John William De Forest Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207075-Deforest.jpg John William De Forest Published by Salem Press, Inc.

John William De Forest was a member of a wealthy and cultured New England family. Poor health, however, prevented him from following family tradition in his education, and instead of attending Yale he took a two-year trip to the Near East. On his return, he assembled History of the Indians of Connecticut, the first book of its kind and one that is still consulted by ethnologists for its accuracy and detail.

Afterward, De Forest spent several years abroad, traveling, collecting material for books, and studying foreign languages. He returned to America, married, and was living in Charleston, South Carolina, when the Civil War broke out. He escaped with his wife and child just before the attack on Fort Sumter.

Back in Connecticut, he organized a group of volunteers and led them through a series of Civil War battles. De Forest recorded his experiences in a journal, later published as A Volunteer’s Adventures, which remains one of the best accounts of life in the Union Army. The journal also served as an important source of material for his excellent but neglected novel Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty.

Partly because his writing was factual, accurate, and realistic, De Forest failed to achieve recognition from a generation that preferred sentimentalized versions of history. Only toward the end of the twentieth century did his realism begin to gain renewed appreciation from critics who, like William Dean Howells, admired the way in which De Forest worked, “with a sort of disdainful honesty to the effects of art.”


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Descended from Huguenot immigrants of earliest colonial times, John William De Forest was born on March 31, 1826, in Humphreysville (now Seymour), Connecticut. His father was president of a local manufacturing company and in other ways, too, was one of the small town’s most important citizens; his mother was noted for her strong religious beliefs. De Forest’s background was thus paradigmatically characteristic of the Protestant ethic, and throughout his entire life he attempted to prove himself worthy of its religion-derived ideology of hard work. An early illness made it impossible for him to attend college; in order to expand his private schooling into an education approximately equivalent to the one he would normally have received at Yale University, and in order to improve his health at the same time, he traveled for some years in the Near East (especially Lebanon, where his brother was a missionary) and central and southern Europe. However formative these years abroad were, they did not lastingly restore his health or significantly broaden his ideological perspective. Not healthy enough or temperamentally suited for a career in business but very conscious of having to do something, De Forest decided to become a writer.

After his return from Europe, De Forest met Harriet Silliman Shepard, the attractive daughter of Dr. Charles Upham Shepard, a famous scientist who taught part of the year in Charleston, South Carolina, and part in Amherst,...

(The entire section is 546 words.)