Critical Context

Barton provides an ideal subject for biographers: She not only led an active life but also preserved extensive records and correspondence chronicling it in detail. Three years after her death, Percy Epler answered the demand for information about her life with The Life of Clara Barton (1915), a four hundred-page juvenile biography. Seven years later, her cousin, Reverend William E. Barton, published a two-volume biography, entitled The Life of Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross (1922), utilizing material from two vaults of manuscripts not available to Epler. Thus, the challenge facing biographers lies not in finding material but in limiting it. Boylston’s goal was apparently to construct a short and simple, but lively, account of Barton’s life, providing social and historical context as needed. In this endeavor, she succeeds. Many of the incidents that are included seem standard fare for Barton biographies, but Boylston strikes a smooth balance between her own concise prose and occasional narration from Barton’s papers.

Boylston was an appropriate choice for a Barton biographer, for the two came from similar backgrounds. Both were born and reared in New England and later established homes there, and neither married. A trained nurse, Boylston worked on the battlefields of Europe during World War I, then spent an additional two years abroad with the American Red Cross. Boylston is best known for her Sue Barton nursing series (19361952). Although Clara Barton was written several years after the last volume in that series was published, it is perhaps more than coincidental that Boylston should have assigned the surname “Barton” to her fictional creation, the embodiment of the perfect nurse.

Clara Barton is the fifty-sixth volume in Random House’s popular Landmark Books series. Subsequent biographers have cited it among their references; it also appears on several lists of recommended biographies.