Guest post by Marian Moser Jones
How do you write about somebody so famous in American history that a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, a Maryland parkway, and elementary schools in at least nine states are named after her?
The task might seem easy. At least you do not have to introduce her to the reader or justify why she is important to discuss. Everybody has heard of Clara Barton.
In writing The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal I had to watch out for that “easy” button. I wanted to avoid sliding into a trite hagiographic narrative in which
Barton hops from one amazing feat to another: the pioneering public school teacher who then courageously ventures into Civil War battlefields to aid suffering soldiers, and who finally, at the pinnacle of her career in 1881, founds the American Red Cross and “naturally” becomes its president, as Barton’s Wikipedia biography states.
This narrative would work well if I still accepted the convictions held by school children and many nineteenth-century writers that history is made by a handful of Great Men and Women battling Villains on the world stage. But like most contemporary scholars of the past, I take the slightly more nuanced view that history involves clusters of contingencies whisked into a bubbling stew of ideologies and socio-economic forces.
At first, I tried to circumvent “Great Woman” history by ignoring Barton and digging in to dissect the American Red Cross’s financial and institutional viscera. But the book project revolved around the central question of why this voluntary organization has played such a central role in responding to disasters and other humanitarian crises—a role that governments usually play. To answer this question I had to research the American Red Cross’s origins. When I opened Box 1 of the organization’s records at the National Archives, Clara Barton’s handwriting stared up at me.
Barton wrote in careful cursive that is relatively legible, likely due to her pre-Civil War years as a professional copyist for the U.S. Patent office. (Before typewriters and mimeographs, patent applications were copied by hand). When working at the scene of a disaster, she penned many letters a day asking for supplies and funds. The letters, most of which are bound in partially water-damaged letter books, emphasize lurid details and the devastation around her, and rarely express confidence that the Red Cross had sufficient wherewithal to succeed in its work.
This was not the banal icon of children’s stories, who flew above the fray and never stumbled in her benevolent mission: the letters reveal a sometimes ingratiating, sometimes pleading writer who did not always get the response she wanted—or any response at all—and who only succeeded in accomplishing her tasks through dogged persistence.
I then read Barton’s diaries from this period, which are available on microfilm at the Library of Congress. The diaries reveal Barton’s darker side: She was a worrier who slid into pessimistic moods following bursts of frenetic activity, and who became doubtful that her work, such as the campaign she mounted between 1877 and 1881 to get the U.S. Government to sign the Geneva Conventions, would succeed. She also felt easily betrayed by other women, and slights or criticism could send her spiraling into depression. After reading this material, I concluded that Barton did not involve herself in philanthropic projects for selfless motives, but primarily because they gave her a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
This exposure to Clara Barton’s writings humanized her. But in doing so it made her more, not less heroic. Barton accomplished so much precisely because she persisted in the face of obstacles, the most severe obstacles being the ones that arose within her own psyche. She found a purpose to her life that made these struggles worthwhile to wage. This is a lesson that can likely benefit adults more than school children, and I hope that some of my book’s readers will find inspiration in Barton’s life.
Marian Moser Jones is an assistant professor of family science at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and a former DeWitt Stetten Fellow at
the National Institutes of Health, Office of History. Her book, The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal, was published this past November.