Forbes, Esther

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FORBES, Esther

Born 28 June 1891, Westborough, Massachusetts; died 12 August 1967, Worcester, Massachusetts

Daughter of William T. and Harriette Merrifield Forbes; married Albert L. Hoskins, 1926 (divorced)

Esther Forbes was the youngest of five children; her father was a judge, her mother a historian. She graduated from Bradford Academy in 1912 and studied at the University of Wisconsin (1916-18) before serving as a farmhand in Virginia in response to the war effort. Returning to New England, she became an editor from 1920 until her marriage.

During her marriage, Forbes traveled extensively abroad and continued to write. At the time of her divorce in 1933, she had already made a literary reputation as a historical novelist with O Genteel Lady! (1926) and A Mirror for Witches (1928). The height of her fame came in the 1940s when she won first the Pulitzer Prize in History for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (1942) and then the Newbery Medal for Johnny Tremain: A Novel for Young and Old (1943). Forbes was the first woman member of the American Antiquarian Society and received seven honorary degrees.

The self-consciously historical area in which she grew up, family legends (especially those about an ancestor named Esther, an accused witch who died in a Salem prison), and Forbes' mother's professional interest in old gravestone inscriptions, diaries, and logs all contributed to making Forbes "a novelist who wrote like a historian and a historian who wrote like a novelist," as the New York Times described her. All of Forbes' works are set in New England; both her short novels and her longer fiction and nonfiction exhibit the same meticulous attention to historic details—culinary, artistic, legal, and others.

Forbes' earliest works are brief and focused upon the development of their heroines, who are of various types and fates. Several of these early novels explore the expression of female sexuality and its psychological connection with the attraction to the demonic in a repressive society that is part of, or heir to, the Puritan tradition. Lanice Bardeen in O Genteel Lady! is a sensual and intellectual Boston editor and writer of the late 19th century who gives up both her passion for a Lawrence-of-Arabia type and for writing in order to marry a staid Harvard professor. In A Mirror for Witches, set in the late 17th century, Doll Bilby has a love affair with the "devil" and dies in childbirth, an accused witch, in a Salem prison. The novel is purportedly written by an 18th-century apologist for the Salem witchcraft trials.

In Miss Marvel (1935), the title character is an eccentric spinster of Forbes' mother's era; she leads an uneventful outer life and an eventful, romantic inner one, depicted in letters to an imaginary lover. The novel examines her total acceptance and romanticizing of sexual repression. Side by side with the story of Miss Marvel's social and emotional development is an extensive, contrasting description of physiological changes, at a cellular level, taking place in her body. The contrast between the central Miss Marvel and her less colorful maiden sister, another Miss Marvel, illustrates Forbes' concern with the individuality of her characters. She avoids stereotypes of either historical periods or the people who dwell in them.

Johnny Tremain is the briefer, focused, and fictionalized outgrowth of Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, on which Forbes and her mother collaborated. Both the life of the real silversmith and the now-famous story of the silversmith's apprentice who adjusts to the handicap of a maimed hand and participates in the Boston revolutionary movement, display Forbes's intense interest in the part that individuals, significant or insignificant, play in historical events. Both books clearly owe their immediate inspiration to Forbes' concern with the meaning and nature of human freedom in the context of World War II.

Rainbow in the Road (1954), which was made into a musical in 1969, is Forbes' last published work. It is a lyric lament for the unspoiled New England countryside before the coming of the railroad, and for the ephemeral popular arts practiced by itinerant artists, "limners" (portrait painters), like its hero, Jude Rebough, and his ballad-making friend, Mr. Sharp. Although she was working on a study of witchcraft at the time of her death, Rainbow in the Road seems an appropriate swan song for Forbes herself, whose own choice of a rather popular art form, the historical novel, helped her to win immediate but perhaps transient recognition.

Even in her nonfiction, Forbes' sole analytical thrust is psychological and somewhat Freudian. Forbes considers personalities and social relationships among personalities, rather than broader social, political, or economic issues. She saves her sharp sense of irony, expressed often in wry comments, for individual foibles and generally accepts learned but conventional interpretations of events. Perhaps only in A Mirror for Witches, with its craftily delineated narrator, and in Johnny Tremain, where the problems of an adolescent and of a new society reflect upon each other, do her talents as a novelist and a historian mesh artistically enough to transcend the limits of her genre. Here her efforts to depict the human universal in a particular period and place will probably earn her longer-lasting aesthetic esteem.

Other Works:

Paradise (1937). The General's Lady (1938). The Boston Book (with A. Griffin, 1947). The Running of the Tide (1948). America's Paul Revere (with L. Ward, 1948).


Addington, L. E., Patriot Games: A Curriculum of Democratic Principles in American History as Seen in Children's Literature (1997). Bales, J., Esther Forbes: A Bio-Bibliography of the Author of Johnny Tremain (1998). Dobrow, V., Johnny Tremain:A Study Guide (1995). Forbes, E., America's Paul Revere, Esther Forbes (1991). Frazier, A. S., Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes: Curriculum Unit (1997). Haack, J. L., A Literature Unit for Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes (1994). Kingsland, T., I Want to Know More About Good Books (audio-visual, 1980). Krueser, C. M., Johnny Tremain:By Esther Forbes (1989). Power, G., Johnny Tremain: Study Guide (1993). Snodgrass, M. E., Johnny Tremain: Esther Forbes (1995). Troy, A., Johnny Tremain (Esther Forbes): Teacher Guide (1988). Novel Guide to Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes (1991). Study Guide for Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes: Strategies for Teaching the Novel Based on an Unabridged Version (1989).

Reference works:

CA (1971, 1975). Newbery Medal Books 1922-55 (1955). SAA (1971). TCA, TCAS.

Other references:

LJ (15 May 1944). NYT (13 Aug. 1967).