A Black Balloon Publication ©
By Benjamin Welton

Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) is a name little recognized anymore. In his time, though, Davis was one of the world’s most famous and widely read journalists. His dashing persona coupled with his dispatches from the Spanish-American War, the Second Boer War and World War I made him a celebrity. It isn’t hyperbole to say that his unique writing style, which combined high adventure, sensationalism and a very personalized view of the world around him, helped pave the way for the more literary-minded journalists of the 1930s and the New Journalists of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Davis’s legacy is not without controversy, and as a result, some of his work has been criticized for romanticizing war criminals, politicians (Theodore Roosevelt chief among them) and foreign policy blunders. Worse, some historians have argued that Davis’s melodramatic and often times jingoistic stories about the plight of the Cuban people suffering under Spanish rule helped to push the United States towards a war that ultimately created American colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Still, Davis’s journalism, novels and plays remain immanently readable today. Recently, much of Davis’s oeuvre was put online for free, and below is a list of the five very best books ever penned by the man.

1. Cuba in War Time (1897)

In 1896, two years before America entered the war against Spain under the pretext of the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor, William Randolph Hearst — Davis’s boss at the New York Journal — sent the young reporter to Cuba to chronicle the rebellion then taking place. Davis, like many American journalists at the time, took it upon himself to document the Spanish atrocities and misconduct that he encountered or heard of from Cuban sources. In particular, Davis spends much time in Cuba in War Time detailing Spain’s audacious policy of boarding neutral American ships caught in Cuban waters. This act of aggression, along with the excesses of Spain’s anti-guerrilla policies, lead Davis to bluntly call for U.S. intervention, writing: “Unless the United States government interferes on account of some of its citizens in Cuba, and war is declared with Spain, there is no saying how long the present revolution may continue.”


2. The Notes of a War Correspondent (1910)

Collecting together his experiences covering the American war in Cuba, the British campaign against Boer insurgents, the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and the Russo-Japanese War, Davis’s The Notes of a War Correspondent is an invaluable history of the volatile world right before the outbreak of World War I. Of particular interest are Davis’s portrait of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders — a group that he helped to enshrine in popular American culture — and his “A War Correspondent’s Kit,” which outlines the brutal vagaries of a war correspondent’s life and travels.


3. Real Soldiers of Fortune (1906)

As a non-fictional follow-up to his 1897 novel Soldiers of Fortune, Davis’s Real Soldiers of Fortune presents biographical sketches of six larger-than-life men. Among them are: Major-General Henry Douglas McIver, a Virginian and former Confederate mercenary who supposedly fought in 18 different countries; Baron James Harden-Hickey, an American-born Frenchman who worked as a newspaperman but was more famous for his dueling and his claim of being the Prince of Trinidad; Captain Philo Norton McGiffin, an American naval officer who served the Chinese emperor during the First Sino-Japanese War; William Walker, an infamous American filibuster and one-time president of Nicaragua who organized several private military expeditions into Central America; and Winston Churchill, a then little-known British soldier and war correspondent who had served in Cuba, India, South Africa and the Sudan.


4. With the Allies (1914)

In one of his very last publications, Davis chronicles the Western Front during the first year of World War I. While using his own run-ins with the German army to anchor his narrative, Davis describes the inhuman atmosphere of occupied France, with the intentional shelling of the historic Reims Cathedral as his centerpiece. With the Allies in many ways repeats the sentimentality of Cuba in War Time, with Davis once again appealing to American interests. That aside, the book is one of Davis’s more personal works, as the reader travels with Davis as he tries to fend off one German accusation of spying after another.


5. In the Fog (1901)

With this book, Davis proved that he was more than just an adventure-seeking war correspondent. In the Fog is a strange mystery novel that takes place in London and involves an elite gentleman’s club called The Grill. Mixing elements from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories with the urban terror of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, In the Fog deals with the discovery of a double murder inside of a fog-shrouded home. After the fog clears, the home can no longer be located, and as such, the men of The Grill are forced to investigate their own lives and perspectives in order to solve the bizarre homicides.


This list is only a jumping-off point to exploring the work of Richard Harding Davis and is no way meant to be all inclusive — but you can help us make it even better! Which Richard Harding Davis books would you recommend to fellow readers? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!


Benjamin Welton is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vermont. He prefers “Ben” or “Benzo,” and his writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Crime Magazine, The Crime Factory, Seven Days and Ravenous Monster. He used to teach English at the University of Vermont, but now just drinks beer and runs his own blog called The Trebuchet.

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