Martin Litvin. Mary Allen West. A Lady of Grit, Grace and Gumption. Galesburg, Illinois: Zephyr Publishing, 1997. Paperback. 145 pages. $10.00.

by Paul Cappe

Martin Litvin has done it again. In his new book, Mary Allen West, A Lady of Grit, Grace and Gumption, Litvin rolls out some of his best biographical writing to educate, entertain and inspire readers with those rare insights into Galesburg history for which he is so well known.

With clarity and an engaging style, Litvin tells the story of Miss West's life. From her birth in a rough log cabin within the early Gale colony north of present-day Galesburg in 1837, to her demise while on an 1892 lecture tour in Japan, the details of this outstanding woman's journey through the latter half of the nineteenth century are chronicled in a way that makes it difficult to put the book down once started.

The accounts of Mary Allen West's own early scholastic achievements, her spirited activities in support of humanitarian aid during the Civil War, her commitment to caring for her original family, her tireless efforts in teaching and educational administration, her close friendships, her literary work, her respect for all groups of people and her ongoing social activism, clearly show the extent and quality of this early Galesburg citizen's character.

Not only does Litvin work his magic to give a greater understanding of Miss West as the principal subject of the book, but through her the reader meets a long list of other important and fascinating people who contributed to early Galesburg history. Educators, politicians, former slaves, business people, health care experts and scholars make their appearance and become woven into the life story of Mary Allen West.

Perhaps one of the most interesting features of this book is the inclusion of two speeches presented by Miss West. In her address to the Old Settlers of Galesburg gathering in 1873 and again to a meeting of temperance workers in 1883 Alton, the reader sees West's own words as she spoke them. In the first speech, she gives some valuable personal accounts of what life was like on the early prairie. She also makes clear her intention to build upon the efforts of the original settlers to help make a community in which all people could take pride. In the second speech, Miss West's skill in using the political process of the times at local and state levels to work for her issues becomes transparent. Her prowess with the language and deep interest in issues of her era is obvious in these orations, as well as her boundless energy and devotion to causes in which she strongly believed. In her words, we might gain a better understanding of those latter nineteenth century years when scientific optimism was beginning to take hold in the minds of many and the notions of cause and effect were being applied to the social realm. In Miss West's speeches, we can possibly see her thought processes on this kind of social cause and effect view of the world. Convince people to willingly give up the dominating and degrading effects of narcotics abuse and homes might be happier and safer places. Ensure quality public education for all young people and they might grow to be more productive, tolerant and fulfilled members of society. Organize and mobilize enough people within the political arena to pursue noble causes and good things might actually happen. Whether or not one agrees with some of the severe forms of Miss West's temperance philosophy, these cause and effect associations are the rational problem solving views of people who felt they could do practical things in the course of their lives that would result in a better world for everyone in the future. Litvin has shown Mary Allen West to have been a vigorous and effective leader in this approach to life.

With this book, Litvin honors both his subject matter and those readers who enjoy such local history. Whether one knows little or lots of Galesburg history, the book has something for anyone who seeks to know more about the early decades of this community and the people who actively celebrated life then and there.

Mary Allen West includes many wonderful illustrations within its pages showing Miss West in different phases of her life, as well as scenes from Galesburg's past, plus other notable people from her time. The author and the publisher have done a great job in bringing out a book whose content and form is most pleasing. This book is the perfect companion for those quiet reading moments when one looks for the foundations of today's communities by looking into the past.

This article posted to Zephyr online February 20, 1997