Biography brings a secular saint down to earth

Clara Barton, Professional Angel, by Elizabeth Brown Pryor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 444 pp. $24.95. Elizabeth Brown Pryor's ironic title reflects the evolution of women's biography even within the last 30 years. The most recent Barton biography, Isabel Ross's ``Angel of the Battlefield,'' published in 1956, gave us a Clara Barton whose predominant trait was unadulterated goodness. She was the quintessential American heroine, a woman who elevated the feminine art of nurturing into a national institution, the American Red Cross. Ross's biography met the conventions of the time: a time when such women as Miss Barton were portrayed as secular saints.

Now we allow ourselves a new perspective, and this biography of Barton is the first to ask sophisticated questions of its redoubtable subject. Without diminishing Barton's contributions, Pryor gives us a woman who, if truth be told, was no angel. Instead, Barton emerges as steely, egotistical, hard-driving, vain, and often contentious. If the results of her efforts were seen as selfless and beneficent, her own motivations were less consistent. In questioning Barton's life, Pryor helps us to understand the roots and nature of ``saintliness'' itself and to separate the aura of legend from mundane reality.

Barton, the youngest child in a large family, grew up in the shadows of her much older siblings. She was a timid and self-effacing girl, a small, slight child who saw herself as ``too much trouble.'' To atone for her existence, she sought to serve. If there was nursing to be done within the family, Barton did it. As she grew, she found opportunities to minister outside the home as well.

Despite her occupations, however, she was often unhappy, and she suffered from the neurasthenic sieges that afflicted many 19th-century women whose intellectual aspirations and need for power were thwarted by family and society. Nervous collapse, depression, and even suicidal thoughts recurred often.

She left home to become a teacher, but that profession did not hold her for long. With a boldness that was rare for the time (this was 1854, after all), she traveled to Washington and found a job as a clerk in the Patent Office. Financially self-sufficient, she became increasingly assertive and aggressive in shaping her life. She found her place within the small Washington community. She was there when civil war broke out.

Her contact with the soldiers began when friends and neighbors in her hometown of Oxford, Mass., begged her to serve as a conduit for packages for their husbands, brothers, and sons. The devastating conditions faced by the troops - and here Pryor gives us shattering details - moved Barton to grander gestures. Soon she was supplying hospital goods and ministering. It did not matter to her whether she was helping Union men or Confederates. It mattered only that she helped.

The rest, as they say, is history. Her success during the Civil War was repeated in France during the uprisings of 1871 and '72.-Masterfully organizing workers, miraculously marshaling funds (miraculous, of course, is not how some of her detractors described her fiscal dealings), she again managed to minister to the needy and to place herself in a position of power. ``This,'' says Pryor, ``was Clara Barton as she liked best to picture herself: the Lady Bountiful, sowing dignity and hope to the afflicted, reaping loyalty and love in return.''

Barton wanted love, to be sure, but she wanted power more. Her tireless efforts to gain publicity for the Red Cross exasperated some of her co-workers. Her rivalry with Florence Nightingale seemed decidedly inappropriate, coming from a woman of Barton's stature. But even her enemies admitted that she was a major force in social reform.

Pryor's exhaustive research serves her subject well. Not only does she re-create Barton's life from letters and diaries, but she does an admirable job in giving us the context of her time: the state of the philanthropic community, the state of mind of the military men with whom Barton had to negotiate, the conditions under which women of talent lived and worked. There is no doubt that Barton deserves a biography. It will be long before this one is excelled.

Linda Simon teaches writing at Harvard University.

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