Jean Lee Latham Essay - Critical Essays

Latham, Jean Lee


Jean Lee Latham 1902–

(Also has written under pseudonym Julian Lee) American young adult biographer, novelist, poet, playwright, and editor, and adult playwright and essayist. Latham is considered a leading writer of fictionalized biography. She chooses doctors, inventors, scientists, naturalists, and mathematicians as her subjects, people ahead of their time in pioneering technical advancement. Latham reduces massive data into a form that is understandable to her young adult audience, and she has consistently detailed the important aspects of her subjects and their achievements without disturbing the flow of her narratives. She is also an extremely thorough researcher who uses the letters and samples of the work of her subjects to enhance and verify her narratives. Formerly a dramatist, Latham claims that it is the suspense in a person's life and his ability to achieve despite setbacks that makes him appealing as a subject. She began writing plays in high school, and eventually became both an actress and a drama teacher. She was editor-in-chief of the Dramatic Publishing Company in Chicago for six years, and wrote her first book about acting and directing. She has also written many plays for both stage and radio. During World War II, Latham was appointed civilian in charge of the National Training Program for Signal Corps inspectors. After the war she concentrated solely on narrative writing. Latham discovered Nathaniel Bowditch, the American astronomer and authority on navigation, when she read the introduction to The American Practical Navigator, which he wrote in 1799 at the age of twenty-six and which is still considered the standard work among sailors. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch renewed interest in its subject and won the 1956 Newbery Medal. She aimed this work at a specific reader, the adolescent boy. Most of her works have male heroes and have their greatest appeal to those with an interest in technical subjects. She has been criticized for these aspects, and for a writing style that is sometimes stilted and choppy. However, Latham's works have introduced young people to real characters from whose accomplishments they can learn and with whose dreams they can identify. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

T. Morris Longstreth

Thanks to Miss Latham's investigation of seamanship in 1800 and of the Bowditch household [in "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch"], the reader is kept at Nat's elbow, from the age of six, sharing the poignant and difficult events as they come along….

Miss Latham's courage in attempting the life of a calculator has paid off in several directions. She has added a lovable genius to our roster of great Americans. She has put in a plug for education, subtly but surely, through her skill in picturing Nat. She has made us understand character better, for none can read this book without benefitting by Nat's example. Her keen feeling for human relationships and her economical style round out her achievement. As my sextant figures it, "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch" is a book not only for the pre-teens, but for everybody. (p. 13)

T. Morris Longstreth, in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1955 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), September 22, 1955.


The author of ["Carry On, Mr. Bowditch"] merits special commendation for her writing ability. She has created out of a mass of involved, technical material a living, dramatic story which will hold the interest of most young people. It reads like a lively sea yarn, yet does not skimp on the mathematical and navigation data. In fact, Bowditch's own simple explanation to his unlettered crew could not have been any more lucid than Miss Latham's account of the discoveries of this "human calculating machine." (p. 8)

Alice Brooks McGuire, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Part 2 (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1955.

Matthew Fontaine Maury was a fighter…. He was destined to fight all his life against odds for his ideas…. [In "Trail Blazer of the Seas"] Jean Latham dramatizes his struggle to get his wind and current charts made and their conclusions accepted. The reader rushes ahead as full of interest in these achievements as in a battle at sea. It is the technique used successfully in the Newbery Prize-winning "Carry On, Mr. Bowditch." In her Newbery acceptance speech Mrs. Latham said it was being "back yard familiar" with the world of her story before she proceeded to "flesh the bones with reality." It is no small achievement to do this with a fairly uneventful life…. (p. 12)

New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Part 2 (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1956.

Ellen Lewis Buell

[Miss Latham] has a knack of making the people of the past seem very much alive. In this robust, full-bodied story ["This Dear-Bought Land"] she not only does that but also gives the reader an understanding of the immensity of [the undertaking of establishing the colony of Jamestown]. (p. 34)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 31, 1957.

Irving T. Marsh

["This Dear-Bought Land"] is written with the zest one gives a favorite subject, is dramatic and paints a vivid picture of [a] desperate venture.

[Jean Lee Latham] also offers very ingenious suggestions in explanation of the early silence of Captain John Smith about many incidents which he reported in his later years. David Warren, hurt and insulted by Captain John Smith the first time he meets him, reluctantly grows to admire him. Thus the readers gain an understanding picture of the thorny and indomitable character. David's story begins dramatically with a hold-up and murder. There is a deft use of Christmas carols, first in his English home before the tragedy and again when he and Captain John Smith are in Powhatan's power, threatened with death. (p. 29)

Irving T. Marsh, in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1957.

Margaret Warren Brown

[Young Man in a Hurry: The Story of Cyrus W. Field] is powerfully written, and intensely exciting. The solving of the numerous apparently unsolvable problems involved in the manufacture and laying of thousands of miles of cable becomes spellbinding. Drama and suspense reach a great climax on the deck of the Great Eastern … when with Field we finally see the cable successfully laid. A magnificent book. (pp. 390-91)

Margaret Warren Brown, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright, 1958, by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), October, 1958.

(The entire section is 84 words.)

Howard Boston

In most history textbooks only passing reference is made to Cyrus W. Field. No reader of Jean Lee Latham's latest fictionalized biography will ever be disposed to dismiss the enterprising Field so briefly. This lively and convincing book brings the man most responsible for the Atlantic Cable unforgettably to life…. The account really takes off … when Field throws himself into the project of tying the Old and New Worlds with a submarine cable. The staggering problems he tackles—and the heartbreaking setbacks he receives—make absorbing reading.

