Esther Forbes Essay - Critical Essays

Forbes, Esther


Esther Forbes 1891–1967

American historian, biographer, and fiction writer. Born and raised in New England, Forbes had an early interest in the life styles and folklore of that region. This blossomed into serious historical research, prompted by the many varied and intriguing stories she heard concerning her own ancestors, including the tale of a woman who died in jail, accused of witchcraft. Forbes won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 1943 for her biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. It was while working on this book that she uncovered information about the apprentices of the Revolutionary period and contemplated writing a book which dealt with this subject. At this time, the impending World War II was thrusting young men into positions and responsibilities of adulthood not unlike the situation prior to the Revolutionary War. The combination of these two stimuli brought about the creation of one of Forbes's most remarkable novels. On the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she began work on Johnny Tremain: A Novel for Old and Young, which told the story of a silversmith's apprentice and his maturation in pre-Revolution Boston. She was awarded the Newbery Medal in 1944 for this book and it was almost universally acclaimed for its historical accuracy as well as its depth of insight and emotion. Throughout the years, it has maintained a high status as a source of information on colonial New England while remaining a favorite for pure reading enjoyment. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1, and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

Anne Parrish

["O Genteel Lady!"] is the strange story of Lanice Bardeen, beautiful bluestocking of the Boston of Holmes, Emerson and the Alcotts. No one else in the book matters much, although there are many characters. But Lanice lives, and her life is shown us with honesty and rather bitter laughter.

Esther Forbes is able to keep her characters in costume without letting the costumes smother the characters. The book is brilliant with color. You really see picture after picture—the ladies of fashion in their autumn-tinted dresses, "burnt orange, dull crimson, russet, and a bright, light green, the shade of the winter rye," and their Paisley shawls, sweeping up the fallen leaves with their full skirts….

The book remains true to its period in its costumes and settings. These are perfect. But although Lanice is a contemporary of Louisa Alcott, she is, in the flaming passion of her untrammeled love for Anthony Jones, her independent career as illustrator and author, and her lonely wanderings in Italy and England, more modern than the moderns…. The speech of the characters, on the other hand, is far too old-fashioned. It needs brocade and powdered hair, and even then is unconvincing. The characters, with the exception of the burlesqued Augustus, really live until they begin to talk, then the same voice speaks through each mouth in rounded literary periods. We see and feel them, and believe. We hear them, and say "This is not true."…

Anthony Jones is convincing only through...

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Edith Olivier

[In "A Mirror for Witches" is found] that deep, tragic irony which culminates in St. John's Gospel, in the creations of the Greek dramatists, in Thomas Hardy. [Esther Forbes's] story has that human poignancy which tears the heart in the account of those witches who really were done to death at Salem, and as one reads "A Mirror for Witches" one feels stream over one the force of that same evil, reasonless torrent.

The scene is set "upon the skirts of Cowan Corners, and but six miles removed from Salem," and the action takes place some twenty or thirty years before the Salem witch-findings. As far as I know (though I may be mistaken), it is not founded on historical fact, but is a rarer thing,—a creation compact of imagination and of sure historic instinct. It is indeed a tour de force.

[The] story is the commonplace, almost sordid, one, of a panic-stricken child, pursued by spite and jealousy in a world where frightful beliefs can clothe the happenings of every day with a fiendlike supernatural character. It is there that lies the amazing technique of the writing. There is its unique ironic quality. As one reads the story, one sees that all its events are entirely normal. But in the poisoned light of fear and superstition they cast huge shadows, which swallow them up and engulf them, till they are no longer the doings of human people, but the awe-inspiring movements of some spectre of the Brocken. And so...

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Kenneth B. Murdock

[Paradise] cracks the moulds in which too many historical novels of early New England have been cast. [Miss Forbes] has written the story of a seventeenth-century Massachusetts Bay family with the emphasis on flesh and blood, not on an artificially contrived system; on drinking, eating, breeding, not on pious meditation; and on the dramatic struggle of white man and Indian, ending bitterly in war, not on the tamer operations of religious zealots….

