There’s more — much more — as the sisters cycle through a shifting cast of associates and upheavals, most dramatically the Red scare after World War II. Katharine came under F.B.I. surveillance, while her companion was outed for supporting suspect causes and forced from her job at Smith College, like others branded “Red-ucators.” In an even darker turn, Grace Lumpkin, having renounced her communist ties, became an informer for the F.B.I. She wrote to Joe McCarthy, named names and claimed that Katharine’s partner had been a Communist Party member while her sister was “still a ‘fellow traveler.’”
These are just snapshots of a densely braided biography spanning eight decades, not counting the Lumpkins’ forebears and the rediscovery of the sisters’ work by late-20th-century feminists. The book also draws together the strands of Hall’s own career as a distinguished historian of Southern labor and an activist on behalf of women and civil rights.
Hall is a herculean researcher whose sources include security files she sued the Department of Justice to access. Her interviews with the elderly Lumpkins, and reflections on why and how she tracked the sisters over decades, lend an appealing journalistic and personal touch to what might otherwise be an unleavened diet of detailed scholarship.
She is forthright about what she lacks. In person, Katharine revealed little of herself, and “purged wide swaths of her adult life from her papers,” particularly passages on her partner, McCarthyism and estrangement from her family. Grace’s paper trail is thin, too. Her late-life diary, found by a nephew who ignored Katharine’s instruction to destroy it, represents “one of the very few intimate, revealing sources that either sister left behind.”
To Hall’s great credit, she sticks to the material she’s doggedly uncovered, while giving it context. She vividly documents the same-sex couplings, or “crushings,” common to women’s colleges in Katharine’s youth, and, later, the discreet cohabitation of female scholars at schools like Smith. But she doesn’t imagine her way into Katharine’s bedroom or state, definitively, that her long-term attachments were physical.
It’s hard, however, for Hall to balance this relative dearth of private detail on the Lumpkins with her exhaustive research on their public careers. The narrative brims with plot and theme, but the central characters don’t come fully alive, instead appearing almost Zelig-like in the many great dramas of the 20th century: suffrage, the Scottsboro Boys, the New Deal, the world wars, civil rights. The list goes on, and the sisters are there for all of it, even black power, which Katharine supported, writing to Stokely Carmichael while simultaneously sending monthly checks to the penniless Grace, who railed against integration and “other evils” and could no longer find a publisher apart from the press of the John Birch Society.