Saturday, November 14, 2009

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Flannery O'Connor ... and Back Again

I am continually surprised at the way people and events are connected both in the big wide world and in my personal experience. My own Rose has a passion for Nathaniel Hawthorne's writing which, combined with her and Hannah's love of The Scarlet Letter, made me pick up and read that book which high school English had taught me to despise.

I found a complex and interesting book which made me admire Hawthorne's character as much as his writing. Additionally, I found new depths when Heather Ordover at the CraftLit podcast recently featured the book read aloud by her listeners as well as including her enlightening commentary. Much was made there of Hawthorne's understanding of women as people. I wrote to Heather about his daughter, Rose Hawthorne, and how his influence must have contributed greatly to her character. Rose converted to Catholicism and in 1900 founded an order to care for inoperable cancer patients.
The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne is an American religious community, founded on December 8, 1900 by two extraordinary women. Rose Hawthorne, daughter of American novelist Nathanial Hawthorne, began the work at age 45. She moved into a tenement in the poorest area of New York City, and began nursing incurable cancer patients. Rose, later to become Mother Alphonsa, was a convert to Catholicism. This work was the practical fulfillment of her conversion.
About halfway through the excellent The Abbess of Andalusia: Flannery O'Connor's Spiritual Journey, I have discovered with pleasure that Flannery O'Connor put her finger on a specific moment of influence. O'Connor had agreed to edit and write the introduction for a book about a terribly deformed little girl (Mary Ann) who nonetheless lived a life of joy, written by an Atlanta chapter of the order who approached her. There is much food for thought in "The Abbess" about the role of "innocent suffering" in the life of the Christian and the life of the Church, prompted by O'Connor's own thoughts and writings while working on the book. In considering the Hawthorne connection, which I find interesting for all the threads I see converging as well as for the reminder that we often do not realize the good we are doing, I include this excerpt:
It is true that Mary Ann suffered, but Flannery did not believe she suffered in vain. Rather her suffering was a thread woven within the larger fabric of believers called the Communion of Saints. In the introduction, Flannery described the Communion of Saints as "the action by which charity grows invisibly among us, entwining the living and the dead."

On May 14, 1961, she explained to a friend that "the living and the dead" referred to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was her inspiration for the introduction. Long before Mary Ann was born, Hawthorne had written about visiting the children's ward in a Liverpool workhouse. There, according to his description, he met a "wretched, pale, half-torpid child of indeterminate sex, about six years old." Hawthorne admitted that he found the child repulsive, but for some mysterious reason, the child took a liking to him. The child insisted that Hawthorne pick him up. Despite his aversion, Hawthorne did what the child wanted: I should never have forgiven myself if I had repelled its advances."

According to Flannery, Mother Alphonsa believed that these were the greatest words her father ever wrote. And many years after Mother Alphonsa had died, Flannery perceived a mystical connection existing between Hawthorne's picking up the child, his daughter working among the dying and the sisters caring for a little girl with a disfigured face.
There is a direct line between the incident in the Liverpool workhouse, the work of Hawthorne's daughter, and Mary Ann -- who stands not only for herself but for all the other examples of human imperfection and grotesquerie which the Sisters of Rose Hawthorne's order spend their lives caring for. Their work is the tree sprung from Hawthorne's small act of Christlikeness and Mary Ann its flower.
Flannery O'Connor dedicated the book to the memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

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