Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography— A Review

Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography

The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman — A Review

by Harold Ivan Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

I enjoy pondering on an author’s dedication. Some can open a window on any number of emotions experienced by the author at the conclusion of a completed text. Others can be coded messages to those closest to the writer, they can also be witty, they raise questions for the reader about the context of names and places, and they can often set the tone for the forthcoming read. The dedication written by Harold Ivan Smith author of Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography, The Faith of the 20th Century’s most Influential Woman, [Eleanor Roosevelt]  sets the tone of this biography for me, at a number of levels. He thanked ‘the Archivist ‘par excellence’ for his ‘sage advice’ to set himself the task of exploring ‘the spirituality of Eleanor’ Roosevelt. Archivists are aware of potential areas of their collections that are under researched. That ‘moment of indecision’, which many writers experience, myself included, meant he was advised to, “Write the Book!” and another wise counsel with a head full of stories of Eleanor Roosevelt, helped him ‘clear hurdles throughout the entire [writing] process’.

Harold Smith sets the perimeter of his focus from the outset. ‘Eleanor’s faith was personal but never private’, he writes. She never hesitated to share in her conversations, writings, speeches and activities, her ‘reading of scripture, the examples of Jesus, her own prayers and the divine call to work for a more just and peaceful world.’ By opening with ‘What Religion Means to me’, an article Eleanor wrote in 1932, in the magazine Forum, Smith conveys Eleanor’s faith as central to her role as First Lady during her years in the White House and those that followed until her death in 1962. Spirituality, to Eleanor, was ‘that feeling of having something outside of one’s self and greater than one’s self to depend on.’ An Episcopalian, her evolving ecumenical spirit meant for her that ‘all people are one in Christ’. This resulted in a broad and liberal faith in which social justice was an imperative, especially for those most vulnerable. She held a deep love for the Bible and learned off by heart the New Testament, in French. This held her in good steed when challenged and criticised by the conservative Christian community. Framed on her bedroom wall were the words ‘Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace’; words she also carried on her person. These words became her prayer for action evidenced in all her activities.

Growing up in such a diverse and gathered population as found in the United States, it is difficult to escape the biases and prejudices that can evolve and become rooted in a culture. Eleanor was confronted by many of these in her comfortable and elite environment. Anti-Semitism that surrounded her during her growing up, both within her family and American society at large caused her some angst as she reached adulthood; Jews were viewed as too powerful, too financially and politically influential and were ‘a menace to America’. Despite her latent bias Eleanor, guided by her belief in the God-given worth of peoples regardless of creed or race, stepped out to do all she could for the persecuted Jews of WWII. This is one of the most poignant yet chilling chapters in the biography and is a reminder of how continuing prejudices that emerge as a result of the social affects of modern warfare become deeply rooted in society. Her tireless efforts for rehabilitation of the Jews led to an appointment to the United Nation Delegation on Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Concerns Committee where, as Convener, the same determination saw the Declaration on Human Rights be put in place and her commitment to the creation of a Jewish homeland – Israel. Her greatest regret at the end of her life, one she could not be dissuaded from, was that she should have done far more.

Although Eleanor was heavily criticised and judged for her Jewish stance, so she was on her advocacy for Civil Rights and the ending of segregation. Her unyielding opposition and outspokenness to segregation made her extremely unpopular, particularly in the South. She was much maligned by harsh and often brutal criticism. It distressed her that the Bible could be used in two such opposing points of view, but she did not waiver from her firmly held belief that there was one fundamental law –  to love one another and to care for the ‘least of these’.

Eleanor regularly reminded her readers in the post-World War II era of unrest, that America, as a Christian country did not mean exclusion. ‘Differences in religious belief are inherent in the spirit of true democracy’, she wrote. ‘One’s Christianity and one’s democracy should lead to greater tolerance.’ Her support of the ecumenical activities brought to Americans attention the significance of accepting a diversity of religious practices. ‘I think I believe that the Lord looks upon all His children with compassion and allows them to approach Him in many ways’.

