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Book Review, Joan Barthel, American Saint: The Life of Elizabeth Seton

June 16, 2014

Having been to Elizabeth Ann Seton’s shrine at Emmitsburg, Maryland, several times, I was very happy to review Joan Barthel’s recent biography (published March 4, 2014) of Seton, the first canonized American saint. Barthel handles Seton’s writings well, and gives a nice overview of Seton’s life and her founding of the (American) Sisters of Charity.

I did have several issues with the book, however, the first of which was its lack of depth. While Barthel does cover Seton’s major life events, she seems hesitant to tackle the more problematic facets of her life—her relationships with men, her often dramatic personality and mood changes, and her (in my opinion, as a fellow convert) very quick conversion to Catholicism. Barthel’s narrative also tends to weave back and forth through time at several points, where I would have preferred a more straightforward approach. Barthel also tends to “pad out” sections of the story that she doesn’t have as much Seton-specific information for with segues into, for example, the history of revolutionary New York City or biographical information on John Carroll. Admittedly, this may be my own personal bias as a historian, since I recognized much of Barthel’s source material, but I feel some of the secondary material could have been tied in more seamlessly.

My final quibble of the book is Barthel’s attempt to shoehorn Seton’s story into a presentist narrative regarding the Vatican’s present-day treatment of American nuns, treating Seton’s experiences as merely the first in a long line of clerical abuses toward American female religious orders. While as a feminist and a Catholic, I am highly sympathetic to this issue in the Church, as a historian, I found something wanting in her characterization of Seton as a proto-feminist (reading Wollstonecraft does necessarily a feminist make).

I would recommend American Saint to anyone who is looking for a general presentation of Seton’s life and work. I am looking forward, however, to one day seeing a future book that takes a more critical and analytical stance toward Seton as a religious thinker and teacher.

Source: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley

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