Brown, Abbie Farwell

views updated

BROWN, Abbie Farwell

Born 21 August 1871, Boston, Massachusetts; died 5 March 1927, Boston, Massachusetts

Daughter of Benjamin F. and Clara Brown

A descendant of the earliest New England settlers, Abbie Farwell Brown lived all her life in the family home on Beacon Hill in Boston. She was educated at Boston Girls' Latin School, where she formed a close friendship with Josephine Prescott Peabody, and graduated from Radcliffe College in 1894.

Although Brown had written verse for St. Nicholas, feature stories for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, and "Quits" (1896), a one-act comedy set in a women's college, it was a visit in 1899 to Chester Cathedral, England, which inspired her first children's book, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts (1900), and led to her career as a juvenile author. In 1902, after the success of TheLonesomest Doll (1901), the publishers Hall and Locke engaged her as editor of their Young Folks Library series. In addition to juvenile books, poetry, and plays, Brown also wrote two volumes of poetry for adults and composed lyrics for songs. Her poem "On the Trail," set to music by Mabel Daniels, became the Girl Scouts' anthem.

The best of Brown's children's books derive their charm from her appreciation of traditional popular literature—legend, myth, and folktale, which includes, of course, the fairy tale. Her first and perhaps best work, The Book of Saints and Friendly Beasts, retells episodes from saints' legends, illustrating the affectionate relationship between beasts and holy men and women. Without resorting to quaintness, the flavor of the medieval legend is preserved, while the material is ordered and simplified for the secular modern child. In the Days of Giants (1902) introduces young people to the action, drama, and intrigue of Nordic myths as recounted in Icelandic sagas. Tales of the Red Children (1909), a collection of Canadian Indian stories coauthored by James MacIntosh Bell, faithfully adheres to the spirit and style of the folktale. The choice of stories reflects the importance of the trickster tale in Indian folklore.

Besides adapting traditional popular literature to the level and tastes of a modern juvenile audience, Brown also employed well known narrative formulas from fairy tale and legend to create her own stories. In the title story of The Flower Princess (1904), Fleurette establishes a test for suitors: she will marry the man who can identify her favorite flower. Of course, the princes fail; only the minstrel Joyeuse has the wit, traditionally associated with the humble, to discover her secret. The hero of John of the Woods (1909) is the mistreated boy of fairy tales who, aided by friendly animals and a mysterious old man, finds his identity. That he also learns to be kind and have faith in the eventual triumph of goodness is part of the gentle didacticism of the tale.

The Lucky Stone (1914) departs from the romanticism of Brown's earlier books and translates the fairy tale into a realistic setting, but not however, without some creaking of the narrative machinery. Maggie Price, a slum child who believes in fairies, discovers a fairy palace in the country, receives mysterious gifts, finds a queer old woman, embarks on a quest, and is captured by an ogre. All the events are the amusements of a bored young woman, who finally does become a fairy godmother by opening her home to needy children.

Brown's one excursion into juvenile biography, The Boyhood of Edward MacDowell (1924), reflects her appreciation for summers spent in the MacDowell Colony, but it is too sentimental and speculative to be seriously recommended.

Nourished by myth, legend, and the folk tale, Brown contributed to children's literature of the early 20th century a number of well-written, imaginative stories, some pleasant verse, and two distinguished versions of saints' legends and Nordic myths.

Other Works:

A Pocketful of Poesies (1902). The Curious Book of Birds (1903). The Star Jewels (1905). Brothers and Sisters (1906). Friends and Cousins (1907). Fresh Posies; Rhymes to Read and Pieces to Speak (1908). The Christmas Angel (1910). Their City Christmas; a Story for Boys and Girls (1912). Songs of Sixpence (1914). Kisington Town (1915). Surprise House (1917). The Gift; a Christmas Story (1920). Heart of New England (1920). The Rock of Liberty; a Pilgrim Ode (1920). What Luck! A Study in Opposites (1920). The Green Trunk; a Masque (1921). Round Robin (1921). The Lights of Beacon Hill; a Christmas Message (1922). The New England Poetry Club; an Outline of Its History, 1915-1923 (1923). Our Christmas Tree (1925). The Silver Stairs; Poems (1926). Under the Rowan Tree (1926). The Lantern and Other Plays for Children (1928). The Little Friend (1960).


Meigs, C., A Critical History of Children's Literature (1969).

Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971). TCA (1942).

Other reference:

Horn Book (1927). Poetry Review (1931).


About this article

Brown, Abbie Farwell

Updated About content Print Article