Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Esther Forbes' Rainbow on the Road: Portrait of the Nineteenth-Century Provincial Artist

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Esther Forbes' Rainbow on the Road: Portrait of the Nineteenth-Century Provincial Artist

Article excerpt

Abstract: Writer Esther Forbes' work has received scant academic attention despite the fact that her historical novels became Book-of-the-Month Club selections, winning both popular and critical acclaim. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in history. Her neglected novel, Rainbow on the Road, merits study as a reflection of her long-standing interest in early nineteenth-century American art and the value she places on the tradition of "plain painting." This article explores Forbes' use of American painting as a primary inspiration in her historical fiction and assesses the models she used for her portrayal of her main character, traveling artist Jude Rebough. In Rainbow on the Road, Forbes stresses the transactions - social, temporal, and economic - between sitter and portraitist along with the changing historical context in which regional artists worked. Despite the book's many humorous scenes, Forbes was committed to a non-romanticized style of historical fiction which allowed her to combine painstaking historical research with a personal investment in materials from her own family's past. Author Kent P. Ljungquist is a professor in the Department of Humanities & Arts at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA).

"I was brought up on stories of early New England," the novelist and short story writer Esther Louise Forbes (1891-1967) proudly declared. She was as steeped in the region's folklore "as a pickle in brine."' Her parents demonstrated a strong appreciation of history, offered her access to an ample family library of regional materials, and exhibited a commitment to the importance of written expression. Born in Westboro, Massachusetts, Esther was the daughter of William Trowbridge Forbes and Harriette (Merrifield) Forbes. As a child, her mother (herself a writer, historian, and artist) encouraged her to draw, paint, and write.

When her father assumed the position of probate judge in 1 898, the family moved to Worcester. Esther attended Bradford Academy and later took writing courses at Boston University. In 1919 she assumed a position on the editorial staff of the Houghton Mifflin Company. In the 1 920s, Forbes began to take stock of the New England literary tradition in a series of feature articles for the Boston Evening Transcript. Among the figures she discussed were writers whose work was fueled by a fascination with the region's past: Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sarah Orne Jewett.

After experimentation with short fiction in the 1 920s, Esther Forbes produced historical novelsthatbecameBook-of-the-Month Club selections, winning both popular and critical acclaim. A Mirror for Witches (1928) is considered one of the most sophisticated treatments of New England's witchcraft hysteria of the late 1600s. In 1942 Forbes became the first woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in history for her book Paul Revere and the World He Lived In.

Paul Revere reveals Forbes' longstanding interest in American art. She chose John Singleton Copley's portrait of Revere in shirtsleeves, an open collar, and tools at the ready as an introductory painting for the book.2 Forbes took pains to establish Revere's artisan status within the nascent artistic community of colonial Boston. Other paintings referenced in that biography - those of Samuel Adams and Joseph Warren - serve to chronicle the exploits of the dramatis personae swept up in revolutionary upheaval. Some of the figures covered in her Revere volume reappeared the following year in Johnny Tremain ( 1 943), her award-winning portrayal of a young apprentice silversmith and his struggle toward maturity at the outbreak of the revolution. This book has become a fixture in the educational curriculum of several generations of American adolescents. Paul Revere and Johnny Tremain won Forbes a national spotlight. In subsequent years, she wrote three more novels based on New England materials, including Rainbow on the Road (1954), a Literary Guild selection. …

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