Bowen, Catherine Drinker

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BOWEN, Catherine Drinker

Born 1 January 1897, Haverford, Pennsylvania; died 1 November 1973, Haverford, Pennsylvania

Daughter of Henry Sturgis and Aimee Beaux Drinker; married Ezra Bowen, 1919

Although Catherine Drinker Bowen began her career as a writer of fiction, including a novel, Rufus Starbuck's Wife (1932), she early chose the role of biographer. It is in her biographical works that her major contributions as a writer lie.

Music gave a central focus for Bowen's early biographical works, Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikowsky and Nadejda von Meck (1937), and Free Artist: The Story of Anton and Nicholas Rubinstein (1939). The first work involved interweaving letters by the composer and his patron into a biographical narrative; the second portrayed the Rubinsteins' interaction with the musical and political world of late tsarist Russia. In these works, Bowen revealed her skill in characterization.

In the 1940s Bowen found a new biographical focus: men of law and their role in the development of free government. From this concern came three biographies. Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and His Family (1944), is a three-generational study, reaching back for the "roots that permitted so splendid a flowering" in Holmes's own life. In her portrait of Holmes as legal pioneer, judicial dissenter, and man of ideas and passion, Bowen impressively achieved her aim "to bring Justice Holmes out of legal terms into human terms." In John Adams and the American Revolution (1950), Bowen concentrated on the lawyer as political leader. She stressed Adams's commitment to British constitutional principles and his growing disillusionment with British practices. And she depicted with force and clarity his role in the colonies' growth toward independence.

With The Lion and the Throne: The Life and Times of Sir Edward Coke, 1552-1634 (1957), Bowen turned to the English roots of American constitutionalism. Her account centered on Coke's transformation from chief prosecutor for the Crown to ardent champion of the House of Commons and the Petition of Right. Her portrait of this "difficult but impressive man" gives full due to the complexity of his nature and his role as jurist and legal authority. Bowen followed with Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man (1963), a study of Coke's great rival. Although this book was written as a biography, Bowen saw it as "essays of personal reflection" on a man and his thought.

With Miracle at Philadelphia: The Story of the Constitutional Convention, May to September, 1787 (1966), Bowen returned to the theme of emerging free government in America. She stressed not so much the intricacies of the debates themselves as the interactions of the men, the compromises achieved, and the factors that made the adoption of the Constitution both crucial and possible. Her last work was The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin (1974). In this account of five periods of Franklin's life, Bowen traced his change from adherent to critic of Great Britain and explored the complexities of his personality and roles. The book is also a personal document, essays of personal reflection indicating her own affirmative response to this Enlightenment man.

Bowen wrote several works on biographical writing itself, including Adventures of a Biographer (1959), a series of informal essays; and Biography: The Craft and the Calling (1968), a study of biographical problems and techniques. Bowen also wrote Friends and Fiddlers (1935), informal, anecdotal essays on chamber music by amateurs; and Family Portrait (1970), a history of the Drinker family.

Bowen took the narrative approach to biography, focusing both on the individual personality and the age itself. The intricacies of personal development concerned her most, rather than the critical exploration of historical issues. In her early work, Bowen often utilized fictional devices, such as transposing letters and diary entries into conversation. With the Coke biography, however, she abandoned such techniques, relying henceforth on a skilled use of documents and mastery of detail to convey the sense of reality.

As a biographer, Bowen revealed both a keen sense of the complexities of human nature and the problems of personal interactions. In her handling of historical eras, she is perceptive in judgement and makes graphic use of detail. Ultimately Bowen's strength as a biographer resides in her vivid and dramatic portraiture and her sensitive conveyance of the spirit of an age.

Other Works:

The Story of an Oak Tree (1924). A History of Lehigh University (1924). On Being a Biographer: An Address (1950). The Writing of Biography (1951). The Biographer Looks for News (1958). The Nature of the Artist (1961). The Historian (1963).


Luckham, W. R., "Passionate History: Catherine Drinker Bowen and the Narrative Biography" (thesis, 1992). "Yankee from Olympus: Justice Holmes and his Family" in Reader's Digest Great Biographies (1987).

Other reference:

AHR (Oct. 1957). Atlantic (July 1957). NR (29 May 1944, 2 Nov. 1974). NYT (18 June 1950, 23 June 1963, 20 Nov. 1966). SRL (11 June 1950). Catherine Drinker Bowen: Other People's Lives (film, 1971).