New York: Routledge (2002); 224 pages; $19.95. ISBN 0-415-93945-3.
What would be an appropriate title for a biography which documents a life through letters, and details her quests to stay married, maintain family relations and friendships, express emotions, contest with politics, and make history? Abigail Adams: A Writing Life, by Edith B. Gelles, is a recently published book that accomplishes just this. Gelles calls this work a “modern biography” of Abigail Adams, wife of the second president of the United States, John Adams. Her earlier biography of Abigail, Portia, The World of Abigail Adams (1992), is similar to this biography in that they both are “episodic,” rather than strictly “chronological,” and both give a complete “portrait” of Abigail in her tumultuous, dynamic, and challenging world (Gelles 3-4). Portia is an extensive undertaking of research and documentation, and defines Abigail as a “foremother” in her response to and associations with the Revolutionary War participants, as well as family and friends (Gelles 4). Abigail Adams continues this illustration by focusing upon Abigail “as mistress of a literary form—a woman, literally, of letters” (“Woman” 1). Additionally, Gelles writes that Abigail was not motivated by celebrity status, nor did she seek notoriety as a writer. Abigail remained within the boundaries of what was proper for women at that time by maintaining the non-public posture of letter writing. As she utilized this common but “private” communiqué, Abigail also became a recorder of history (Gelles 4-5).
Abigail’s letters reflect practicality, intelligence, and her ability to reason and resolve. Gelles prudently selects material from volumes of Abigail’s letters which gives the reader insight into her heart and love for her husband, as well as being “a passionate believer in the new republic” (“Woman” 1). We are able to experience the soul and mind of this remarkable woman because Gelles takes care to print those letters that testify to Abigail’s character, her succinctness as a communicator, her wit, and her endless endeavors to handle life. Gelles also economizes time and space by utilizing background from her research as preludes to letters. This keeps Abigail’s story moving from event to event, thus adding novel-style enjoyment to this biography.
The format of Abigail Adams is a working layout consisting of the required design conducive to research, or simply as a good read. The Contents show that the body of the book contains four parts, and that each part reflects a specific topic. Each part contains chapters that, even if read individually, allow one to access sufficient information regarding the indicated topic. Included in the Contents is a spare but informative Chronology. Twenty pages of an exceptionally well-done Notes and References section follows the body of the work. If one prefers footnotes over reference notes, this is quickly remedied as the reference section is clearly divided into chapters to correspond with the chapters in the book. The Bibliography section is made up of selected primary and secondary sources. Both of these sections provide a voluminous amount of criteria which increases the reader’s awareness of other relative materials for consideration. The Index is specific and complete with page numbers. Finally, a paragraph about the author, Edith Gelles, is included, which not only states her credentials and accomplishments, but also a statement about her present field of study.
In the first part of Abigail Adams, Gelles discusses the power of the genre of letters and the benefits and enjoyment that can come from this form of writing. Because letters allow for expression of “private” feelings and a place to tangibly put down the yearnings of the soul, letters can reveal cause and effect, meaning, the events of life and how people deal with them (Gelles 6, 8, 13). The genre of letters has long been recognized as a literary form. As far back as the 1500s, letters written by women were seen as “marketable,” but because of the cultural tenets of the era, it was considered inappropriate to publish the personal expressions of women. Consequently, male authors would mimic the “female voice” in their fictive works (Goldsmith vii). This type of writing grew in popularity, and by the 1700s, many male authors feigned female characters to produce a style of writing that represented “the nearest thing the 18th century could offer to modern raw data” (Day 193). In other words, these authors were producing natural, “unrehearsed speech,” which was highly effective in producing a realistic-type story (Day 193). By the mid 1700s, “epistolary fiction” had come into its own as a significant literary movement (Cook 2). Authors used letters to transmit a convincing form of rhetoric covering a variety of topics from “scientific treatises to novels, from conduct books to political essays” (Cook 16-17). It is significant to note that in the mid 1800s when Abigail’s grandson published her letters, a woman’s original works, they were widely received and never out of print (Gelles 3).
