In the foreword of Beginnings, Reed states that she selected the men for their “variety of temperament, character, interests, circumstances, and experiences,” including those outside the mainstream of famous persons as well as those who shaped history. She considers as their common trait the fact that they all wrote of their beginnings seriously and honestly. As a result, they can provide insight into human nature and the human experience, showing how beginnings and circumstances can shape lives and how setbacks can be overcome and disadvantages turned into assets.
As indicated by Reed, all of her subjects had the advantage of sufficient maturity to reflect upon and write about their childhoods. All of their own writings are extracts from their autobiographies, except for those of Coleridge and Montaigne. Coleridge’s passages came from letters to his friend Thomas Poole, and Montaigne’s excerpt was extracted from his essays as prepared by Marvin Lowenthal for The Autobiography of Michel de Montaigne. Because Tanner could not write in the English language, his account of his childhood was told to a narrator. Reed provides titles and dates of all of her sources, and she points out where autobiographical accounts might vary from other sources. For example, she indicates that Andersen was indeed able to focus on the happier incidents of his childhood rather than its bleak unhappiness, which is emphasized in his writings.
Reed’s reports concerning the fate of each individual indicate the achievements of these men and complete the stories of their...
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One advantage of a collective biography is that readers can select what entries they read according to their own interests. Beginnings offers variety in time, place, and individual depicted—a distinct advantage for attracting a number of readers. The book provides insight into Cellini’s Italy during the 1500’s, into Kazin’s Jewish America in the 1900’s, into slavery in Tanner’s captivity, and into Clemen’s United States. The readers can learn of Hutton’s life as a child laborer or Kropotkin’s life as a prince among serfs. The portrayal of life during other times in the United States, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Ireland, and Russia creates opportunities for comparisons and research. Because of the brevity of the treatment, which offers only twelve to thirty-one pages for each subject, readers can quickly obtain a sense of the essence of each man’s life. Consequently, further research may be directed toward additional works on the person, the country, or the historical period.
The appeal of Reed’s collection to young readers is a result of the focus on the childhood of the individual in each autobiographical sketch. As a result, adolescents are more likely to identify with them as human beings as circumstances forge them into successful members of society. Readers can draw their own conclusions about what factors lead to success. Beginnings is rich in its potential for promoting understanding and further research, as the topics of abuse, poverty, education, family relationships, political situations, and coping with difficulties are all present in this biographical collection.