“Put It Down on Paper”: The Words and Life of Mary Folsom Blair, A Fifty-Year Search

By Phil Primack. Loom Press, 2022. 232 pages. $20/paperback.

Phil Primack takes the reader on a journey of discovery as he uncovers clues into the life lived by the former owner of his property in rural New Hampshire. The book weaves together the author’s reflections with personal writings of the subject herself. It is not a traditional biography with a straightforward single narrative, but the separate sections combine to create a reflective, multipartite life story. It is also not a spiritual biography of a weighty Friend. It is a quiet invitation to witness a life lived, which has themes likely to connect with many Friends Journal readers.

Mary E. Folsom Blair (1881–1973) is described as a “lifelong teacher, Quaker, and early advocate for outdoor education.” The Quaker identity is present but not central. Blair grows up in a Quaker family and continues to call herself a Friend. However she is not centered in a Quaker world. Her closest friendships are with non-Friends; she sometimes actively attends other churches; and she marries a French Canadian Catholic. Blair herself notes a transition from the often-guarded world of earlier generations in a 1911 journal entry printed in full as an appendix: “The Quaker of ye olden time has left us, and his descendants have so fallen into the ways of the world’s people that there is no perceptible difference between them.” Her Quakerism is tethered to a past and invites reflection on what it means to be a Friend in a more modern era.

As the title implies, this is the biography of a writer. Her surviving journals and correspondence let the reader in and bring one along in the unfolding of a life well-lived. It shows a life often steered by societal expectations and the restrictions placed on women during the early twentieth century but portrays an independent spirit who makes her way as an educator and a memorable community member.

My appreciation for this book was two-fold. Credit is due to the author for his skill in weaving together the various sources and components to create a book worth reading and to the subject also for her own life and writings. The quest of the author and his journey to uncover the story of Mary Folsom Blair engaged me first. The inclusion of multiple life stages and “everyday” nature of the actions—personal writings, reflections on life choices relating to career and relationships—drew me in. The combination presents a fuller and perhaps more reflective experience than a more typical biography might offer.

Gwen Gosney Erickson is Quaker archivist at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C. Her interests as a historian focus on the intersections of Quaker studies, African American history, women’s studies, and U.S. social justice movements, and on ways that faith and identity inform our historical narratives.

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