Today on Project Gutenberg #42

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Heroes of To-Day by Mary Rosetta Parkman

“To-Day,” in this instance, refers to 1917, when this book was published, and according to author Mary Rosetta Parkman, a hero can mean all sorts of different things. In her mind, the heroes of the late 1910s were “fighting…not against flesh and blood with sword and spear, but against the unseen enemies of disease and pestilence; against the monster evils of ignorance, poverty and injustice.”

This collection of biographies focuses on eleven men who were doing just that in the early twentieth century. Some of their names are still familiar today, such as then-future President Herbert Hoover or naturalist John Muir, who helped establish Yosemite National Park. Other names haven’t endured quite as well, like that of muckraking journalist Jacob Riis or Edward Trudeau, a doctor who pioneered the study of tuberculosis in America. But Parkman sees all their work as equally fascinating and worthwhile, and she dedicates herself to telling each of their stories with enthusiasm.

Each biography is a few pages long and written in a narrative style that makes it easier to follow. As a result, it’s still pretty accessible to readers over a hundred years later. The main drawback is that Parkman’s literary, almost fanciful style means the book isn’t always as informative as it could be. But what it lacks in facts, it makes up for with vivid descriptions that try to paint a picture of what these men were like. Take these paragraphs from the section on Edward Trudeau, for example:

One day, when Dr. Trudeau was on the side of Mount Pisgah, near Saranac Lake, he fell asleep while leaning on his gun and dreamed a dream. He saw as in a vision the forest on the shore of the lake melt away, and the whole slope covered with houses, built, as it were, inside out, so that most of the life of the people could go on in the open. As he said years later, when he was making an address at the twenty-fifth anniversary of the building of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium at Saranac Lake, “I dreamed a dream of a great sanitarium that should be the everlasting foe of tuberculosis, and lo, the dream has come true!”

But Dr. Trudeau was a man who knew that, if good dreams are to come true, one must have the faith to pray as if there were no such thing as work, and the steady resolution to work as if there were no such thing as prayer. Much faith and much hard work went into the beginnings{153} of that City of the Sick near Lake Saranac.

There was the time of small things, when the chosen spot, with its scant grass and huge boulders, looked more like a pasture for goats than a building-site. Faith, however, can not only move mountains, it can turn them into building material; faith, too, can move the hearts of men and make many work together as one for a great cause. The guides whose families the Beloved Physician had tended without price gave sixteen acres on the sheltered plateau where he had seen his dream city arise.

“We shall build not a great hospital where many are herded together, but cottages where those who seek refuge here may each have his zone of pure air and something of the rest and freedom of home,” said Dr. Trudeau. He talked to his friends, he talked to friends of his friends—to all who would pause in their busy lives to listen. His glowing faith kindled enthusiasm in other hearts. Day by day, not only through the large gifts of the few who could give much, but also through the small gifts of the many who could give but little, the fund grew. The doctor’s dream became a reality.

When we hear the stories of the heroes of old—the men of might, the grand of soul—does it seem as if our little day gives no chance for great deeds? Look at the Beloved Physician of Saranac, with his frail body, his cheerful smile, his unconquerable hope. See him going about with loving care among those whom life seemed to have broken and cast aside. See him in his little laboratory struggling hour after hour, through weeks and months and years, with no apparatus save that of his own contriving, with no training in scientific method, to lure the germs of the white plague within the field of his microscope, and force them to give up the secret of their terrible power. Surely there is no heroism greater than that of such brave, patient labor against all odds, against all ills, in spite of sorrow and loss and the fear of failure.

Pages 152-155

I found this to be a nice little book. Some modern readers may find it a narrow-minded book due to its focus on white men (though I think you shouldn’t be too surprised about that, this being the 1910s and all). But I appreciate the fact that it highlights innovators and activists who were trying to bring positive change to the world. There have always been many ways to be a hero, and the subjects of this book remind us of that.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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