Laying underseas cable and sending messages through it are highly technical operations, but Miss Latham makes them not only crystal clear but exciting....

(The entire section is 301 words.)

Virginia Haviland

[Drake, The Man They Called a Pirate is a] full biography which reads like historical fiction…. Heavily conversational but without earlier speech and salty language, the book lacks period flavor, yet gives a clear account of Drake's genius as a mariner and the historical background of his adventuring. (p. 301)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright, 1960, by the Horn Book, Inc., Boston), August, 1960.

(The entire section is 64 words.)

Learned T. Bulman

As she did with Nathaniel Bowditch and Matthew Maury, Jean Lee Latham has made an impressive figure of a nearly forgotten man [John Ericsson, in "Man of the Monitor"]. Again she stops at a focal point—the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac; Ericsson died twenty-seven years later. Again one misses a chronology. But, like all of her fictionized biographies, this is fast-paced, informative reading. (p. 30)

Learned T. Bulman, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 20, 1962.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Margaret Sherwood Libby

["Man of the Monitor" is] more alluring to the average 12-year-old than the more sober narrative of Constance Buell Burnett, "Captain John Ericsson." Having attracted the young readers Miss Latham, like a competent craftsman, tries to hold their interest by squeezing as much excitement as possible out of the many frustrations of her hero's life. She is less successful in this than in her ["Carry On, Mr. Bowditch" or even "This Dear-Bought Land"]. Perhaps this is because all her characters talk alike, in a pleasantly ordinary modern speech. Whatever the reason, a less vivid picture of the ever-optimistic inventor of the "Monitor" is given here than in Mrs. Burnett's book…. (p. 9)


(The entire section is 323 words.)

Lon Tinkle

Jean Lee Latham makes Sam Houston a believable and very human hero [in "Retreat to Glory: The Story of Sam Houston"]….

The private personality behind this flamboyant public figure is as interesting as the career. With impressively swift pace, Miss Latham, who knows what to omit or merely suggest, does not skimp Sam's character at all. It is clear why as a boy, bored with country school and storekeeping in Tennessee, he ran off to live with the neighboring Cherokees. It is clear why he later became Andy Jackson's protégé, clear how his courage and personal sense of honor dominated the major events in his life…. This superior account makes both man and history clear and absorbing. (p. 24)


(The entire section is 138 words.)

Peter C. Lawrence

The ambitious attempt of Miss Latham to portray Sam Houston as a human being as well as a patriot [in Retreat to Glory, the Story of Sam Houston] in no way detracts from her explanation of the life and times in which he lived. Throughout the narrative Houston's many faceted personality is merged with the tumultuous events of American History from the War of 1812 through the secession of Texas in the Civil War, and from the merger of man with events comes a picture of a citizen with the courage of his convictions.

The story, written in a simple, straightforward style, serves several purposes. The issues that faced our growing nation—war and our military system, Indian problems, expansion,...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Raymond W. Barber

[Anchors Aweigh: the Story of David Glasgow Farragut is a] vivid picture of the U.S. Navy from 1810 through 1869 and a less skillful, fictionized depiction of David Farragut who gained fame in the Civil War naval battles of New Orleans and Mobile Bay…. Despite the addition of much fictionized dialogue, Farragut is seen solely as a Navy man and never comes across as a believable human being. The historical background is interesting but as a biography, this falls flat. (p. 4420)

Raymond W. Barber, in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, November 15, 1968; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1968 by Xerox Corporation),...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

Ivan Sandrof

["Anchors Aweigh" is] told in the form of a novel by Jean Lee Latham…. She is a bright writer, always in command, despite a tendency to furl too much sail. (She dismisses the death of young Farragut's beloved mother in seven bald lines.) But her narrative flows, her pace is swift, her knowledge of matters nautical considerable. (p. 12)

Ivan Sandrof, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 22, 1968.

(The entire section is 77 words.)

Nancy Byers

In a very much to-the-point fashion [The Columbia, Power House of North America] tells the river's history, its discovery, the building of Astoria to promote fur trade, the gradual settlement of the territory by the Americans, the river's development and finally the building of the huge dams to produce hydro-electric power. In more recent years [Canadian] interest, and much controversy, has been aroused by the Columbia River Treaty of 1964 which has been summarily dealt with in 10 lines near the end of the book…. [The] text, written in an easy-to-read style, is reasonably successful, making this a good "project" book. However, as the book concentrates on the American end of the river and the American end of...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Mary M. Burns

Thoroughly conversant with the equipment, traditions, and living conditions aboard eighteenth-century sailing ships, the author has written Cook's story [in Far Voyager: The Story of James Cook] with the flair and pace of a first-rate adventure yarn set against the background of the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution…. His metamorphosis from seaman to commissioned officer in His Majesty's Navy is substantial material in itself for an engrossing narrative. His exploits as one of history's greatest navigators and explorers add dramatic tension as well. Today's young reader for whom the world has already become too small should find it illuminating to consider an era—merely two centuries ago—when...

(The entire section is 232 words.)

Learned T. Bulman

[Carry on, Mr. Bowditch] is a really accomplished piece of writing. Miss Latham has succeeded in making a comparatively unknown person come alive on every page of her book. Unlike a number of the Newbery winners, which seem to be chosen by librarians more because they have a beauty of writing (usually lost on the child) than because they tell a good story and do it well, Carry on, Mr. Bowditch has been well received by the youngsters and may be just the book to give to the not-so-good reader who needs a book with bounce. (pp. 85-6)

Learned T. Bulman, in English Journal (copyright © 1958 by the National Council of Teachers of English), November, 1958 (and...

(The entire section is 127 words.)