To be sure there are ghosts of the old lay figures in the minister whose soul wars with his body, in the little girl tormented ostensibly by conviction of sin, and there is certainly in Bathsheba a strong hint of the familiar "exotic" woman so useful in Puritan romances. But even these do not degenerate into the puppets of convention. Each of them has some color of individuality, and they share in a God's plenty of action, against a vivid setting. (p. 6)

Perhaps it is inevitable that where action is to the fore, characters lose in depth, but no one of the actors in "Paradise" is quite completely drawn. Bathsheba, for example, physically lovely and frankly seductive, never able to give herself wholly, married to one brother and the mistress of another without ever being really a lover for either, seems at any moment likely to become a rounded and defined character, but cheats the reader by going mad…. But the characters are fully enough drawn to make the action...

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Edith H. Walton

Unlike so many historical novelists, who either overstress background or are content to use it as a pretty costume device, Miss Forbes has achieved a balance, an integration between character and environment which is responsible for the living quality of ["Paradise"]. Period color is not permitted to dwarf individuals, and the family of Jude Parre loom larger than their setting. What is more important, and certainly more rare, they act, feel, think like children of their age. As with Hawthorne, upon whose territory she is trespassing, Miss Forbes seems to feel in her bones the spiritual climate of Puritan New England. Her characters are less mystical and less austere, but on their own, more worldly plane they mirror as faithfully the temper of the times….

Quoting the words of Miss Forbes …, I have called this novel a historical romance. Actually—and this is perhaps the highest tribute one can pay it—"Paradise" impresses one as realism rather than romance. Dramatic and glamorous as its story is, one has the most vivid convictions throughout that it is true to essential fact. These people, the Parres and their servants and their friends, are somehow believable and right. They act as such people must have acted; they are subject to the superstitions and compulsions of Puritanism and their times, yet one feels that those compulsions have not been duly exaggerated. Taking a vast deal of knowledge in her stride, Miss Forbes has written a book which seems to be entirely compelling. "Paradise," I think, is as fine a historical novel as any one could reasonably ask.

Edith H. Walton, "A Major Novel by Esther Forbes," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1937 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 28, 1937, p. 2.

William Soskin

New England is traditionally the home place of the American humanists, the American conscience troubled by its appetites, heckled by its morality, crucified by its intelligence. Its stern Puritan fathers have never successfully concealed the essential physical yearnings and the lusts which made begetting patriarchs of them and scandalous males, even as they erected their picket fences of respectable morality and visited Old Testament wrath upon unconventional sinners, witches and adulterers….

[Rarely] has the conflict been so dramatically presented in terms of historical fiction as it is in Esther Forbes's novel of the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, "Paradise." An accomplished artist in psychological fiction dealing with the eccentrics, witches, fanatics, romancers and other types characteristic of New England communities, Miss Forbes is an excellent historian as well, a student of detail of the type which has made Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" historically unassailable and dramatically powerful….

Fenton's sister, Jazan, is the most appealing woman in the story, a symbol of the sturdy, passionate, fine-grained woman who had the patience to bear and the understanding to love [the] men of New England. With infinite pains and good imagination Miss Forbes reveals the drama of frustration in Jazan's marriage to the young preacher, Forethought Fearing, a man whose intense religious vision...

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Walter D. Edmonds

[Once in a great while] a book appears that so fuses history and the life of its protagonists that it makes a class of its own. In recent years I think of James Boyd's "Long Hunt" in this class, and now there is another one: Esther Forbes's new book, "The General's Lady."

To my way of thinking books like these express the essence of what historical writing should be. It is easy enough to snatch episodes out of history and string them on a heroic line, but it is hard for the reader to forget that he is reading history. That is what every reader should forget. His imagination should not be allowed to dwell in the past while he reads; the book should have its own inner present and future. Every one must...

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Carl Van Doren

Not every historical novelist can write a good biography, but the right kind of historical novelist has some of the qualities most needed in a good biographer. Esther Forbes is that kind of novelist, and her biography of Paul Revere ["Paul Revere and the World He Lived In"] takes at once a high and lasting place in American literature. Miss Forbes credits her mother, Harriette M. Forbes, with doing "most of the work on the original papers, court records, deeds, etc., newspapers, manuscript diaries, and letters": this is absolutely first-rate work. To Miss Forbes must go the credit for knowing how to make the richest use of so valuable a collaborator and how to turn these original documents into a fresh, creative...

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Burke Boyce

Paul Revere has not left us many words. He was an artisan, not a philosopher; a creator, not a talker. But the words he has left are enough, in sympathetic hands, to bring him to life as he was, and he is solid, human, and refreshing.

