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ThreeAmericanLives ANN DOUGLAS Joseph J. Ellis. The New England Mind in Transition : Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, 1696-1772. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1973. 292pp. Louis R. Harlan. Booker T. Washington: The Making of a Black Leader 1856-1901. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972. 379 pp. Kathryn Kish Sklar. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1973. 356 pp. Samuel Johnson, an eighteenth century Episcopalian minister who was the first president of Columbia College, Catharine Esther Beecher, a nineteenth century pioneer in women's education and "domestic economy," and Booker T. Washington, the conservative leader of the black movement for self-advancement and self-education at the turn of the century, are the subjects of the three biographies under review. These figures have more in common than might at first seem apparent. All three were members of what one could call minority groups in their respective societies. They aspired to and achieved leadership positions. Their work and thought occupied a place somewhere between the realms of popular and elite culture. They sought to bring about change through fundamentally conservative means. Despite their minority group status, or perhaps because of it, none of them had any real faith in the democratic process. They compromised in sometimes nearly crippling ways with the dominant powers of their milieu. Finally, all three pose a similar question for the modern biographer: what approach is most appropriate for the treatment of a figure pivotal in what must be defined not as a counter-culture but as a subculture in his or her world? Louis Harlan in a sense takes the easiest route: an exhaustive consideration (the present book is the first volume of a two-volume project) of his chosen subject's life and thought with comparatively little attention given to background material broadly conceived. His method is in part dictated by his subject. Of the three figures under consideration, Booker Washington is indisputably the most important and the most crucial to an understanding of American culture, and the one about whom the historian can most easily gather relevant information. Consequently,. one can argue that we need to comprehend Washington to comprehend his and our culture rather than the other way around. Mr. Harlan does a THE CANADIAN REVIEW OF AMERICAN STUDIES VOL, V, NO, 2 1 FALL 1.974 superb job at the difficult task of elucidating Washington's character, motivation, and career. Drawing on a wide range of sources, most notably the large collection of Washington's private and public papers in the Library of Congress, Mr. Harlan steers a steady course between the extremes set by earlier biographers of the black leader. Washington is neither a saint nor an Uncle Tom in Harlan's skillful and often engrossing depiction. Instead, he is presented as a complex individual, bent on self-improvement and dedicated to practical success. Harlan carefully analyzes Washington's strengths and achievements: his extraordinary ambition and self-control., his tact and sense in cultivating a simple and logical oratory in an age of bombast, his ability to refocus the racial issue in productive and possible economic terms rather than in perhaps more key but also more intensely charged social terms, his uncanny political instinct which led to a dinner at the White House as well as to his almost undisputed dictatorship over black education and welfare in the South. Harlan plausibly finds the origin of Washington's later tendency to compromise in his justifiable gratitude for the help he received as a boy and young man at the hands of conservative-minded white New England reformers. Harlan views Washington's partial betrayal of black needs as calculated manipulation, the kind of uputting on ole Massa.,, technique that Ralph Ellison was to analyze brilliantly in his fictionalized portrayal of Washington as Bledsoe in Invisible Man. Harlan also views it as tragedy. Washington clearly emerges as more hard-driving than imaginative, more mobile than sensitive; and Harlan shows us that the few models young Washington had available for the virtues he knew he must cultivate to succeed in America were ironically all white, all conservative, and all racist. Washington, in Harlan's extremely perceptive...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 190-197
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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