Beacon Bookstore Blog

150th Anniversary Booknotes - 1960's

The 1960s
David Herbert Donald's biography Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War follows Sumner from his birth until 1861 when he and his party finally attain power.  This Unitarian, with all the advantages, not only failed of acceptance in Boston society; he alienated people everywhere, and lived most of his mature life in solitude, yet rose to be the most powerful figure in the Senate of the United States.  "The circumstances which led to the Massachusetts lawyer's position of power in the Senate is emphasized in a scholarly work that faithfully portrays the personality, career and times of one of the strongest fighters against slavery. . . ." noted Booklist in its October 1, 1960 issue.
 Margaret Laurence went to what was then (1952) the British Protectorate of Somaliland (now part of Somalia) because her husband, a civil engineer was there to build reservoirs that hopefully would capture enough infrequent rainfall to tide the nomads over their long dry season.  Her memoir, The Prophet's Camel Bell, ". . . is sometimes justifiably severe about the other Europeans in Somaliland --- the irritating memsahibs with their endless servant troubles and the insensitive young army officers.  But she has the wit to see that there are others, just as sensitive and far more deeply committed to Somaliland than she could ever be; for them she has generous admiration.  With the Somalis she gropes determinedly for a footing, incidentally learning enough of their language to assist in the first translations ever published of Somali poetry.  She is charitable with everyone, even those whom in some moods she despises. . . .  The result, written with a novelist's sense of character and a deft descriptive touch, is a humane and discerning book" according to the September 6, 1963 issue of the London Times Literary Supplement.
Dorothy Gilman was already well known as the author of 12 books for young people when she wrote her first adult novel, The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax, a New York Times bestseller.  It is a compelling tale of espionage with the chase in Mexico and through the mountains of Albania.  Anthony Boucher, in the New York Times Book Review, wrote that "Mrs. Gilman steers an adroit course between comedy and melodrama, which should delight you whether you're looking for smiles or thrills."  Other readers have also praised Gilman's insights about human behavior and values.  "For all mystery shelves" stated M. K. Grant in the Library Journal.


Booknotes - 1950's

The 1950s
Ray Bradbury's first New York Times bestseller, The Martian Chronicles, was published in 1950 and has remained a classic of science fiction and fantasy.  This series of short stories covering the years 1999 to 2026 A.D. tell of successive visits to Mars -- first by spacemen, then by business tycoons, then by odd types, such as amateur plant enthusiasts and even hotdog stand owners.  Finally, the survivors of the last large scale war on earth arrive on Mars.  "The reaction given the earth people by the Martians, whose civilization is different from ours, is unfriendly," wrote Don Fabun in his review for the New York Times.
Richard Hofstadter's 1956 Pulitzer Prize winning history, Age of Reform:  From Bryan to F.D.R., ". . . entitles Hofstadter to rank with C. Vann Woodward as a master of creative synthesis, as an interpreter of the past who can add to cold data an empathetic insight that transforms history from a book of the dead into a chronicle of life" wrote J.R. Roche in the American Political Science Review.
The Boston Globe's book reviewer stated that "Paul Robeson's Here I Stand is a perennial, first published in 1958, and now a voice from a different time.  It anticipates for black persons the moral support of the American majority with an intensity that now seems evangelical.  It's full of probably tragic hope.  It should be read."  Harry Belafonte in his book Restoring Hope noted that "[Robeson's} nobility, his language, his encouragement and his praise put me forever in his debt because it inspired me fully to be like him, and to use my life as he had used his, to put into it the commitment of the liberation of his people and all people."


Booknotes - 1940's

The 1940s

William Carlos Williams was a physician who wrote poetry with a physician’s eye, looking for a healing touch for the pains of existence, giving a thorough examination of the traditions and traits of an American locality. "[It} . . . should make any one interested in the best of modern poetry look forward to the next three books of Patterson, New Jersey, wrote Ruth Lechlitner for the Weekly Book Review.  