Esther Forbes has done well by Paul Revere [in Paul Revere and the World He Lived In]—the actual Revere, a Boston workman of French descent, cool, canny, successful, the husband of two wives and the father of sixteen children, loving his home and the skill he wrought with his hands, a maker of silver, bells, ships' bottoms, and artificial teeth. The legendary Revere, he of the upraised arm and the rearing horse at the farmhouse door, succumbs with surprising...

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James Truslow Adams

Revere has been one of the best known legendary heroes of our country, embedded in the customary errors of [Long-fellow's poem]. As Esther Forbes … says, the legend was to swallow the actual man. It has been her task [in Paul Revere and the World He Lived In] to bring the real man to life, and to paint his portrait against the background of his times.

The original material for the purpose has apparently not been excessive, but it has been sufficient, and the author has evidently gone through it with care and discrimination. This is her first non-fiction book, but shows, like the five novels dealing with New England conditions which preceded this historio-biography, an extremely competent...

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Margaret Leech

Because [Miss Forbes] is a novelist, she is interested in character. British redcoats and Boston tories, James Otis and Sam Adams and John Hancock, are delineated sharply and judicially [in "Paul Revere and the World He Lived In"], with the novelist's eye for idiosyncrasy. The daily habit of life—business, political, domestic, and social—is admirably recreated. Miss Forbes occasionally permits herself the luxury of too much detail. It appears to be a fault of the novelist turned historian. Sometimes, when the available facts limit her scope, she overindulges in speculation on the probabilities. It does not, for example, increase our understanding of the Revere household in 1770 to have Miss Forbes muse that the...

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Allen French

[Paul Revere and the World He Lived In] is a novelist's biography, but it is (thank Heaven!) not fictionized, nor yet (more thanks!) dramatized. But the historian's weighing of evidence, the giving of reasons for decisions, the noting of sources, are mostly lacking. (p. 521)

Even so, the facts were thoroughly assimilated, and the skill of the practised novelist makes for brisk movement and color. The double title of the book represents the two tasks which the author set herself. She has carried them out well. Under her hand old Boston becomes a personality. No one else has so mastered and shown the intricacies of relationship and neighborhood in the town of that day. Perhaps she...

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Alice M. Jordan

The publication of Johnny Tremain gives young people an outstanding novel of Revolutionary days in Boston, and may well be counted a red-letter event in children's books. Esther Forbes has now preserved for young people's reading some of the very background of her Paul Revere, with its details of domestic life, its penetrating knowledge of colonial Boston, its perception of character, its artistry…. Johnny's personal story, however, holds absorbed attention throughout the book. Following an accident to his hand, which barred him from his loved trade, he rode for the patriotic newspaper, Observer, and as messenger for the Sons of Liberty. So he came in touch with the Whig leaders, with many of...

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Mary Gould Davis

If Jonathan Lyte Tremain never lived in the flesh, he lives vividly with the men of his time in [Johnny Tremain]. So we dare to put him among the people of importance….

This story of Johnny Tremain is almost uncanny in its "aliveness." Esther Forbes's power to create, and to recreate, a face, a voice, a scene takes us as living spectators to the Boston Tea Party, to the Battles of Lexington and of North Creek. It takes us, with Johnny, to the secret meetings of the Sons of Liberty, to the secret training of the Minute Men. We hear and see Samuel Adams and John Hancock and Paul Revere. Over and over again, we share some little incident that makes those days in Boston as exciting and as vital...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

Only a master craftsman, and one who has worked so much in the period that it has become a kind of second home in time, would dare to undertake that most familiar of themes—Boston at the outbreak of the war. Such a novelist is Esther Forbes and to ["Johnny Tremain"] she brings such freshness and vitality that one reads it with the avidity with which one follows today's news, with the extra dividend of pleasurable recognition of half forgotten episodes thrown in.

The reason, of course, is that Miss Forbes not only knows the wharves, the inns, the very cobblestones of eighteenth-century Boston about as intimately as her own back yard, but because she creates three dimensional people. Historical...