Eleanor, a Spiritual Biography is an insightful exploration of the faith journey of an extraordinary woman who lived through a dysfunctional childhood, a challenging marriage, a political role she did not desire, economic and political upheavals, and shifting societal turbulence. Often the religious motivation that supports a person’s activism is glossed over or taken for granted. Harold Smith however, has gone to considerable effort to draw together Eleanor Roosevelt’s beliefs and Biblical understandings in relation to her activism and American culture during her life time as she perceived it. Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography is a well researched and enlightening read.

 

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Suffragists and Virago Books and Rebecca West

It’s easy to forget what one has on ones library shelves, I realise.  I was reminded of this as I began to sort my bookshelves. What fun I’ve had thumbing my way through forgotten titles. I was particularly delighted to discover a number related to the UK suffrage movement. I noted inside A Guid Cause-The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, by Leah Leneman, that this book was purchased at the Women’s Berkshire Conference, held at Vassar College in 1993.

My most vivid memories from that Conference was being part of a group of women with like-minded interests, being presented with new ideas through some wonderful presentations, meeting historians that I had high regard for, and most of all sharing all this with my son and daughter-in-law. I do recall morning and afternoon tea baskets piled with large and tempting looking muffins only to be reminded that some baking in the US had a tendency to be drier than New Zealand commercial baking. Another memory that has remained with me is the hum of motorway traffic throughout the night and just how far sound can travel. I did get rather carried away with the bookstalls at the Conference and arrived home with a small suitcase filled with some great purchases. There were no excess weight charges, yet it was a heavy bag; maybe weight wasn’t such a problem then?

I stray a little, back to the Suffrage collection in my library. The majority of these books are Virago Press publications, which multiplied somewhat when I studied women’s history at University. The University Bookshop in Great King Street, Dunedin, had periodic sales where I gathered a good many of them. The Press, formed in 1977 as a feminist publishing company, not only brought to our attention women fiction authors that had long been forgotten, women authors popular in their time but out-of-print, but also the writings of feminists thinkers such as Shelia Rowbotham, Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter among others. A series, which covers early women travellers, is totally fascinating and the more recent modern novels of Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters and others have since been included.

Biographies, some covering Victorian women as well as those well-known and not so well known Suffragettes dominate this collection of mine. Names such as May Sheepshanks, Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst of course, Lady Constance Lytton, Alice Weldon, Hannah Mitchell, Rebecca West and Margaret Macpherson; most housed on a high shelf that I had rarely stretched up to retrieve. Sadly from the perspective of my current research, most of these biographies focus on women outside Scotland, reflecting very much the focus of previous decades. Militarism versus Feminism; Writings on Women and War, edited by Margaret Kamester and Jo Vellacott is proving significant however, highlighting  a non-militant and pacifist approach, which Molly Whitelaw and her parents supported.

It is Rebecca West’s (now Dame Rebecca) journalistic pieces and essays in The Young Rebecca; Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-1917, ed. by Jane Marcus, I am marvelling at. What an amazing young journalist who fearlessly expressed her opinions, generally in the radical and feminist press, The Freewoman and The Clarion, and later the Fleet Street, Daily News. [Coincidently, the newspaper where Alastair Shannon, Molly’s brother, began his career in journalism in 1918.] That Rebecca West could offer such frank opinions highlights the shift that had occurred in newspaper journalism towards mass readership during the first decades of the 20th century. News moved from direct reporting to one of journalistic interpretation, where it was heavily edited, rewritten and contextualised. This new approach helped to influence public opinion for or against any single issue.[1] Women’s pages also became a popular feature from the turn of the century. In fact the New Zealand Presbyterian Outlook, under the editorship of the Rev. Rutherford Waddell, introduced a column Women’s Outlook from 1893.

One hundred years on, West’s writing has a resonance that continues to parallel women’s issues even today. So much so, I feel as if we’ve not come as far as we would like to believe. She confronted issues on equal pay; she challenges writers’ narrow and conservative opinions on the issues of, marriage, divorce, education and capitalism. These journalist pieces are all very quotable. In an article on ‘Wages and Women: Black-legging and Timidity’ she takes to task a writer who suggests that the required wireless operators on American coastal shipping could be ‘,a self-reliant woman with cool nerves and efficient brain’.

