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Booth, Mary Louise

BOOTH, Mary Louise

Born 19 April 1831, Millville, Long Island, New York; died 5 March 1889, New York, New York

Daughter of William Chatfield and Nancy Monsell Booth

Mary Louise Booth's one major work, her History of the City of New York (1859), was the first complete history of the city from its Dutch origins to its Empire City status in the 1850s. In it, Booth stressed the impact of the Dutch on New York life, maintaining that the period of Dutch control, particularly the period of the "pacific rule of Stuyvesant," produced the "marked individuality" which set New York apart from other eastern cities. She saw in "the broad and liberal nature of the first settlers" the foundation for the "extended view of men and things" which characterized the later city.

As a 19th-century historian, Booth gave due attention to the political and military history of the city. She stressed the role of New York in the American Revolution, dealing with both political and social issues. She underscored the political leadership of revolutionary leaders and assessed the cost to the city of the long British occupancy. Perhaps Booth's strongest contribution, however, lay in her stress on social and cultural developments. She gave attention both to the growth of slavery and to the underlying racial prejudice in the city. She cited the "despotic regulations" controlling the lives of the early-18th-century slaves and discussed at some length the tragic consequences of the alleged "Negro Plot of 1741." That alleged conspiracy, she argued, belonged "in the foremost rank of popular delusions."

In tracing New York's growth as an economic and financial center, Booth emphasized the city's response both to newcomers and to new ideas. In New York, she noted, the original pioneer type did not entrench itself in isolated power but proved able to blend with other races and groups. In the tolerance for new ideas and persons she saw a major source of the city's vitality. While appreciative of the position of eminence New York had attained by the 1850s, Booth also wrote with a degree of nostalgia. She regretted certain lost cultural values and warned that the city's very individuality was in danger. She saw New York as being at a cultural crossroads in 1859. While the city had the potential to become "the Athens of America," New Yorkers had to choose whether to stress economic and financial power or "the wealth of brains."

Booth's other work was of a varied nature. She began writing early for educational and literary journals and newspapers. After the Civil War, she became editor of the newly inaugurated Harper's Bazaar. She was also a prolific translator of books, her first work being The New and Complete Clock and Watchmakers' Manual (1860). She was particularly interested in books about French history and French reactions to the American Civil War and Reconstruction. She also translated fairy tales, including those of Édouard Laboulaye.

Although not a trained historian, Booth showed in her History of the City of New York that she had a sound historical perspective. While she was primarily a narrative historian, she sometimes gave a critical analysis of events. She had an easy fluent style and kept in balance local concerns and matters of general interest. In her view, New Yorkers lacked a true sense of history, valuing achievements but disregarding the process involved in attaining those goals. Booth's broad-gauged work provided a solid basis for appreciation of the city's past.

Bibliography:

Boltin, S. K., Successful Women (1888). Spofford, H. P., Our Famous Women (1884). Spofford, H. P., A Little Book of Friends (1916).

Reference Works:

Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography (1888). NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). Supplement to the Cyclopedia of American Literature (1865).

—INZER BYERS

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