Author Edward Payson Roe

One of E.P. Roe’s most popular novels is Barriers Burned Away. In my last post I shared my thoughts on the novel, and how a visit to Chicago not long after the Chicago Fire of October 8, 1871 inspired him to write it.

This fascinating book was actually his first attempt at writing a novel!


Colbert (1871) p287 Chicago in Ruins, source British Library, public domain

Any history buffs out there?

If you want more information about the Chicago Fire of 1871 (which actually burned for three days, incredible!), I have two recommendations. This excellent multimedia WTTW PBS website, and this website which also includes literature, art and cycloramas, eyewitness accounts, the O’Leary Legend, souvenirs, media coverage and commemorations.

Barriers Burned Away (1872)

Like several novels I have read from this period of time, Barriers Burned Away showcases the talent and the standard of excellence of one of the many great authors in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

And, surprisingly, Barriers Burned Away is relatively well-known today among vintage novel readers, and in my opinion, based on the excellence of his writing, it is a classic.

WorldCat publication graph for E.P. Roe

WorldCat.org provides publication graphs for many authors, including E.P. Roe, as shown below. Interesting to see how publication of his works is high in the 2020’s. In fact, it’s almost as high as in the 1880’s!

At the time of his death in 1888, his publishers estimated that over 1,400,000 copies of his novels had been sold in the United States and abroad.

1878 Reviews of Barriers Burned Away

Diorama of 1871 Chicago Fire – Chicago History Museum, Lincoln Park, Chicago, Illinois

Imagining, and writing, for a purpose

Public domain, Wikidata

Here are portions of a speech given by Dr. Lyman Abbot, an assistant to E.P. Roe, at his memorial. This was recorded in E. P. Roe: Reminiscences of His Life, a book written by his daughter, Mary.

“It is of the latter aspect of his life I wish to speak for a few moments only, in an endeavor to interpret his service to the great American people by his pen through literature.

The chief function of the imagination is to enable us to realize actual scenes with which we are not familiar. This is an important service.

It is well that you who live in these quiet and peaceful scenes should know what is the wretchedness of some of your fellow beings in the slums of New York. It is well that your sympathies should be broadened and deepened, and that you should know the sorrow, the struggle that goes on in those less favored homes.

God has given us imagination in order that we may have noble ideals set before us, and yet ideals so linked to actual life that they shall become inseparable.

That fiction is the highest which by the imagination makes real to our thought the common affairs of life, and yet so blends them with noble ideals that we are able to go back into life with a larger, a nobler, and a more perfect faith.

Dr. Lyman Abbot, quoted by Mary Abigail Roe (1899), in E. P. Roe: Reminiscences of His Life. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. pp. 232–233.

You can read another excellent biography here.

More than an author, “Near to Nature’s Heart”

The more I learned about him, the more I admired E.P. Roe (March 7, 1838 – July 19, 1888). He wasn’t just a respected clergyman, author, and historian, he was also admired for his accomplishments in the field of horticulture.

There is a plaque in Edward Payson Roe Memorial Park in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, commemorating his work. The park is part of the property he owned, where he came for a quiet place.

Atlas Obscura offers more photos and some biographical information, with the amusing sub-heading, “A plaque on a rock dedicated to a famous, forgotten author, and put in an impossible place.”

One fan of E.P. Roe made a YouTube video with some biographical commentary here. (A note about the video: it starts out blurry but that only lasts for the first 20 seconds or so, the rest is great.) Included in the video is the claim that at one time E.P. Roe’s books outsold those of his contemporary, Mark Twain!

Here is a great post at The Deliberate Agrarian regarding Roe’s interests in horticulture. I found that he had written several books from 1873 to 1888 on the subject: Play and Profit in my Garden, Success with Small Fruits, The Home Acre, Found Yet Lost. Some of these are available to buy or to read for free.

Here’s hoping you are inspired to “meet” this extraordinary man in some of these ways!

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