Holt wrote her biography with the encouragement and participation of Carver himself. This work, the first published book-length study of Carver, was not exclusively aimed at a youthful audience. Nevertheless, the vocabulary, sentence structure, and easy-to-follow narrative are entirely suitable for young adult readers.
Carver is accurately presented as an extremely unusual individual; his creativity, intellectual ability, religious faith, and relationships with people are all characterized by a kind of extra dimension. This special nature of Carver’s life is the primary emphasis of Holt’s book. At the same time, however, the author is able to keep the reader aware of the fact that Carver’s African-American heritage is an essential component of his life story that cannot and should not be forgotten.
A reader must keep in mind the nature of the era that is covered by this story. Even when Holt was writing the book, Jim Crow laws and racial segregation were still legal. The general attitude of discrimination against African Americans was written into laws in the South and generally practiced throughout the nation. Knowledge of these conditions will help a reader of any age to understand Holt’s emphasis upon Carver’s achievements as unusual. Nevertheless, his intellect, and his practical application of that intellect in highly creative ways, would be unusual for any person of any race in any era. Very early in his life, for example, Carver was known to have a curiosity and a special way with plants; even when he was a child, people turned to him for advice about plants and asked him to nurse their sick plants back to health. Holt carefully works this aspect of Carver’s talent into her treatment of his youth as the basis for the professional career that was to make him famous as an adult.
(The entire section is 751 words.)
This biography reveals its origins in the writer’s attitude. The naming of chapters with quotations from traditional spirituals and the use of the term “Negro” identify Holt’s era as prior to the Civil Rights movement. Holt’s consistently respectful tone and her emphasis upon the traditional, rural African-American religious view are very much in keeping with the attitudes of both races in the early twentieth century. Written with the help of Carver, this important work was the first of three biographies published almost immediately after he died in 1943. This book incorporates the scientist’s early years as related by Carver himself and placed in the context of slavery and the Negro spirituals that identify the African-American oral tradition. These elements evolve into a thrilling narrative of legendary proportions, with a hero exemplifying the ideals of his culture.
This type of biographical treatment, however, is easily disputed. Readers committed to the newer, civil rights approach to African-American history will be led to discount the collaboration with Booker T. Washington in favor of debate over Washington’s style of leadership. For example, Barry MacKintosh attacked Holt’s interpretation of Carver’s life in “George Washington Carver: The Making of a Myth” in the Journal of Southern History (1976), claiming that Carver was an Uncle Tom. Another adult work, George Washington Carver: Scientist and Symbol (1981) by Linda O. McMurry, contains more verifiable information without debunking Carver.
Yet Holt’s book remains a classic because of its approach, which still stimulates discussion, and because of its exciting narrative, especially in the early chapters about Carver’s kidnapping and early youth. The accounts of slavery and Reconstruction life provide invaluable firsthand information in a readable style. It is also ground-breaking work by a woman of color in an era when these women were generally denied access to the tools of scholarship.