In March of 1895, a reporter for The New York Times
visited with “Aunt Betsey Saunders” on the occasion of her 105th
birthday. Her husband and sisters long dead, Saunders had sought refuge
at the Norwalk Almshouse many years before. (The more or less
appropriate description for the resident of an almshouse was “inmate.”)
The planned birthday celebration included a “generous dinner” and
peppermint drops which, the reporter assured his readers, would satisfy
old Betsey as much as if she had received a diamond-studded coronet.
in Saugatuck (part of modern Westport), Connecticut, in 1790, Betsey
was still mentally sharp, had good hearing and carried on a lively
conversation with the reporter. In a year when Babe Ruth, Buckminster
Fuller, and J. Edgar Hoover were born, she remembered the death of George Washington and announced optimistically that she expected to live to be
at least 106.
the other hand, Betsy had trouble walking and was completely blind. In
an age before recorded music or the radio, one wonders how a blind,
immobile, indigent, 105-year-old inmate in a poorhouse might occupy her
time or, indeed, find the energy to face each day.
those apparently minor inconveniences, when the reporter called upon
the almshouse at 10 a.m., he was distressed to find Aunt Betsey still in bed.
Aunt Betsey appeared embarrassed by the episode as well. “She excused
her apparent indolence,” he reported, “by stating that she had been up
late the night before, and as there was nothing urgent requiring her
attention, she had decided to get her accustomed rest.”
in bed at 10 a.m.? Nothing urgent? While not coined by Max Weber for
another decade, the “Protestant Work Ethic” was itself apparently hard
at work that morning in 1895. Reporter and reader alike knew the lazy
achieved nothing in life, much less salvation, and it was clear--perhaps
even to Aunt Betsey herself--that she best mend her slothful ways
before it was too late.
Preliminary Notes on the “Passion for the Real”
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