Friday, February 24, 2017

Birthday Book of the Day: a scholar looks at Psalms

mary ellen chase.jpg

The Writer’s Almanac reminds us,

It’s the birthday of educator and writer Mary Ellen Chase, born in Blue Hill, Maine (1887), a seacoast village founded in 1762 by her ancestors. She wrote A Goodly Heritage (1932), Silas Crockett (1935), and Windswept (1941), about the seafaring life of people living in rural Maine. She taught at Smith College for almost 30 years, influencing students such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Sylvia Plath, and Betty Friedan. She said: “Most readers think that a novel is, first of all, a story. Well, it really isn’t … A novel is an evolution of life. Its story is merely a means to an end.”

Chase made a name for herself at a time when the niche for women scholars was narrow indeed. Her lifelong companion and fellow Smith professor, the Cambridge-educated medieval scholar Eleanor Duckett (1880-1976) remembered, late in life, showing the mss of her first book to a leading UK scholar. He responded, “"Do you want me to judge it on its own merits or as the work of a woman?"

Often compared to the novelist Sarah Orne Jewett, Chase was a humanist who, as one dissertation puts her,

She believed that each subsequent generation, if given the proper "emotional and intellectual security," could rise higher than the last. Through her writing, she sought and found "positive values in our national culture in a period when it [had] become intellectually unfashionable to find anything but negative values.” Chase regarded "humanity as possessing potentials of soul and mind not found in the rest of organic or inorganic nature.” She found these "positive values" and these "potentials of soul and mind" within her own family, and she thus "recorded a confidence in the moral and spiritual resources of the American character" as she knew it.

She published thirty books in fifty years, ranging from a translation of the Book of Ruth to a study of Thomas Hardy. She was one of the most important regional American writers of the 20th century- her novels are almost all set in her beloved Maine. She taught the King James Bible and the English Novel at Smith College from 1922 to 1955, where, despite her success as an author, she considered herself first and foremost a teacher. For her 80th birthday, Chase saw an 1827 residence given her name as a student dormitory; an adjoining 1810 boarding house, also converted to student housing was named for Duckett.

Chase died at 86; her grave beneath a simple Saxon cross bears her name and dates, and an excerpt from Isaiah 40:31: “They shall mount up with wings as eagles. Eleanor died three years later, at 96, and was buried alongside her.

Chase is a favorite of Henry Bemis Books, and we are pleased to offer one of her last books in honor of her day:


Chase, Mary Ellen, The Psalms for the Common Reader (W.W Norton, 1st ed. 1st printing, 1962). LOC 62-8579. Chase (1887-1973), a Smith College professor the English Novel and the King James Bible from 1926 to 1955, was one of America’s best-loved mid century novelists. This book, aimed at the general reader, is a thoughtful, scholarly and graceful treatment of the sometimes confusing, contradictory collection that is The Psalms; it calls to mind the works of another scholar-popularizer of the time, Edith Hamilton. Fifty years on, it holds up well, and will give much pleasure and insight to readers. Hardcover clipped dust jacket showing some edge wear, good condition. HBB price: $15.00.

Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory; for pricing on this or others items, kindly private message us. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like.

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