Davis served as a Bunting Fellow at Radcliffe in the 1980s and soon became a professor of writing in the Radcliffe Seminar Program. She continued teaching until one month before her death.
As primarily a teacher of journal writing, Davis strove to walk “the thin line between helping her students work on their writing and emancipating them as people,” recalled daughter Lydia Davis of Port Ewen, N.Y.
A conscientious and invested teacher, Davis challenged her students to use language precisely to express themselves. She did not hesitate to criticize famous authors’ grammar even though she never graduated from college. Davis kept a file of grammatical mistakes from newspapers to share with her classes.
Davis was born in Iowa City, Iowa but later lived in New York and Washington D.C., promoting feminism during World War I and the Roaring ’20s. During the Depression she worked for the Agricultural Adjustment Agency and privately became a communist. Her leftist beliefs led Davis to attend radical writers’ workshop in 1939, where she met her fourth husband Robert Gorham Davis ’29, a Harvard professor in the ’30s and early ’40s . The couple wed shortly after and remained together until his death in 1998.
Communism lost its appeal to Davis and her husband after Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed the nonaggression pact early in World War II,her children told the Boston Globe in 1993. But Davis remained vocal about progressive issues through her speeches and writing. She wrote magazine articles about the Harlan County coal strike and the hardship of Southern tenant farming.
Even in her later years, Davis maintained an interest in various causes. “She was always very aware of environmental groups, the ACLU and Doctors Without Borders and knew which ones were good and which were not,” recalled her son Stephen H. Davis of New York City. She also became more focused on creative writing and wrote short stories for The New Yorker. Davis published a collection of her fiction called A Dark Way to the Plaza and later a memoir entitled Great Day Coming.
As a professor at Radcliffe in the ’80s and ’90s, Davis taught a variety of writing seminars such as, “How to Keep a Journal” and “Autobiography as Detective Story.” Even as she aged, Davis remained sharp and committed to her students. She was named Teacher of the Year at Radcliffe when she was in her nineties.
When muscular degeneration set in and walking became difficult, Davis taught students out of her apartment.
Besides her son Stephen and daughter Lydia, Hope Hale Davis is survived by four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in the next month.