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May Lamberton Becker

The sub-title [of "Johnny Tremain"], "a novel for old or young," will serve if you bear in mind that the young will read for Johnny's sake and the old for the sake of Esther Forbes. Here is history treated with a realism that may be an eye-opener to boys' books. The Revolution goes through the story with a rush and scramble and in its surge men and boys alike are caught up. The inside of people's minds often has as much to do with the story as the outside layer of their actions. This is adult treatment but the establishment of Johnny's relationship to the Lytes has the curve of a juvenile plot. The book's chief value is that it brings back Boston and the road to Lexington is a year when boys of sixteen had to be...

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Alice M. Jordan

Johnny Tremain may well be counted the first classic story of Boston for young people. This is not alone because of the accurate picture of the pre-Revolutionary town, with its wandering streets and busy wharves, its crafts and trades, markets and merchants, nor because of the rich abundance of details about the manners of the period, its ways of living and customs of trade, nor even because it is an arresting portrayal of the stubborn resistance of the Patriots and townspeople against arbitrary acts of the British Parliament. It is a distinguished book, primarily, because the people in it are vigorously endowed with the human quality which binds one generation to another. (p. 270)


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Ellery Sedgwick

["The Boston Book"] is a rarely delightful picture book. Here is the Boston Bostonians dream they live in, the Hurleyless, Curleyless, Tobinless Boston, where the Common is not littered with last night's newspapers, where the street cleaners do not wait for spring rains and the native Yankee has not fled to the suburbs. It is the Boston of hills and crooked streets, of Peter Faneuil and the Adamses. Boston down to Dr. Holmes, with only touches on the age of Koussevitzky, baseball and the atom….

For a picture book Esther Forbes' text is informing and adequate, but stirs few recollections of the excellence of her "Paul Revere." With all her talent, she is—unfortunately—a peripheral Bostonian. But...

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Edward Weeks

To her books Miss Forbes brings a deep and delving delight in the past, a feeling for the New England character by turns shrewd and romantic, and the pepper and salt of everyday living which she translates so accurately into another century.

The Running of the Tide is the story of Salem in the early 1800's when the ships bound out of the skimpy, silted harbor (no vessel larger than four hundred tons could get into it), in their trade with Russia, the West Indies, China, and India, were making it the wealthiest port in the world. (p. 98)

The Salem which Miss Forbes has painted for us is the Salem ashore, not afloat…. The feminine, the distaff side of the town is revealed in...

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Carl Van Doren

Most historical novels are nothing if they are not historical—and they are not historical. In particular, they have a way of finding in the past what the present assumes must have been there. In the ordinary historical novel a character visiting the Salem custom house about 1845 or thereabouts, and finding the surveyor of the port a youngish, shy man, "handsome with his mane of heavy hair and the dark eyes, half-melancholy and half amused," would be certain to recognize Nathaniel Hawthorne and likely to have a premonition that the surveyor was even then writing a novel on some such theme as, say, adultery in early Massachusetts.

Esther Forbes is not an ordinary historical novelist. In "The Running...

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Alexander Laing

The historical novel, latterly, has come to depend more and more upon the old picaresque formula which had, in its origins, nothing in particular to do with history. As if plotted upon a sine wave, the story must soar to a lush bit of four-poster ecstasy every fifteen pages, and plummet in the interstices into violence and cruelty. It is therefore something of a relief to come upon a tale [such as The Running of the Tide] which does not rely upon such gaudy devices at all. Miss Forbes approaches her task and material respectfully. The faults of her novel, in so far as it is faulty, are those of too laborious an attention to details. (p. 15)

The publishers,… to quote the dust wrapper, call it...

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Diana Trilling

"The Running of the Tide" is so clearly a pot-boiler—and this despite Miss Forbes's reputation as a historian—that it really should not be reviewed at all in a serious magazine. In fact, I had already set it aside, when I saw it written about on the front page of the New York Times Book Review as if it were a major artistic achievement. While it may not be entirely fair to submit an author to harsh judgment in one periodical just because she was unduly praised in another, I think it would be even less fair to allow the readers of this magazine to discover the disappointment of Miss Forbes's novel for themselves. Actually Miss Forbes's story of the seafarers of Salem has but a single thing to recommend...

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James Thomas Flexner

The mood of Esther Forbes's charming novel "Rainbow on the Road" is that of a sunlit summer day, variegated with thunderstorms which pass quickly, leaving behind them an even brighter landscape….

