Clara Louise Burnham was born in Newton, Massachusetts, on May 26, 1854. She was one of six children of music educator and composer Dr. George F. Root, (Sheffield Berkshire County, Massachusetts) and his wife, Mary Woodman (Boston, Massachusetts). Early in Clara’s childhood Dr. Root moved his family from Newton to Chicago, Illinois. Clara, a Christian Scientist, lived her life between Chicago and the family’s summer home in Bailey’s Island, Maine.
The Root family lived in Chicago at the time the Civil War broke out and Dr. Root became famous for penning more than 30 American Civil War songs including “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys Are Marching” and “The Battle Cry of Freedom.” One of his most popular war songs, “We’ll Rally Round the Flag, Boys,” was written after hearing about President Abraham Lincoln’s second call to arms. Clara’s brother, Frederick W. Root was also a musician who gained notoriety for composing hymn texts and melodies for the Christian Science Hymnal.
Clara was married to Walter Burnham, who died in 1900. She spent her time during Chicago’s winters writing at her apartment at the Cooper-Carlton Hotel. With the seasonal change, she would make the yearly journey to her Bailey Island bungalow with its broad view of the sea to continue to write her fiction. While on the island, Clara was active in the community and supportive of the activities of the local library. It was while at the home in Casco Bay that Clara died in her sleep on June 20, 1927. She is buried at Harmony Valle Cemetery in North Reading, Massachusetts.
As an American author Clara wrote 26 novels between the years 1881 and 1925. Three of these were Christian Science themed fiction: The Right Princess (1902), Jewel (1903), and The Leaven of Love (1908) and are often referred to as her “Christian Science trilogy.” Clara’s short stories and novels were highly successful, well received, and several of her books were adapted for stage and screen. It was during this period of her career that she was a member of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association. IWPA archives noted she was the first member of the Association who had sold the movie rights of her work to Hollywood. Her novel, Jewel; A Chapter in Her Life became a Universal Pictures production directed by Lois Weber (America’s first native-born woman director) released in 1923. Weber had also produced an earlier version of Jewel in 1915. Weber, considered a pioneer in silent era of film, was among the first female American filmmakers involved in all aspects of movie production to express her personal ideas and philosophies. At the time of her death, Clara had recently returned from Hollywood where she had sold the rights to her final novel, The Lavarons.
The popularity of Clara’s fiction went beyond the boundaries of the Christian Science audience. Dr. Latimer, The Open Shutters, May Carline and The Thorn and the Rose are among the titles of her work available through a search for her fiction on the Internet. The staying power of Clara’s work is repeatedly celebrated by biographers. A 1919 article in the Boston Herald, remarks of Clara’s talent as a “literary woman, who had found the key to happiness writing calmly, unruffled and unhurried but with a sure touch.” It is estimated that during her career she sold more than half a million copies (publisher’s guess) of her novels. Clara Louise Burnham was a remarkably gifted novelist.
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