Aldous Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy was published in 1945 as the United States was finishing its greatest war since the American Civil War. Signe Toksvig, writing for the New York Times noted that "it is important to say that even an agnostic, even a behavior materialist, model 1925, can read this book with joy. It is the masterpiece of all anthologies. As Mr. Huxley has proved before, he can find and frame rare beauty in literature, and here, long before Freud, writers are quoted who combine beauty with proud psychology."

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paranhansa Yogananda reveals Hindu philosophy from the inside through the lives of the author and his guru, Sri Yukteswar Giri. Invited by Rev. Samuel A. Elliot, President of the American Unitarian Association, to attend the International Congress of Free Christians and Other Religious Liberals at Boston, Massachusetts, Yogananda came, addressed the Congress, and stayed in the United States for four more years, working with the Boston Meditation Society, teaching in Washington, D.C. and giving talks on a transcontinental tour of the United States. He later returned, founding a school of yoga, the Self-Realization Institute, in Encinitas, California. 


Booknotes - 1930's

The 1930s

Arthur M. Schlesinger published his biography Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress in 1939 to critical acclaim. This study of the New England journalist, minister and theologian of the period of Emerson, Thoreau and Alcott follows his spiritual pilgrimage from the Presbyterian Church, through his Universalist and Unitarian ministries into the Roman Catholic Church. Schlesinger, himself a Unitarian and son of a prominent Harvard historian and later special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, has written a sympathetic study of an extraordinary man who has a unique relation to American thought and religious life. Odell Shepard in the Saturday Review noted that this biography was very good, but ". . . somewhat harsh, crude and feverish. But then one may well remember, so was [Brownson] himself. It is also powerful. So was he. It moves everywhere at top speed. So did he."

John P. Marquand published two novels in 1937: The Late George Apley, which won the Pulitzer Prize that year, and Think Fast, Mr. Moto, which did not. Quincy Howe reviewing for the New Republic noted that "[a]s Mr. Marquand presents him, George Apley is a human being, poignant in his frustration, and the little world that he and his kind have made is reproduced here in such concrete detail that its bitterness can be more easily endured between covers than in real life." This gently satirical novel of the life of a Boston Brahmin merits wide reading not only for its cleverness " . . . but as an interpretation of Boston’s history and habits and atmosphere for two generations, together with a portrait of a gentleman of the not-to-old school who filled a large place in his day and generation," Times [London] Literary Supplement, June 19, 1937.

Originally commissioned as a photo-essay for Fortune magazine during the summer of 1936 about three families of sharecroppers in the South, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was finally published as a book in 1941. Its author, James Agee, a writer for Time and Fortune, and his photographer, Walker Evans of the Farm Security Administration, lived for several weeks with the family of George Gudger (a one-mule half-cropper) and recorded what they saw and felt. This unconventional study bf the Gudgers and their neighbors was greeted by mixed reviews. Selden Rodman in the Saturday Review prophesied that "[the book] will be spat upon — and years hence . . . read."   E.C. Thomas, in his review for The Churchman, wrote "Thirty-one excellent photographs must give pause to anyone whose imagination is not stirred by the written word.   A disagreeable subject, handled with vivid bitterness!  This book, as well as Grapes of Wrath, which it inevitably brings to mind, are efforts to force the American people to clean house.


booknotes - 1920's

The 1920's 
E.E. Cummings is best known in our time for his poetry, but he also wrote a serious novel about his experiences in France in World War I. His war novel, The Enormous Room, is both a comedy of errors and a serious examination of man's inhumanity to man, and  a testament to the unconquerable human spirit that ranks with those of his contemporaries, Ernest Hemingway and Joh Dos Passos.

Hendrik Willem Van Loon, a Unitarian from Holland who settled in New York, wrote his history for children only to have it also read by adults. His book, The Story of Mankind, was published in 1921. In 1922, it was the first book awarded the Newbery Medal for an outstanding contribution to children’s literature.

The controversial American poet Amy Lowell (1874-1925), a founding member of the Imagist group that included D. H. Lawrence and H. D., excelled as the impresario for the new poetry that became news across the U. S. in the years after World War I. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1926. Drawing on newly discovered letters and papers, Rollyson s book, Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography, finally gives this vibrant poet her due.


booknotes - 1910's

The 1910s
Carl Sandburg published his Chicago Poems in 1916, a harvest of poems reaped from his experiences as a hobo, soldier, and newspaperman. His free verse ranged over themes of war, immigrant life, death, love, loneliness and the beauty of nature. Later, he would receive the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, and again in 1950 for his Complete Poems.