This alluring argument she declares is ‘powder in the jam, the snake in the grass, the wolf in feminist’s clothing’. ‘Why,’ she asks, ‘this sudden lyric outburst of feminist enthusiasm? Probably she is less expensive… The underpayment of women is one of those “nine-pence for four-pence“ tricks that capitalists have ever loved to play … They say to women “We deduct four-pence from your wages so that we can pay men larger wages, and then they can support you as their wives” … A woman, according to a capitalist, is an air-bubble blown between earth and sky, with no human ties of any sort.’

Her attack on the Labour Party of the day, when they broke their pledge to oppose the Government’s refusal to grant votes for women in 1912, has an altogether too familiar ring to the modern ear as political parties ‘flip-flop’ and backtrack. She considered the decision of the Labour Party a national disaster. She writes, ‘[t]he point lies not in the merits of Woman Suffrage at all, but in the fact that the Labour Party has refused to carry out a principle for which socialism has always stood; that it has made a promise and broken it; that it did it out of cowardice; and that it has sold itself to the Liberal Party body and soul.’

On the surprising recommendation of the Majority Report on changes to the divorce laws at the end of 1912 she expresses some pleasure. But she does consider it’s not the responsibility of the State to decide whether a marriage is unhappy or has become dangerous to the society and therefore should be dissolved. ‘Submission to unhappiness,’ she states, ‘is the unpardonable sin against the spirit just as submission to poverty is the unpardonable sin against the body.’

Although West was not supportive of the militant action of the Suffragettes she was somewhat bemused with the reaction to the burning down of the tea-house in Kew Gardens. She notes ‘it was only a little one’; the tea-house that is. What surprised her most however, was the public’s reaction. ‘I have no idea why the public should suddenly show a maudlin affection, such as they usually reserve for the royal family, for the late tea-house, but I can understand why all those who love the good, the true and the beautiful must unite in deploring the bomb outrage upon the house at Walton Heath’. A house owned by Sir George Riddell owner of the conservative imperialist The News of the World, a journalistic ‘fertiliser’ … that nourishes the imagination of a million and a quarter Englishmen every Sunday morning.’ Lloyd George, an ardent anti-suffragist was about to move into this now shattered home so in effect the suffragists ‘killed two birds with one stone’ to put it rather crudely. After dipping further into other militant acts and the resultant punishments, West begins her conclusion by considering the causes behind such militant acts and their programmes of hunger strikes and punishment of forced feeding. ‘Perhaps’, she wonders, ‘I over-rated the orchids. Perhaps, so long as the country tolerates a state of things which drives women of fire and honour to seek such torturing ways of death, it is right to destroy all the lies of beauty that pretend that the world is a fine and lovely place. Perhaps it is right to punish the gross for their destruction of the spiritual beauty of revolt by destroying the tangible beauty, which is all they [the Government and authorities] can understand’.

‘… We are paying the price for our toleration of a Government that upholds the cause of anti-suffragists and the will of the parasite women’.

Her articles ‘were serious and unsettling no less for radicals than the rest of the population’. Her comments at times especially regarding men could be ‘acid and cutting’. ‘English women are handicapped by the fact that men have passed laws encouraging female morons’. She was an outstanding critic whether through her book reviews, essays or her political commentary, especially if socialists were falling short of their values. Her journalist writing reflected her breadth of reading and her ability to get to the core of the issue being debated.

Rebecca West would continue to write fiction, biography, critical essays and reviews, even travel books until her death in 1983 at the age of 91. I found her reflection on the Nuremberg trials A Train of Powder, which I read twice, to be astonishing as she explored the ‘nature of crime and punishment, innocence and guilt, and retribution and forgiveness’; a truly evocative piece of journalism.

[1] Donald Matheson, Media Discourses, Open University Press, England 2005.

Alastair Shannon, POW Camp Afion Karahissar, and ‘Morning Knowledge’

Troops being led away by the Turkish Captors at Kut-al-Amara May 1916. from https://norfolkinworldwar1.org/tag/mesopotamia/

The place names of Mosul, Basra, Fallujah, Baghdad, so familiar to us today through the continuing violence of war in Iraq, came to the attention of many British in much earlier wars. The failure of the Mesopotamian (Iraq) Campaign and the five-month siege of Kut-al-Amara and its devastating results in April 1916 however, stunned the British public.

