Esther Forbes

Esther Forbes

Born: June 28, 1891
Died: August 12, 1967

Biography

Esther Forbes was born in Westboro, MA, on June 28, 1891. She was the fifth of six children born of William Trowbridge Forbes and Harriette Merrifield. Her father graduated from Amherst College and taught mathematics at Robert College in Constantinople for a short time before moving to Westboro and opening a law office there. Her mother graduated from Oread Academy, in Worcester, and traveled the United States until she married Forbes in 1884, when she was twenty-eight. She was an historian and a writer.

When Esther's grandfather Merrifield died, he left a huge tract of land in Worcester to Harriette. They built a house on the property and moved to Worcester in 1898. The sons went to Worcester public schools, and the girls were among the first women to attend the Bancroft School. All the children did well in school except Esther. Esther was extremely nearsighted and dyslexic, problems which impeded her schoolwork. The Bancroft School had a strict curriculum to follow, but one of Esther's teachers had assigned the class to write about anything they wanted. Esther was very imaginative and told stories to her sisters all the time, so she was excited at the chance to write about anything. Esther turned in her creative story. After reading Esther's story, the teacher accused Esther of plagiarism in front of the class. Esther decided to never show her stories to teachers after the incident.

Esther went to Bradford Junior Academy for two years and graduated in 1912. When Esther had ideas that she wanted to write about, she would skip her classes and write, which was not appreciated by her teachers. She then went to live in Wisconsin with her sister Cornelia who was teaching at the University of Wisconsin. She took a few courses there and found a teacher with whom she could share her work. She wrote a short story entitled "Breakneck Hill", which she submitted to a magazine, with her teacher's encouragement. The story was published in the Grinnell Review. It won the O.Henry Prize for short stories for 1915.

She moved back to Massachusetts in 1918 and worked for Houghton Mifflin publishing company as a typist. Because she could not spell, the firm changed her job to reading unsolicited manuscripts. She married Albert Hoskins, a lawyer, at about the same time her first novel was published in 1926. O Genteel Lady! was the second selection of the Book of the Month Club, which guaranteed thirteen-thousand five-hundred copies of the book sold. The April 21, 1926 Boston Transcript review stated, "A distinguished first novel, written with ease and a mastery of technique unusual in a young writer."

She traveled through Europe with Albert for about a year, and then moved to New York. They soon moved to Weston, because Albert took a job in Boston working for the probation department. The couple was unhappy and divorced in 1933.

Esther moved back to Worcester 1933 and lived with her mother, sisters and brother Alan. Esther's mother would read through handwritten letters and documents for Esther's research, since Esther had poor eyesight. Esther and her mother did much of their research at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester.

She wrote Mirror for Witches, a book about a witch's experiences, in 1928. The book was narrated from the point of view of a Puritan defending the actions against the witch. The New York Herald Tribune review stated, "This is a terrific novel, a marvelous novel, a page of history torn open ruthlessly and thrust before our eyes."(Book Review Digest 1928, 258) Mirror for Witches was made into a ballet, a movie, and it has never been out of print since its initial publication.

Miss Marvel, published in 1935, is story about a strange Worcester family. Esther liked this book the least out of the books she had written. Paradise, a book about the early settlements in New England, was published in 1937, and was translated into many different languages. She published two pictoral essay books, The Boston Book, in 1947, and America's Paul Revere, in 1948. Rainbow on the Road, published in 1954, is a book about a painter who travels through New Hampshire. It was made into a musical, called "Come Summer," it was not very successful.

The General's Lady, published in 1938, was based on the real story of Bathsheba Spooner, who hired two men to kill her patriot husband so she could run away with an Englishman. She was the only woman ever hanged in Worcester, for planning the murder of her husband. Her head is buried somewhere in Green Hill Park. The New Republic's review of The General's Lady stated, "To say that 'The General's Lady' is a remarkable novel is specifically true. It isn't exactly news. Miss Forbes has written remarkable novels before. This is something rarer than that." (Book Review Digest 1938, 331)

Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, published in 1942, relied heavily on letters of correspondence from Paul Revere. Esther made her readers feel that they knew Paul Revere, and she depicted Boston realistically at the time of the Revolution. It won the Pulitzer Prize in history for that year. "Not every historical novelist can write a good biography, but the right kind of historical novelist has some of the qualities most needed in a good biographer. Esther Forbes is that kind of novelist, and her biography of Paul Revere takes at once a high and lasting place in American Literature."(Book Review Digest 1942, 266)

When Esther sent her Johnny Tremain: A novel for Young and Old manuscript to Harcourt-Brace, publishers altered it a great deal. Esther was upset at the changes, so she sent it to Houghton-Mifflin and they said they would publish it unaltered. It was published in 1943. Johnny Tremain was unique because it told the story of the American Revolution through the eyes of a boy, not a leader of the Revolution. "Esther Forbes's power to create, and to recreate, a face, a voice, a scene takes us as living spectators to the Boston Tea Party, to the Battle of Lexington and of North Creek."(The Saturday Review, 1943)

Johnny Tremain has never been out of print. It won the John Newbery Medal for most distinguished contribution of the year to children's literature. Walt Disney made a movie out of the book and invited Esther to the opening in Boston. She was picked up by Disney's limousine and taken to the show.

The Running of the Tide, published in 1959, follows the history of Salem as a port. It won the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Novel Award that year. MGM bought the rights for the book and Clark Gable was supposed to play the lead. MGM had financial problems at the time, so the movie was not made.

Esther was working on another book about witchcraft, when she died on August 12, 1967. The first draft had been sent to the publishing company, but the work was never finished. Esther was the first woman member of the American Antiquarian Society and left the rights to her books to the Society.

Works

Photos

Quotes

...books are only the shadow and life the real thing. I believe this as strongly as any belief I hold. I also believe that writing becomes worthwhile and vitalized only through a full and exciting life.
Esther Forbes, in a letter Katharine Harrington, May 28, 1916