John Dewey’s 
How We Think was published in 1910, offering his views on methods of training students to think well. He urged education to move beyond rote learning. The book considers inductive and deductive logic, the interpretation of facts, concrete and abstract thinking, and the roles of activity, language, and observation. He would continue for the rest of his life to advocate for educational reforms both here and abroad, stating that "one learns by doing."

In 1889, while many in Chicago were wary of the recent immigrants from abroad, Jane Addams established Hull-House as a refuge. The settlement house provided an unprecedented variety of social services. In 1910, she wrote of the institution’s history and the philosophy of social justice that was its basis. Her book, 
Twenty Years at Hull-House is filled with observations on everyday life, accounts of practical action, and proposals for public policy, and remains a rich source of ideas and methods for social work and services. 


Booknotes - 1900's



Beatrix Potter was a writer, illustrator and conservationist. Born in London to middle-class, Unitarian parents, she spent much of her early life in her own company, creating her own stories, based on animals. A naturally gifted artist,, she also had art lessons that enhanced her technique. She later wrote: "Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality."  The Tale of Benjamin Bunny (illustrated by the author) is about two mischievous rabbits, Peter and Benjamin, and how they cannot keep themselves out of trouble. This timeless tale is enjoyed by children (and their parents).


Dorothy May Emerson’s book, 
Standing Before Us, presents 160 years of women’s work: letters, essays, stories, poems and speeches by Unitarian and Universalist women deeply concerned with social justice, equality in education, religious reform, and an end to slavery and prejudice. The book includes a biographical sketch of each woman, and information on the texts selected. As noted in Dorothy Emerson’s preface to the book: "We still confront many of the same issues faced by our foremothers. By engaging with these women of the past, we hope to empower and inspire today’s women and men to continue the work of creating a world of justice and peace for all."


The Education of Henry Adams
 is considered one of the most distinguished of all autobiographies. The book records Adams’ confrontations with reality as he moved from the traditions of his family into the modern world in which certainties had vanished.

Christine McHugh observed that "neither history nor education provided an answer for Henry Adams. Individuals, he believed, could not face reality; to endure, one adopts illusions. His attempt to draw lines of continuity from the 13th to the 20th century ended in futility. Adams concluded that all he could prove was change." But the book is more than a failure to find answers. It is also an inquiry into what his life had been, from his childhood talks with his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, to his diplomatic service at the London Embassy during the Civil War, through his political work in post-Civil War Washington, D.C., and his later years as a professor of history. It is a looking back at friendships, and forward into a future he would never see, but could guess at, such as the emerging concerns between the United States and Russia.




Booknotes - 1890's

The 1890s


The 1890s brought further notoriety to an already controversial newspaperman, Ambrose Bierce. After distinguishing himself in combat as a soldier and officer during the Civil War, he embarked on a career as an editor, writer and columnist for several newspapers. He had set himself against the current of realism and "local color" in American fiction. He now probed deep within the minds of his fellow citizens to reveal horrors of existence as he confronted memories of the Civil War and the underbelly of life in the Gilded Age in his short story collection An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories. He disappeared in Mexico in 1914 and his final fate is unknown.


P.T. Barnum was a self-described "humbug" and showman who founded the first financially successful museum in the United States, and created the modern three ring circus. He was also a fervent Universalist and philanthropist. Devoted to his congregation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he contributed heavily toward the support of Olympia Brown’s ministry. He also provided funds for the Universalist seminary at Meadville. He was a major benefactor of Tufts College (now, Tufts University), establishing its Museum of Natural History. He published his testimony, 
Why I am a Universalist, twelve months before his death, stating that "Eternal life is right life, here, there, everywhere."