Recently, extensive research into the genre of letters is discovering the works of women whose letters were written with artistry, and with the goal of intelligent communication. While researching for her dissertation the works of Judith Sargent Murray, a contemporary of Abigail Adams, Dr. Mary Kasraie found that a closer look at letter writing recognizes “their historical and biographical substantiveness” (6). Murray’s letters depict “the immediacy and connectedness that epistles foster” (Kasraie 11). Gelles shows that Abigail’s letters absolutely contain these attributes as well. Abigail does not write for recognition, but in her efforts to communicate things that should be questionable and deemed morally wrong, she is poignant and uses deliberately considered words. Within one of many letters to her husband, for example, when foundational guidelines for the infant nation were being drafted, Adams addresses slavery and women’s rights (Gelles 14-15). Even though her vigilant words do not directly alter the course of history, they do incite a response from John, one of several letters which Gelles uses to “substantiate” the effectiveness of letter-writing (Kasraie 6). Utilizing letters of response allow a look into the human, political, and marital interactions in the 18th century. Because of Abigail’s “unpretentiousness” in her oratories, her letters are as vocal as any historical documentation because they are governed by the element of sensibility within the experience (Gelles 5). The facts are all there because she is there, but her passion and intelligence drives the communication. And by constructing this biography in an “episodic” form, this work appeals not only to historians, but to literary fans as well (Gelles 3). Letters, therefore, can offer a fulfilling communication for the historical and literary senses (Gelles 5,7-8).
Another interesting element of letters, which also exhibits cause and effect, is the “therapeutic” benefit. In part two, Abigail directly states, “…my Pen is my only pleasure, and writing to you the composure of my mind” (Gelles 26). As an application to the psychology of life, this statement, one among several of this type made by Abigail, almost can be considered a manifesto. For her, letter writing provides a tremendous relief from tensions and anxieties. For us, because Abigail writes with honesty, temperance, and often with great passion and imagery, we are able to see back into a different time for women. We become enlightened as to what thoughts crossed their minds in trying to cope with their responsibilities, and their endeavors to respond within the cultural perimeters. Especially within Abigail’s world as a single parent, yet she was not single, and as a politician and foreign minister’s wife, do we see through her expressions the difficulty of “‘Patriotism in the female Sex…’” who is “‘…obliged to submit to those Laws …imposed upon us…’”(Gelles 28-29).
Abigail’s correspondence between herself and friends, family members, and historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, not only provide documentation of our country’s past, but also entertainment and drama. These correspondences allow us a window into lives that we would otherwise never see. In the third part of Abigail Adams, Gelles utilizes letters, or travel “memoirs,” as revelations of the impact that England and Paris had upon Abigail and her family. Before she travels abroad, Abigail pleads through letters to her husband for him to return home from Europe. It would be almost five years since John and Abigail have seen one another, and through their discourse during this time in letters, Abigail expresses heartbreak over their prolonged separation, while John expresses exasperation towards the United States’ Congress and its continuous lack of resolve regarding his place of service. Finally, we see how these two “friends” decide that Abigail and Abigail, Jr. will make the trip to Europe (Gelles 65-67). As within the context of a moving novel, Gelles relates events and situations Abigail must manage in her preparation for leaving, including the arrangements made for her two youngest sons to remain in the States. This decision, to contain her feelings and forge ahead to do what is best for her marriage, is monumental, as she writes, “‘My thoughts are fixed, my latest wish depend on thee guide, guardian, Husband, lover, Friend.’” (Gelles 67-68).
Certainly Gelles is aware of our anticipation being kindled as Abigail gets closer to being reunited with her husband. Gelles accomplishes this by utilizing Abigail’s memoirs or letters so that we experience her sea travel and another month of waiting in Europe for this most passionate reunion (Gelles 69, 71, 77). Then, without any warning, we are told that there is no record of John and Abigail reunion, except for an entry in Abigail, Jr.’s “Journal” (Gelles 77-78). Possibly, for the only time in this biography, does silence speak volumes. One might infer that the friends are now together, so there is no need to write. This is so private, so deep within each spouse’s bosom, who could put it into words?