In an attempt to offer positive news to the British public after significant failures in the war effort, the Gallipoli campaign being one, the 6th Indian Battalion under the leadership of General Charles Townshend set out to take Baghdad from the Ottomans. The bloody battle of Ctesiphon laid to rest any of the initial progress made by Townshend. His 10,000 British and Indian troops, 3,000 of them sick and injured, and 3,500 non-combatants were forced to retreat to the fortress garrison of Kut-al-Amara.

The fortress sat in a loop on the Tigris River enabling the Turks to encircle it keeping up continual pressure on the sieged site. Various British relief contingents failed to break through the Turkish ranks causing a further 22,300 deaths, injuries and imprisonments. Besides continuous sniper fire and shelling of those trapped within Kut, ‘the lack of food, medical help, extreme cold temperatures and torrential rain and flyblown living conditions’, resulted in approximately 1,750 further deaths. After 147 days under siege Townshend surrendered to the Turks on 29 April 1916.

Within the group was Molly Whitelaw’s brother, John Alastair Shannon of the Highland Light Regiment. Having been captured in the December 1915, he had been reported missing. The Shannon’s much wished-for news that Alastair, their son and brother, was alive in a POW Camp in Anatolia was confirmed in July 1916.

British officers, on an excursion with their dogs from the prison camp at Afion Karahissar. They are wearing civilian clothing and the mountain that marks the city stands in the background. These POW’s lived in the lower camp at Afion Karahissar. from ‘Pursuit of an Unparalleled Opportunity’.

References in Molly Whitelaw’s papers indicate Alastair was part of the ‘Death March’ that crossed 1900 kms of Syrian Desert where thousands died of ‘dysentery, beri-beri, scurvy, malaria, enteritis’ and exhaustion. Of the 2,500 white British prisoners who set out on the march, only 856 survived. Shannon spent the rest of the war in Anatolia, quite possibly at Afion Karahissar, with at least 100 British Officers. He was repatriated in December 1918.

In my attempts to discover further information about this period of Alastair Shannon’s life the Internet threw up a review of a book he published in 1920: Morning Knowledge: the Story of the New Inquisition. A review noted it, ‘a queer but striking book …it makes silence the feature of the religious history. It is fantastic, very fresh and partly amusing; a little Bergsonian and pragmatist; but for a young man most remarkable.’

My curiosity was aroused. What was Bergsonian thought I wondered, what did Alastair have to say in his treatise and did he in any way influence my subject, Molly Whitelaw? I set out to track down this publication. This wonderful site, ‘Forgotten Books’, came to the rescue and over several months I have attempted to come to grips with Shannon’s arguments, some I identify with but others I find esoteric and somewhat confusing- but then I am no philosopher. The dedication caught my attention. To those held captive by intellect whose hearts have been set at liberty by the thunderbolt of a wounded God. The essence of his thinking is reflected in this dedication.

In the desert space under the ‘great rock of Afion Kara Hissar’, in what appears to be a relatively moderate Anatolian Officers’ Prison Camp, Shannon (he was a 2nd Lieutenant) set about to write a philosophical treatise on life, death, time, space and silence in relation to war, the value of human life and questions of faith. It took one year of his two-and-a half-year imprisonment to complete.

Shannon was studying philosophy when World War I broke out. Professor Henri Bergson, the French Thinker, who became an influential popular force in the first half of the 20th century, described by some as having a cult following, where ‘women flocked to his meetings’, made a considerable impression on Shannon.

Professor Henri Bergson, 1927. Wikimedia

Shannon’s ‘wilderness’ experience opened the opportunity for him to question and test this new philosophy outside the academic environment. For this young man in his early twenties, whose war experiences forced him to find new meaning, Bergson opened possibilities for the re-visioning of self, i.e. a new self-consciousness, leading to a new theory of life. In particular, Shannon desired to test this new thinking alongside his knowledge of the Christian faith in which he was brought up, against these new experiences of war to reconceptualise the meaning of life and to enable a freedom of belief beyond the dogmas that had surrounded him. Bergson’s writings appear to sit comfortably with an evangelical outlook and they held considerable appeal to the American liberal religious wing. His writings provided a framework for theologians, such as Alfred North Whitehead, someone who fascinated me in my younger days. Shannon’s book could well slot into the field of Process Theology.

