restricted access Viola Florence Barnes, 1885-1979: A Historian's Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
John G. Reid. Viola Florence Barnes, 1885–1979: A Historian’s Biography University of Toronto Press. xxiv, 230. $45.00

Viola Florence Barnes was an American historian who began her work in the second decade of the twentieth century. John Reid's sensitive biography of Barnes, who was considered 'prickly,' is a major contribution to the history of scholarly life.

Born to Nebraska homesteaders, Barnes grew up with a supportive mother and a demanding father, who both remained vital supports, as did her three siblings. She made a clear choice not to marry, but had close friends of both sexes – important connections when family relations foundered. Mildred Howard became her acknowledged partner during Barnes's middle years. Reid traces this personal history with delicacy and his touch is equally deft with the history of his subject's education, employment, and scholarship. Deep reading in the literature on American scholarly women and an understanding of the debates that have raged through United States historiography inform his account.

Reid concludes that Barnes's career was deeply gendered. She depended on – and often led – separatist women's institutions throughout her life, beginning with clubs at the University of Nebraska and ending with Mount Holyoke College, where she was chiefly employed. She twice presided over the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.

While acknowledging her flaws and the help she received from women and men alike, Reid also acknowledges the necessity of Barnes's passionate activism on behalf of the Berkshire Conference, especially in the 1950s when the influx of Second World War veterans brought class and ethnic [End Page 512] diversity, as well as powerful male bonding, into American academia on a scale not previously known. Reid's insights here are fascinating, as are his explorations of the difficulties Barnes experienced in the paternalistic 1920s, when completing her doctorate at Yale and beginning her work at Mount Holyoke. He cites persuasive evidence that her revered supervisor used her research findings in his own writing, without permission or acknowledgment, and that another historian did the same, before her classic monograph, The Dominion of New England, was published in 1923. Barnes, he feels, never fully recovered from these betrayals.

A bout with breast cancer coincided with the young instructor's struggles against the medievalists who ruled her department at Mount Holyoke and the 'Bryn Mawters' who seemed to dominate the whole college in the 1920s. Barnes vigorously opposed both. She was also a pioneering and popular teacher, who introduced an interdisciplinary major in American culture at Mount Holyoke and innovative history teaching, using classroom debate, film and student self-evaluation. She taught, encouraged, and published one article in the nascent field of women's history.

Barnes followed her 1923 monograph with important articles and a coedited collection, earning considerable acclaim. But the Great Depression and the Second World War combined with other circumstances first to delay, then prevent, further publications. In her 1920s work, Barnes had 'rejected the dynamic that was and (despite Barnes) remained so crucial to United States historiography: the duality of imperial tyranny and freedom-loving colonists.' Her more nuanced interpretations, recognizing the complexities of empire and colonies alike, had been innovative and persuasive. But, gradually, new scholars introduced new ideas and the 'imperial school' that Barnes represented waned. She refused to revise the first volume of a projected trilogy in the light of new scholarship and, despite heroic efforts by friends, none of her post-1931 works saw publication.

Reid tells this story sympathetically, seeing the trials of the 1920s and the 'strongly male complexion' of the historical profession in the 1950s as at least partly responsible for Barnes's increasing prickliness as a scholar. One might also wish that Barnes had been less attached to what might now be seen as a masculine model of successful scholarship: the production of many single-authored tomes. Furious at what she believed was a conspiracy to silence her, Barnes never gave up on her trilogy. She loved her work, her garden, and her life, enjoying a happy old age, despite this 'personal tragedy.'

Viola Barnes should be remembered for her innovative scholarship and teaching, as well as for her...