Historical Markers
Catherine Drinker Bowen Historical Marker
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Catherine Drinker Bowen


Marker Location:
W. Packer Ave. near Brodhead Ave., Bethlehem

Dedication Date:
April 4, 1997

Behind the Marker

"Over Philadelphia the air lay hot and humid; old people said it was the worst summer since 1750. A diarist noted that cooling thunderstorms were not so frequent or violent as formerly. Perhaps the new 'installic rods' everywhere fixed on the houses might have robbed the clouds of their electric fluid."

Catherine Drinker Bowen, head-and-shoulders portrait, seated, facing front.
Catherine Drinker Bowen, circa 1960.
And so begins Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bowen's most-read work. If the weather feels unappealingly stuffy in those sentences, the historical record shows that it was. The thrilling recreation she built from the events surrounding the 1787 convention that brought forth the nation's Constitution, however, is anything but. Bowen was a superbly gifted storyteller who filled her beautifully crafted biographies with history and her lively histories with the stories of the people who populated them.

Popular with the public, Bowen's books were also well received critically because of her diligent research.  She would live for months in the places that figured in her work, relied heavily on primary sources and, in the case of Yankee From Olympus, her biography of Justice Holmes, on the personal recollections of his friends.  

A man wearing a white suit, sits in a chair and holds a cat in his lap.
Man with the Cat (Henry Sturgis Drinker), by Cecilia Beaux, 1898.
The last of six children, Bowen was born in 1897, in the Main Line community of Haverford, into a wealthy family whose Philadelphia roots reached back two centuries and would continue to leave marks well into the next. Her oldest brother Henry S. became a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, another invented the iron lung, and a third became dean of the Harvard School of Public Health. As she recalled years later, competitiveness and drive seemed to be the family trademark, not surprising given the standards the Drinker children inherited. Their father, Henry Sturgis Drinker was head lawyer for the Lehigh Valley Railroad before he became president of markerLehigh University in 1905, and their mother's sister, Cecilia Beaux, was one of the nation's most sought-after portrait painters.

With her father's shift into academics, the Drinkers left genteel Haverford for the roaring steel metropolis of markerBethlehem, where young Catherine was educated by tutors before she attended a series of private schools between the family's extensive travels through Europe, Asia, and Egypt. It was during these years that she discovered her two enduring passions: music and a quenchless curiosity. Displaying virtuoso potential on the violin by the age of twelve, she studied at both the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore and what would become the Juilliard School in New York, before returning to Lehigh in 1919 to marry Ezra Bowen, an economics professor. When he was named chairman of the economics department at Lafayette College a year later, they moved to Easton.
There, Catherine discovered another gift, an ability to write. Growing up, writing had been something of a family competition, for Drinker had encouraged his children to share their observations on paper. Her husband, at least at first, also encouraged her. In short order, she won $10 in a writing contest sponsored by the Easton Express, which led to a daily column for the paper and contributions to Woman's Home Companion, Good Housekeeping, and other magazines. "Once I saw my product in print," she told an interviewer, "nothing mattered but to get on with the work."

After her daughter was born in 1924 (her son was born three years later), she gave up the column to concentrate on a children's book and a history of Lehigh, commissioned by the university. She then turned to fiction. Critics praised her semi-autobiographical novel, Rufus Starbuck's Wife, for the psychological realism displayed in her sympathetic analysis of a marriage pushed to its breaking point by an overbearing husband and a wife yearning for more freedom. The book, published in 1932, also reflected her separation from her husband, in 1929. Bowen then returned to Lehigh with her children to live with her parents. Three years after her divorce in 1936, she married Thomas Downs, a surgeon.
In the house she grew up in, Bowen returned to music, playing in amateur quartets, and also found an outlet for her passion to write. In 1934, she published Friends and Fiddlers, a popular book of essays on music, and then a pair of best-selling biographies. The first, Beloved Friend (1937), traced Tchaikovsky's complex relationship with his patron. The second, Free Artist (1939), explored Tchaikovsky's musical mentors, pianist Anton Rubenstein and his brother Nicholas, along with the Byzantine world of tsarist Russia.
When the outbreak of World War II made it impossible to do the research in Europe for a biography of German composer Felix Mendelssohn, Bowen turned her curiosity toward her own country. She wrote biographies of two great lawyers who had shaped the progress of a free society and a free government in America: her study of Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1944 and an examination of John Adams in John Adams and the American Revolution (1950). She then cast her eye to the other side of the Atlantic for books on their precursors. The Lion and the Throne, her 1957 study of Sir Edward Coke, Britain's sixteenth-century champion of the concept that nations are built on laws, won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Her next book, Francis Bacon: The Temper of a Man (1963), weighed in on Coke's great rival.
Catherine Drinker Bowen and Robert Frost. Bread Loaf campus, Ripton, Vt.; August 1950. Writers' Conference faculty member Catherine Drinker Bowen with Robert Frost. Kay Morrison and Richard Brown are in the background.
Catherine Drinker Bowen with poet Robert Frost. Bread Loaf campus, Ripton, VT,...
Bowen next turned her attention to the creation of the American Constitution during the summer of 1787. Here, Bowen focused on "the men who made this experiment... and the fortunate moment when they met." Published in 1966, Miracle in Philadelphia became a best seller.  Reviewers praised the book for its detailed portraits of the Founding Fathers and the contentious events of 1787 and hailed it as an outstanding work of narrative history.
The work, however, was not without its critics. Some criticized Bowen for glossing over the true complexity of what took place, for constructing imaginary dialogue, and for her excessive celebration of American greatness. Bowen readily acknowledged her use of "fictional devices," which she used to make her works more accessible to general readers.  In her preface, she acknowledged that "No doubt I shall be charged with an outmoded romanticism."  From her perspective, however, the Constitution was, indeed, both "the grand national experiment" in self-government and a "miracle"-the word used to describe it by both Washington and Madison-fashioned by compromise.
In addition to her histories and biographies, Bowen also wrote three books on the biographer's craft, a 1970 memoir, Family Portrait, and articles for a variety of magazines, including, surprisingly, a 1962 essay for Sports Illustrated, where her son was a writer and editor, called "Our Heritage of Boldness."  But, then, maybe it's not so surprising. Bowen was certainly bold herself, a woman with no formal academic training who transformed herself into one of the most respected historians and biographers of her time. At the time of her death in Haverford in 1973 from cancer, she was furiously trying to finish a biography of Benjamin Franklin. The Most Dangerous Man in America: Scenes from the Life of Benjamin Franklin was published posthumously a year later. 
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