Sylvia Bailey Shurbutt wrote that "work served as a signal flag for all that Charlotte Perkins Gilman did and all that she believed." Best known for her short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," a harrowing tale of a woman’s descent into madness, Charlotte Gilman wrote over 200 short stories depicting the social, economic and personal relationships of men and women. As a prominent turn-of-the-century social critic and lecturer, she also wrote 
Women and Economics and a utopian novel, Herland, articulating her unconventional views of male-female roles and capabilities, motherhood, and individuality. Charlotte Perkins Gilman: A Biography, written by Cynthia Davis, tells Gilman’s remarkable life story with precision, wisdom, and tact.


Booknotes 1880's

The 1880s




Helen Hunt Jackson was in Portland, Oregon in 1881, taking some time off after publishing her latest book. She noted how the "city reminds one strongly of some of the rural towns in New England," but bordered by snow-peaks. "It is also hard to realize . . . that it is less than fifty years since there were angry discussions in the United States Congress as to whether or not it were worth while to obtain Oregon as a possession." Here, she would consider how she would continue to fight for the rights of Indians that she started with her just published book, A Century of Dishonor. She would continue to search for, collect and publish documents, testimonies, and records showing the need for state and federal government reforms of Indian policy. She never stopped, even writing President Grover Cleveland from her deathbed.


Ernest Lawrence Thayer, a Unitarian born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, later became a writer and poet. He graduated Magna Cum Laude in philosophy from Harvard in 1885. His friend from Thayer’s student days as editor of the 
Harvard Lampoon, William Randolph Hearst, hired him as the humor columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, which he held until 1888. For his last column, Thayer wrote Casey at the Bat, which Martin Gardner called "the nation’s best-known piece of comic verse — a ballad that began a native legend as colorful and permanent as that of Johnny Appleseed or Paul Bunyan." 


Lucy Larcom began her work as an American author and poet while working in the Lowell Mills in Massachusetts. While there, she joined with other girls and young women in her Congregationalist church and the nearby Universalist Church to produce a literary magazine for the community, the 
Lowell Offerings. Over her next ten years there, she wrote many songs, poems, and letters describing her life there, and got them published, earning the friendship of poet John Greenleaf Whittier. She recounted these experiences in her best known work, A New England Girlhood, published in 1889. She later taught at what is now known as Wheaton College, founding Rushlight Literary Magazine, which is still published today.  



Book Notes - 1870's

The 1870s

Bret Harte, age 19, moved to California during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. He mined for gold and taught school before he became a journalist. During the Civil War, he published his poems in support of the Union, which included his elegy "On a Pen of Thomas Starr King." After the war, he wrote his best selling stories about everyday life among thieves, vagabonds, and miners in small towns and camps around California, which are collected in Bret Harte’s Gold Rush. His post-war writings, like those of Mark Twain and Walt Whitman, reflected the impact of the war on the way people now viewed themselves and others. Randall Fuller said that "what had happened during the Civil War, what had happened to American Literature, was a kind of chastening, a sense that perhaps one should focus less on one’s ideals, and more upon the day to day lives of human beings."

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Unitarian minister, published his memoir Army Life in a Black Regiment in 1870. An abolitionist, he preached and published against slavery. As one of the "Secret Six," he financed John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, and later helped in Brown’s legal defense after he was captured. Higginson had been commissioned as a captain in the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. After recovering from wounds, he was promoted to colonel and appointed to command the First South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment mustered into the service of the United States during the Civil War. The "First South" conducted a partisan warfare along the southern coast from Jacksonville, Florida to Hilton Head, South Carolina. Higginson wrote that "Until the blacks were armed, there was no guaranty of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men."

Charles Darwin, already a noted public figure since the publication of his Origin of Species in 1859, brought out an even more controversial book, The Descent of Man in 1871. In it, he concluded that "It is now . . . impossible . . . to maintain that this belief [in God] is innate or instinctive in man. On the other hand a belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies seems to be universal; and apparently follows from a considerable advance in man’s reason, and from a still greater advance in his faculties of imagination, curiosity, and wonder." By the 1880s, Unitarians would be debating the import of his words in what we now know as the "Issue in the West":   Unitarianism and its relation to Christianity, Theology, Ethics, and "Free Religion."


More Articles...