Mrs. Forbes uses not sex—there never was a purer book—or dagger to lure the reader from page to page, but relies on a skill which most modern historical novelists seem to regard as secondary, on literary style, on the ability to evoke the wonders of everyday living. In brilliant passages, so simple that their artistry is never obvious, she reveals a clear morning, the strange personality of a ballad-singer walking the highways, all the luxuriant human life that pours out upon a traveler who knocks on...

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Henry Commager

Miss Forbes is in love with New England, and ["Rainbow on the Road"] is her confession and her declaration. It is, to be sure, about New England of a century ago, but much of it is familiar, both the appearance and the character. This view of New England is a welcome change from current fashion—early autumns or desire under the elms or last puritans or George Apleys—and it is a long time since we have had a book that delighted in the granite ledges and the noisy brooks and the little white villages and the flavor of the villages….

"Rainbow on the Road" is a picaresque novel. As with most picaresque novels, the story itself is not very important….

Ruby Lambkin comes to...

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Frances Gaither

["Rainbow on the Road"] concerns an itinerant painter who found his craft so little humdrum, so zestful in daily practice, that, although he could and did earn his every casual supper, he was never in the least averse to singing for it, too. He does so in a taproom largesse of tales, true and fabricated, rendered in a manner to enliven anybody but some old tract-reading deacon or surly band of pig drovers. For he was by disposition a kind of traveling harlequin—and is as easy and entertaining company as a novel reader could hope to encounter. (p. 5)

The narrative style [of the book] is artless, intensely objective, focusing one's attention as immediately as those small household wonders that used...

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Carolyn Horovitz

It should be no surprise, if Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, finds its way into the upper "rare" stratosphere of literary excellence. Lauded ever since it first appeared, it continues to be read and regarded as a fine historical novel. It is a book much praised, but it has not, as far as I know, been critically examined. (p. 139)

Basically, the story is one of character development, of a boy's struggle with his feelings of inferiority and worth, his attempts to find a place for himself, his problems about establishing relationships with people. It is almost as if he were a symbol of his time: a boy with promise and great natural ability but shackled by a sense of shame and inferiority. Aside...

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Margery Fisher

[Johnny Tremain] was first published in the United States in 1943 and is now accepted as a classic in both our countries. [Fisher is a British critic.] It deserves the title because the author has so skilfully related personal and national issues, but far more because in Johnny she has created a very real person, a boy whose faults are first his undoing and then his salvation. To see a self-satisfied boy become a man, under stress, is just as exciting as it is to read of how the ideal of freedom was fought for and died for. Beyond the fascination of technical and period detail, and the easy narration, there is in this historical novel a depth of compassion and a lively intelligence that makes it essential and...

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John Rowe Townsend

[Johnny Tremain has an] inspirational note: 'We fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.'… [It] is a true historical novel, concerned with actual historical events; and it seems to me (though not for this reason) that it has true classic quality. I have the impression that the author may even have known she was writing a classic; for Johnny Tremain has an air of absolute sureness and solidity; like one of its redoubtable New Englanders it knows where it is going and knows it will be treated with respect. (pp. 181-82)

A feature of the book is its strong pictorial quality. The best set pieces not merely are colourful but have a powerful sense of historical...

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Dorothy H. Nelson

[Johnny Tremain] is a natural for the Bicentennial year.

Students can identify with Johnny, for his was the arrogance of today. He plunged heart and soul into the rebellious spirit of his time. His quick temper and his cocksure air (for he was a clever boy) make him so human and alive that Johnny carries with him whole classrooms of youngsters who learn to feel and to experience that Spirit of '76. No other book about early America can cast the spell that Johnny Tremain does…. The thrill, the justice of the Revolutionary War, as felt by those early New Englanders, exudes from these absorbing pages. A sense of pride in the American cause shines through, as Johnny and his brave,...

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Christopher Collier

Johnny Tremain, with its message of ideologically motivated war, is so much the product of World War II that one who grew up in the 1940's must honor its clear one-sidedness. Younger historians, products of the 1960's who are currently busy reviving the Progressive interpretation of a generation ago, would be less tolerant. But without denying its outstanding literary merit, Miss Forbes' presentation of the American Revolution does not pass muster as serious, professional history. Not so much because it is so sharply biased, but because it is so simplistic. Life is not like that—and we may be sure it was not like that two hundred years ago. Such an event as a war involving the three major European nations,...

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