davis, a former officer in the Confederate army and, at the time of their marriage, editor in chief of the Houston Telegraph. He later became editor in chief of the New Orleans Daily Picayune. Their marriage was childless, and Major Davis appears to have been quite supportive of his wife’s literary efforts, as her poems and short stories were published in his newspapers.

Judging by the dates of publication given for her many works, Davis, who went by “Mollie,” seems to have written prolifically throughout her adult life, apparently in spite of a chronic malady that kept her bedridden for long periods of time. Her first novel, In War Times at La Rose Blanche (1888), later was described as a “beautiful history of the life of the Southern people, who were left at home during the great struggle between the North and South.” According to her obituary, many of the incidents in the novel were taken from Davis’s own childhood, but because of the dearth of information regarding her early life, the text’s autobiographical reliability is impossible to determine. The story, of the Civil War and its effect on both the Euro-American and African-American inhabitants of a plantation located in Northeast Texas, is told from a particularly southern perspective.

Davis spent most of her adult life in New Orleans, where she became very familiar with the local Creole culture and helped to organize a variety of literary organizations. Her novels, short stories, and poetry are set predominantly in post–Civil War New Orleans. Her abundant use of the many dialects that were spoken in the Deep South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, coupled with her keen eye for physical description, qualify Davis as a regional writer of local color fiction. In his introduction to her short story “The Love-Stranche” for the Library of Southern Literature, William B. Smith wrote that “it is in the short story, that form of literature originated and perfected by the coryphaeus of Southern letters, that Mrs. Davis has perhaps achieved her most eminent success” (p. 1275). Several of her short stories were published in what Smith described as “the Northern monthlies” (Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly). It is her novels, however, that seem to offer greater complexity for the modern reader.

The Queen’s Garden (1900), a romance novel that tells the story of a Creole girl who travels from Texas to New Orleans to be reunited with her dead father’s sister, contains extensive descriptions of the gardens found in the city’s historic French Quarter. These descriptions serve as metaphors for the problem of determining racial identity in the intertwined blood lines of Creole culture. Davis’s most complex novel, and the one that represents the fullest development of character to be found in her collected work, is The Price of Silence (1907), an examination of the aftermath of the Civil War and its effects on the upper classes of New Orleans Creole society as well as the cultures of both the North and South. One character, the grandson of a Union officer, speaks with a northern dialect. Davis’s rendering of his speech patterns is not only well done; it is virtually unheard-of in the work of local color artists recognized as representative of the southern regions.

Davis’s work is interesting because it intermingles seemingly disparate cultural perspectives and thereby offers varied readings of historical events that have tended to be understood only in “Yankee” terms. Her poem “Pere Dagobert” (1896), for example, describes the turn-of-the-century French, Catholic, Creole culture of New Orleans by incorporating both French and English descriptions of Dagobert, the leader of the city’s French Catholic Capuchin monastery. Conversely, but with equal facility, a Creole patois is used in the poem “Throwing the Wanga” (1896) in order to depict the practice of voodoo in the city’s African and Caribbean communities. In particular, the poem describes how one woman uses voodoo to win back “her man” from another woman who has cast a Wanga, or spell, over him.

Davis, who had a great interest in Texas as well as Louisiana, also wrote Under Six Flags: The Story of Texas (1897; repr. 1953), a southern version of the history of Texas in which the role of French colonial interests and the predominance of Catholicism in the newly established state of Texas are emphasized. Essentially a children’s history of the settlement of Texas, Under Six Flags was used as a primary school textbook in the early years of the twentieth century. Another of Davis’s books, Under the Man-Fig (1895), is set in a small Texas town. This historically based romance novel chronicles the state’s development from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Although considered local color literature, her writings are more diverse than the term denotes. Her effective overlapping of dialects and languages and her presentation of a southern perspective that acknowledges yet refuses to justify its difference from a northern perspective distinguish her prolific output. Unusual for the work of a southern writer is her emphasis on Catholicism. Also uncommon, for a woman writer of her period, is her examination of race relations. Davis died in New Orleans.

Bibliography

The University of Texas at Austin houses archival materials on Davis, and some information on her is available through the Historical Society of New Orleans. Most of her poetic works that were published in periodicals were later published in collections, such as Minding the Gap and Other Poems (1867?), Poems by Mollie E. Moore (1869? or 1872?), and the posthumously published Selected Poems by Mollie Moore Davis, ed. Grace King (1927). Her short stories can largely be found in An Elephant’s Track, and Other Stories (1897). The only critical work done on Davis can be found in William B. Smith’s biographical essay in the Library of Southern Literature (1907–1913) and in C. W. Wilkinson, “The Broadening Stream: The Life and Literary Career of Mollie E. Moore Davis” (Ph.D. diss., Univ. of Illinois, 1947). Davis’s obituary in the Daily Picayune, 2 Jan. 1909, which seems to rely heavily on Smith’s essay, is the most complete source of information on the author and her work.