It’s an intriguing text. Shannon presents his ‘inquisition’ as a dialogue between himself (Peter) and a friend he calls Jack. He introduces into the dialogue a scientist to consider ‘life the subject matter versus sciences dealing with Matter; intuition the method as opposed to intelligence used by science.’ The Padre’s theory of man did not suffice these ‘inquisitors’, as the definition of God was too bound in dogma. A philosopher confronts them as a sceptic, which leads to a discussion on what is and how to reach ‘pure truth’. At this stage of the debate, I identified with Atherton, the philosopher, when he stated, ‘I have often dived deep, but I haven’t ever got such a rick in the back as you are giving me, Peter!” And so for the next 100 or so pages they continued their inquisition as if ‘on the road to Emmaus’; exploring the question of how God or ‘life’ could be spoken of in the midst of the tragedy the world was experiencing. Shannon finally resolved, to his satisfaction, a new meaning of life/God and how change can be approached through the silence of the ‘wounded God’ – ‘a silence born of suffering’… ‘This was the dreaded Silence, the Silence where lies all the suffering of the universe, all the travail of Creation longing for birth, God’s infinite pain’. He concluded, ‘Life is action, is expression. Our inquiry into the Meaning of Life is resolving itself into an Expression of the Art of Living’. But he had only reached the ‘Morning of Knowledge’ further exploration of was necessary for full knowledge of life.

It is a powerful point of ‘arrival’, however. Written as a ‘lament’, with mystical overtones, Shannon (Peter) comes to terms with death, death of friends, death of those he led in battle and the death of his inner person. He reached his lowest point of being, but the desert experience brought him unexpected life.

‘A Song in the Night’. (A few verses below extracted from his lament)

“Comrades that I loved fell at my side, silently
embracing the Unknown; without a sigh, without a
moan, they dropped like stones at my feet.
I passed on, my Beloved, trampling their poor bodies into the
reeking clay, crushing with my boots the faces I had
known so well.’

” The ranks clash together.
The bellows of rage blacken the face of the sun.
The bayonets sink deep, deep.
O God of Heaven, every thrust made is a thrust
into one’s own heart.
There is something broken there.
It will never be healed —
Your ear close. Beloved!
Closer! Let it be whispered to you only:
I have slain my friends.’

” O Love, Love, what misery is this Thou showest
me? Blind my eyes that I see not. Take this memory
from me. I am strong enough to die, but I am not
strong enough to see others die. This pain Thou
imposest upon me is more fearful than any wound.
Hide me, crush me, O Thou Beloved of my soul.
Guide these flying bullets into my heart. They cannot
make it sorer than it is, they will not sear it deeper. . . .’

” Thou did’st not hear my prayer. Thou gavest
no answer to my sorrowful desire.
Instead Thou did’st lead me into the deserts of the East
and give me responsibility over men. . . . ‘
….
” Then of a sudden, O Darling of my heart, my eyes
were opened, and I knew. I saw Thee battling for me
in the moonlight. Thou earnest to me in the form of
a Turkish artillery officer, limping on one foot, sup-
ported by two soldiers.’

” The bayonets were lowered. I was saved; saved
from myself.
My self-love sprang up in a roaring burst of flame.
The moon was dimmed by it.
In a moment of time I had learned the whole lesson of life,
that Thy most wondrous Love, Dear-heart, had striven
through all to set me free from body and spirit, to set
me free!’
….
” The dawn breaks, my Own, my Sweet. The birds
are beginning to chirp under the eaves. The sky is
silver; but the stratus clouds low-lying in the East are
tinged with gold. A new day wakes, the best day that
was ever given to Thee and me. I have told Thee of
my so great love, of my Death and of my Agony and
of my Resurrection.’

 

References: There are numerous accounts, diary entries histories and images of the Siege of Kut and the Iraq Campaign and the eventual capture of Baghdad on the internet for those interested.

‘The Barron Crescent’  in Shot in the Dark,  tells the story of the Siege of Kut

Eastern Nights – and Flights: A Record of Oriental Adventure, by Alan Bott, covers the story of Afion Karahissar POW Camp

Information on Bergson I also retrieved off various sites on the Internet. Encyclopedia.com has a succinct overview of Bergson’s thinking.