George Washington Carver: An American Biography Critical Context - Essay

Rackham Holt

Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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.