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  • McCarthyism in the Suburbs: Quakers, Communists, and the Children’s Librarian by Allison Hepler
  • Richard P. Mulcahy
McCarthyism in the Suburbs: Quakers, Communists, and the Children’s Librarian. By Allison Hepler. (New York: Lexington Books, 2018. 193 pp. Illustrations, notes, index. Hardback, $90; ebook, $38.)

McCarthyism was bullying combined with a demand for conformity. The stated concern about national security, while important, was not essential. Far more basic was people’s willingness to surrender their individual agency for the good of the nation. This meant signing loyalty oaths, denouncing proscribed organizations, and naming names as proof of devotion to flag, God, and country. This is the context of Allison Hepler’s excellent new study McCarthyism in the Suburbs: Quakers, Communists, and the Children’s Librarian.

At the story’s center is Mary Knowles, a popular children’s librarian. She joined the Communist Party in 1943 after her husband, Clive, a communist and former Protestant minister, left for service in World War II. No ideologue, Mary Knowles supported racial and gender equality and opposed classism. In addition, as a young mother, the party provided her with a support system. Unfortunately, such fine distinctions were not possible in the overheated anticommunist hysteria that gripped the nation immediately after World War II ended. With the period’s hearings and informers, a web of intrigue emerged.

Knowles was first caught in this web when former FBI informant Herbert Philbrick named her as a communist in testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security in May of 1953. Knowles had been hired in 1948 by the Morrill Memorial library, and despite the outstanding work she did for the library, Philbrick’s testimony resulted in her dismissal.

Unemployed, Knowles took a position as children’s librarian with the William Jeanes Memorial Library in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. Unlike the Morrill Library, William Jeanes was a Quaker-affiliated private institution, thereby affording Knowles the opportunity to restart her life. However, Philbrick, by then a national figure due to his book, I Led Three Lives, named her at another congressional hearing, which led to a new controversy. Moreover, Knowles refused to sign a loyalty oath, since she regarded such statements as counter-productive to good citizenship. The ensuing drama featured not only mendacity and professional jealousy but also fortitude and generosity, with the library under great pressure to fire Knowles. Yet she remained in place because of the Quaker tradition of “coming to unity” on a decision rather than following a strict majority rule.

Allison Hepler’s narrative is well-documented and engaging. While she maintains scholarly detachment, the text reads as a modern morality play, with Knowles’s individual rights hanging in the balance. Hepler’s only weakness is her failure to address the FBI’s attitude concerning Philbrick. Clearly, he benefited from his association with the bureau. A comparable situation unfolded in Pittsburgh with Matt Cvetic, who capitalized on his former status as a confidential informant and whom the FBI regarded with contempt as a result. It would be [End Page 239] interesting to know if the bureau felt the same way about Philbrick. That, however, is a small matter compared to the contribution this book makes to the scholarship about the McCarthy era. It is highly recommended for both specialist and general readers.

Richard P. Mulcahy
University of Pittsburgh at Titusville


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pp. 239-240
Launched on MUSE
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