Annie Turner Wittenmyer? James Fortem? Myra Colby Bradwell? Although forgotten today, in their time each of these figures was influential and made important contributions to the lives of others. There are many such people some celebrated, others notorious whose stories illuminate the thinking or feeling of a group or region at a particular time, but who rarely make it into the history books.
Fortunately, Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra introduce us to these men and women in the enlightening and beautifully written collection of portraits, Forgotten Americans. Randall, best known for his splendid biographies (most recently George Washington: A Life), and Nahra, an award-winning poet, bring different perspectives and offer fascinating insights.
The authors' canvas is wide. They introduce us to women reformers, such as Annie Wittenmyer, who, among other accomplishments, shed a life of comfort to work tirelessly in the Civil War field hospitals. Wittenmyer not only raised consciousness about patient care but led a campaign to help children orphaned by the war.
Myra Colby Bradwell, the first woman licensed to practice law in the United States, was involved in virtually every important issue of the late 19th century. She founded the Chicago Legal News, which advocated changes in the law that would correct the "official inequality" between the sexes. James Forten, a self-made businessman and inventor, was also a social activist. One of a handful of influential African Americans in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, he organized efforts to aid free blacks, bought freedom for many slaves, and helped finance escapes through the Underground Railroad.
Randall and Nahra also introduce us to two religious leaders, Anne Hutchinson and Charles Grandison Finney, who, in different centuries, challenged the prevailing views of their time. Among the notorious of the bunch, we find Margaret Shippen Arnold, instrumental in aiding husband Benedict's plot to betray the United States. And we learn of the hostility, born of political differences, between William Franklin and father Benjamin.
The authors' talent lies not only in bringing these obscure stories to light, but in their ability to convey the temper of the times. They give readers the crucial background information needed to better understand historical events within the proper context. Anyone interested in American history will want to devour this rich collection.
Reviewed by Roger Bishop.