Esther Forbes Carl Van Doren

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Carl Van Doren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 record of men and times and actions that can never again seem remote or dim….

The story of Revere's most memorable day has never been told so truly and so well as in this book. Though in certain necessary details Miss Forbes has to correct the legend as presented by Longfellow, her chief concern is to visualize the day's happenings, hour by hour, till the reader can feel he is also a spectator. (p. 1)

The Lexington episode, though so important in Revere's general reputation, makes up only about a tenth of his whole story as Miss Forbes tells it, reconstructing every chapter out of endless precise facts put together with affectionate and vivid art. Here is the finest account yet written of the career of any early American craftsman, expert in regard to the craft, sympathetic in regard to the man….

Miss Forbes is no less informed and skillful in her account of political affairs during the last years of Thomas Hutchinson's governorship and the subsequent months leading up to armed conflict and revolution. Fair to both the conservative Hutchinson and the radical Samuel Adams, she is amused by John Hancock, the rich young man who chose the rebel side. She is fond of the gallant Joseph Warren, ironic about the treacherous Benjamin Church. But Revere, unspeculative, tireless, a man of action without malice or resentments, is her hero, as he deserves to be. For this is a history of Boston during certain classic years, told fully for the first time from the point of view of plain men like Revere, who was chief among Boston's plain men, not a Harvard graduate or a clergyman or a lawyer or merchant or a landowner but an artisan—a mechanic, as Revere would have said. Told from this point of view, it gains not only in freshness but also in substance and reality.

In turning from fiction to biography, Miss Forbes has kept her novelist's eye for the visual image, the revealing trait, the outward evidences of customary life like food and clothing and furniture and houses and tools and vehicles and amusements. These, too, are history. But she has not failed to look behind them to the movements of opinion and crises of action which are history's more usual topics. Her special merit is her ability to combine the two arts...

(The entire section is 760 words.)