Throughout the heart of Abigail Adams, Abigail proves to be a recorder of history, simply by recording her life. During the time in London when John represents the United States as a minister to the Court of England, Abigail would often write of their less than hospitable treatment from the British. In a letter to her son John Quincy, she conveyed these sentiments as well as her view that this land would become “‘a great and powerful nation’” through unrelenting perseverance and integrity, because the new nation’s endeavors certainly were not supported abroad (Gelles 104).
The historical significance in Abigail’s letters develops most of the fourth part of Abigail Adams. John is now the new President, and Abigail is the First Lady. “‘Splendid misery’” is the oxymoron Abigail uses to describe her outlook regarding her future, and what she says proves to be an incontestable prophecy (Gelles 131). In addition to the historical recordings of the Adams’ functions within the office of the President, Abigail also records family tragedies that dictate their lives as well. She proclaims in a letter to her sister, “‘What a medley are my Letters,’” disclosing everything from the state of the government, to her endeavors in pioneering the activities of a First Lady, and the plights, specifically, of her children (Gelles 159-161).
At the onset of John’s presidency, he finds himself very lonely. Until Abigail can join him in Philadelphia, he repeatedly writes to her, and he writes with intensity: “‘I pray you to come on…I can do nothing without you…I want your assistance more than [ever]’” (Gelles 128). These expressions from John represent only a small sampling of the correspondence that would be forthcoming between him and Abigail while living at the White House; and they are letters which exhibit “immediacy and connectedness” (Kasraie 11). Often, Abigail’s letters portray her as a mediator in defending John’s administrative decisions. In a letter to her sister Mary explaining the replacement of certain men within John’s administration, she wrote that the President seeks those who possess “‘merit, virtue & Talents,’” and that those who work for him will be “‘Friends to order and Government’” (Gelles 144). Subsequently, a situation arises in which Abigail’s family, the government, and the press, are all participants. Letters allow us insight into an issue that causes an upheaval, not just within the Adams’ family, but on a national level as well. The background written by Gelles explains that this event involves a change to a previous administrative decision by former President Washington which concerns John and Abigail’s son, John Quincy. President Adams reassigns John Quincy as a minister to Berlin, which not only incites the accusations of “nepotism” from the press, but causes a family riff as well, because John Quincy reacts with complete disappointment (Gelles 145). Characteristically, Abigail supports her husband, and writes her son telling him of her stance and why. Within the position she has taken, she also explains the need for the United States to have “trusted as well as skillful diplomats.” Furthermore, Abigail thrusts herself into the situation by arranging for letters, as well as authoritative quotations from the minister of Europe, John Quincy, to “set the record straight,” and enlighten the nation about circumstances in Europe. By employing this strategy, the talented and calculating First Lady also exposes the deception and politics of the press (Gelles 145-149).
There is much more to be learned and enjoyed by way of letters in this biography of Abigail Adams. The book concludes with the details regarding the Adams’ retirement, and continues through to her death in 1818. Gelles includes a synopsis of reflections by John and Abigail, and records moving sentiments written at the time of her decease by those who were blessed by her life. As a “perceptive study,” Abigail Adams can be highly recommended to those interested in documenting events of the past regarding the United States, and to those who seek to examine the genre of letters (“Women” 2).
Cook, Elizabeth H. Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.
Day, Robert A. “Speech Acts, Orality, and the Epistolary Novel.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 21 (1980): 187-197.
Gelles, Edith B. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Goldsmith, Elizabeth C., ed. Introduction. Writing the Female Voice: Essays on Epistolary Literature. Boston: Northeastern U, 1989: vii-xiii.
Kasraie, Mary R. Left to “affectionate partiality: An Authoritative Edition of Selected Letters by Judith Sargent Murray. Diss. Georgia State U, 2001. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2001. AAT3008152.
“Woman of Substance.” Rev. of Abigail Adams: A Writing Life, by Edith B. Gelles. Economist Magazine. 30 Mar. 2002: 76-77. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Georgia State U, Pullen Lib. 17 Oct. 2003.