Surcease in Ceaseless Service

April 1992By Jean Bethke Elshtain

Jean Bethke Elshtain is Centennial Professor of Political Science and Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University. A Contributing Editor of the NOR, she is the author of, most recently, Women and War and Power Trips and Other Journeys.

To Myself a Stranger: A Biog­raphy of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop.  By Patricia Dunlavy Valenti. Louisiana State University Press. 192 pages. $29.95.



This is the golden age of women’s biography. There is a hunger and thirst in the land for what is often, unfortunate­ly, called “positive role mod­els.” I do wish the language of “role model” would be consigned to the categorical dust bin. It is thin sociologese. The language of roles (and those notions clustered with it — functional differentiation, sys­tems maintenance, social de­viance, dysfunctional, and so on) is a depoliticized language and, as well, a de-moralized one. There is a tendency, with role-model talk, to assume that all roles are created alike. Human identity gets homoge­nized. Being a mother is a “role” on par with being a clerk. But mothering is a complicated, rich, ambivalent, vexing, joyous, frustrating ac­tivity which is at one and the same time biological, social, symbolic, and affective. It car­ries profoundly resonant emo­tional and sexual imperatives. A tendency to downplay the differences between, say, mothering and holding a job not only drains our familial relations of much of their significance but also oversim­plifies what can or should be done to alter things for women, who are frequently urged to change roles in order to solve their problems.

A similar point holds for those who would take up reli­gious vocations. To see this as just another “choice” in the vast smorgasbord of life is to trivialize. Only if we revive the language of vocation can we even begin to understand the search for a life of service and meaning that drives some men and women in ways others find altogether mysterious, if not quite mad. All this is by way of introduction, then, to Valenti’s modest biography of Nathaniel and Sophia Haw­thorne’s youngest child, Rose. Born in 1851, Rose had a childhood and youth not unusual for the literati of New England, although it was marred by her father’s emo­tional distance (“my dearest Papa…. cannot you stay with me today its my berthday,” she wrote at age nine), jolted by his death (when Rose was 12), and overshadowed by his luminous reputation. Rose accompanied her mother, brother, and sister on the usual trans-Atlantic, continen­tal peregrinations, soaking up culture and battling the 19th-­century upper-class’s panoply of ailments, real or imagined.

Returning to the States, following her mother’s death, Rose married, gave birth, went temporarily “insane” (spending time at McLean Asylum in Massachusetts), recovered, wrote overwrought poems about motherhood and her child, watched the child, a boy, die at age four, left her husband, wrote fiction “for or about children; fiction dealing with the relationships between the sexes; poetry about male- female relations; and poetry on the subjects of death and grief.” Her father had nick­named her “Pessima,” not, it seems, without reason. She was back and forth with her husband. Eventually both of them converted to Roman Catholicism, creating the pre­dictable scandal in Unitarian, Presbyterian, and other en­lightened circles, and Rose pursued her rather desultory literary career. Nothing, it seems, brought her what her biographer calls “lasting satis­faction.”

One day she discovered the poor, specifically New York’s poor with cancer who “were warehoused on Black­well’s Island, where they were subjected to horrible condi­tions. Without proper medical attention or any form of conso­lation, patients suffered — external cancers sometimes causing flesh to rot and to emit a putrid odor — and died.” At last, Rose had found her voca­tion. Although Catholicism “was not for her something that she could, even if she so desired, explain or defend rationally…Catholicism gave Rose an ineffable peace, ‘with­out a word to reveal the fact.’”

She was vested with the full Dominican habit and became Mother Mary Alphonsa. The rest of her life was spent caring for cancer patients and serving as mother superior of an order called Servants of Relief, who seem to presage somewhat Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity in their approach to the poor, sick, and dying.

What Catholicism offered Rose was a universal ethic — a way to generalize her maternal feeling — and “historical mod­els of women who were sanc­tioned to function outside the domestic sphere.” The Church had long done that, as we know from the remarkable story the historian Peter Brown tells in his small masterwork, The Cult of the Saints. Writes Brown: “The Christian church not only redefined the bounds of the community by accepting a whole new class of recipi­ents, it also designated a new class of givers. For women had been the other blank on the map of the classical city. It was assumed that gift-giving was an act of politics, not an act of mercy, and politics was for men only. By contrast, the Christian church, from an early time, had encouraged women to take on a public role, in their own right, in relation to the poor: they gave alms in person, they visited the sick, they founded shrines and poorhouses in their own name and were expected to be fully visible as participants in the ceremonial of the shrines.” It was this tradition, rather than the less robust exemplars of New England Christianity, that Rose turned to, finding, at long last, surcease in ceaseless service.

Valenti’s book is straight­forward to the point of dull­ness, and Rose doesn’t come as fully alive as she might. This is a species of pious biography, lacking a bit of spice. But it is nonetheless poignant as a tale of one woman and her time.



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