Connecting to History: How a Social Work Professor Found a Hero

Social Work professor and author Jim Trent

While researching for another book, James W. Trent Jr., professor of social work and sociology, came across the story of a little-known Boston doctor, abolitionist and advocate for the disabled who lived from 1801–1876. His name was Samuel G. Howe.

Trent found in Howe “an unexpectedly progressive voice” because of his perspectives on integrating disabled people into the ordinary patterns of community life. He spent the next eight years scouring historical records at places like the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston (which Howe founded), Williams College, Brown University, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Harvard University, Boston Public Library, and the Maine Historical Society. In the process, Trent came across many letters—which some of the collections didn’t know they had—from luminaries such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Lyman Beecher, Daniel Webster and others.

The result is the first full-length biography of Howe in more than fifty years. Published this month by the University of Massachusetts Press, The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth Century American Reform explores Howe’s life through private letters and personal and public documents. Trent has been invited to speak on Howe to the Disability Studies Learning Community of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Hampshire Colleges on October 13, 2012. On October 16, 2012, he will speak at the Perkins School for the Blind about the book.

“Howe embraced a notion of manliness that included heroism under fire but compassion for the oppressed,” Trent said.  “This research gave me the chance to explore a person who, though at the edges of the ‘American Renaissance,’ was an important agent of change and social progress during the period.”

Married to Julia Ward Howe, author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe counted among his friends Senator Charles Sumner, public school advocate Horace Mann, and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, all of whom helped him become a lifelong champion of the underdog.  According to the publisher, Trent’s book “offers an original view of the reformer’s personal life, his association with social causes of his time, and his efforts to shape those causes in ways that allowed for the greater inclusion of devalued people in the mainstream of American life.”

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