[Professor Irene Martyniuk will tell you a bit about herself in one second, at the start of her guest post. But she also sells herself a bit short there, or at least a bit too narrowly—she does indeed teach British literature at Fitchburg State University, but she also teaches and writes about and works on a wide variety of interesting and complex topics, from the literature and studies of disability to the Ukraine (an important part of her own heritage and identity and a country to which she has traveled extensively) to artistic and popular images and narratives (and realities) of Afghanistan. All topics for which she could have contributed a guest post very successfully. But I asked her if she could write one on this very worthy nominee for the Hall of Inspiration, and she obliged.]
Full disclosure right from the start. I teach British literature. I love British literature. One of my favorite jokes not only to Ben but to everyone in my department and our University who discusses American Studies is that we don’t need a minor in British Studies. We already have it. It’s called culture. Besides, I’m not really sure what American Studies is. However, I do have a nomination for a forgotten hero and, surprise, she’s American.
This past summer, my niece was given a high school assignment of choosing a person “who made a difference.” Over the summer, they were supposed to read a book appropriate to their reading level about his/her chosen person and be ready to make a presentation. On her own, my 14 year old niece chose Clara Barton. Since I was already over-involved in her other summer reading assignments (the hover English professor Aunt), I figured I was in on this too. I learned a lot, probably more than my niece, and certainly more than her high school expected.
First off, there are no adult books in print on Barton. Children’s books abound, but they simplify what I discovered is a complex and important life. So I had to buy some books on the used market (and realize that 14 year olds like fresh and new, but she was still game).
The second huge discovery, and the most common mistake that most people make when considering Clara Barton, was finding out that she was not a nurse. Barton was a schoolteacher and then worked on the front lines during the Civil War, but she was not a trained nurse, nor did she want to be. What she understood, and what was truly significant, was that front line care was mostly about triage—making sure clean water and clean bandages were available immediately. She also worked tirelessly to move the wounded to safe places. She took down names and helped soldiers write letters home so that their loved ones would know where they were and what had happened to them. She served hot meals, even if only of soup, realizing that nourishment for a wounded soldier was vital. These are the kinds of things that we now take for granted—when you enter a hospital or emergency room, you get a bracelet with all your info, and when you finally get treated, you are in a separated, warm room with a blanket over your and clean sheets beneath you. Thank Clara Barton.
Barton’s realization that identifying soldiers and helping loved ones connect with them became even more important after the War. As the horrors of Andersonville became known, Barton worked with those in government to identify the unmarked graves. This eventually became a bit scandalous, but she realized that people needed answers and ultimately she received thousands of letters of people asking her to help them find their loved ones or at least give them any news she might know.
All of this alone would justify her fame, at least in my book, but her greatest work was yet to come. Barton heard about a group of people who were trying to get the United States to sign on to a treaty that had been written in Geneva. The treaty had created a group called the International Red Cross. In the treaty, signatory countries agreed to allow Red Cross members to treat wounded soldier from both sides. The Red Cross would be allowed to move around combat zones in safety as long as they were clearly marked. It also set out rules for how prisoners of war would be treated. These statutes, which have developed and changed over the years, are now commonly referred to as the Geneva Conventions.
Barton worked tirelessly to get the United States to sign on to this treaty. It was not an easy job. After the Civil War, America was not concerned with the wars of Europe and had no desire to get involved with them (yes, I’m simplifying). Barton fought this—through a number of presidencies, no less. But she eventually convinced the American government to sign on, and thus became the founder of the American Red Cross.
This became her life and boy, did she live it. In an odd coincidence, while my older niece was at camp this summer, my sister and younger niece took a mini-break to Johnstown, PA—Flood City. And there, at the site of the burst dam, was an array of books on Barton, including a coloring book (of course, I bought it). Although the American Red Cross had been called into action a few times earlier, this was the first major disaster in which they became involved. They were one of the first groups to go to Johnstown. Barton simply packed up and went. They were organized and they stayed, too. They gave sensible help, also. Barton registered families and survivors and distributed food and clothing. As Johnstown began to slowly rebuild, they distributed furniture.
Barton was a fascinating woman. She was apparently not particularly tall, prone to depression and hypochondria, and perceived by many to be bossy. And she was a hoarder, which helps us understand her now since she saved so much. Frankly, I think she was an educated, savvy woman who had no time for those who would judge her on her height or her gender. Sadly, not too much has changed on that front—how many educated, savvy woman are immediately seen as threats? In the end, Barton was too much of a threat, and she was forced out of her own organization. Whenever there was a disaster, Barton was first in with the American Red Cross. She didn’t fill out travel requisitions or other forms—she used her own money and the organizations in a mix and did the bookkeeping later. When the Board wanted her out, this is where they got her. Later, an audit showed no wrongdoing, but her pride had been (understandably) damaged and she resigned. Of course, Barton was right again. The Red Cross is still first in. They don’t wait for the paper work or the approval forms.
When I was growing up, one family favorite show to watch was “Hogan’s Heroes.” I’m sure that’s another American Studies topic, not only for the depiction of American POWs, but also for the personal story of its star, Bob Crane. However, more pertinent to this story is that in every episode, Hogan or one of his cabin mates would yell out about how Klink was violating their rights under the “Geneva Conventions.” The fact that Hogan could say that is thanks to Clara Barton. And now, when we are discussing the rights of enemy combatants, we should remember the Geneva Conventions, and the work of Clara Barton.
I could go on and on. I ended up reading the two volume biography of Barton written by her nephew, and I visited her childhood home and her gravesite (which I found terribly moving, but I’m rather a crybaby). But I’ll spare you all the details. In the end, my niece got 25 out of 25 on her report and showed me how two girls in the class presented on Princess Diana and one on Bono. All that for 25 points. At least I learned something.
PS [From Ben]: Three links to start with:
1) Nice collection of online writings by Barton: http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/barton.html
2) The Clara Barton National Historic Site, if you need to, y’know, do some research for a school project: http://www.nps.gov/clba/index.htm
3) OPEN: Keep the nominees (and guest post ideas!) for inspiring Americans coming!
Dear Irene, thank you for writing about this awesome woman. My brother dated a descendent of Barton for a while in high school and after talking to the young woman I was really surprised to find the lack of information on her ancestor. Aside from Jackie Cochran (who is finally getting her due) Barton may be the most eligible for the category of not just unsung but ignored!ReplyDelete