Edited by Nancy Learned Haines. Pleasant Green Books, 2016. 412 pages. $19.95/paperback.
In 1917 Mary Peabody and Leslie Hotson were students at Radcliffe and Harvard. They met through their shared interests in music and drama, poetry and philosophy, and quickly became soul mates as they discussed the war that had turned the campus into a military school.
Each was drawn to pacifism and service, though by different routes. Mary was the daughter of Sarah Peabody, the manager of a boarding house and a Unitarian suffragette raising two daughters on her own after her ex-husband spent most of her family money and left her in debt. Leslie grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the son of Swedenborgian parents who had emigrated from Canada and were avowed pacifists in this war.
At Radcliffe, Mary was a day student, immersed in literary and musical clubs and street campaigns for suffrage, socialism, and workers’ rights. Leslie sang, acted, and studied English, wanting to be a writer. They both earned extra money tutoring fellow students in French.
Leslie’s brother Ronald had already declared his refusal to do alternative service and had been imprisoned along with other “absolutists,” men who absolutely refuse to serve the military in any way. At Fort Dix Ronald was beaten and starved. As Leslie watched his brother’s suffering from afar, he decided he had to respond to the horror of the war in a physical and positive way. He took a leave of absence from Harvard and headed for France to help the French Reconstruction Unit. Started by Quakers at Haverford College and Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the FRU was the first initiative overseen by the new American Friends Service Committee.
Over the next year, Mary and Leslie wrote letters back and forth to each other, articulating their faith, their idealism that love would conquer evil in the world, their longing for each other’s companionship and cheer, and their plans for an activist future.
The French Reconstruction Unit helped rebuild villages destroyed in the war. It constructed homes from pre-fabricated materials, set up and managed medical clinics, organized stores to be run as co-ops, and taught in schools for refugee children. Leslie helped build houses, repair bombed water and sewage systems, and tutor children. He also wrote articles for Lewis Gannett’s newsletter, reporting on the work of pacifists so the disparate units working in France (and the world) could know the protocols and networks for responding to the war through alternative service.
In his letters, Leslie reported on his construction work, his views as he bicycled through the devastated countryside, the inspiration of his Friendly compatriots, the villagers who endured, and how he longed to be with Mary. He quoted the wisdom of Quaker leaders like Rufus Jones, who came to boost the morale of the Quaker service workers.
In her letters, Mary reported on her studies, helping her mother to run the boarding house, her work for the rights of women and laborers, and how much she missed Leslie. She, along with her mother and sister, came down with the Spanish flu, which would eventually kill 650,000 Americans, but which she and her family miraculously survived. She returned to school and activism, selling suffragette pamphlets on the streets of Cambridge, and supporting the factory strikes in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., despite raids on dorm rooms looking for subversive materials.
The letters of their courtship offer a poignant study of young pacifists in war; even though WWI was thought to be the war to end all wars, the words of Leslie and Mary could have been the words of AFSC workers in WWII or Vietnam. Their words of sorrow at what they see, of determination to relieve individuals’ suffering, of belief in a true right and a corrupted wrong, and hope in a future no matter how grim the statistics of the present, are timeless.
In their letters, Leslie and Mary conversed about faith and pacifism and how, really, they were already, and should formally become, Quakers. When Leslie returned home after the war, despite Mary’s doubts about the institution of marriage, they wed and became an academic couple, Mary joining Leslie in his literary archival research. Eventually he became an English professor, teaching at Yale, NYU, and then Haverford College, where he lived next door to Rufus Jones and retired in 1942.
When Nancy Learned Haines found these letters, she knew they evoked a story larger than a young couple in love. An antiquarian bookseller specializing in Quaker historical books, Haines also knew these letters were of particular interest to Quaker historians. She transcribed and edited the letters so they move chronologically through the crucial year of 1918 in France. And she breaks them up into sections so, in introductions to each section, she can report on the family backstories for Mary and Leslie, the history of the war, the Religious Society of Friends’ organized responses, the treatment of conscientious objectors, and the formation of activist groups in Cambridge, Mass.; London; and Paris.
This April we celebrate the 100th birthday of American Friends Service Committee, and this book is an excellent tribute to the sacrifice, courage, inventiveness, and resourcefulness that has characterized every AFSC worker in every war or workcamp over the past century. It is Haines’ gift to essential Quaker history.