- A Passionate Usefulness: The Life and Literary Labors of Hannah Adams
There was a time, not so long ago, when we knew virtually nothing about the lives of even the most extraordinary eighteenth-century American women. That has begun to change. In recent years, historians have begun to tell the stories of a number of famous women—Abigail Adams, of course, and Mercy Otis Warren—and lesser-known women as well—Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, Judith Sargent Murray, Elizabeth Edwards Burr, to name just a few. And now, Gary D. Schmidt has added the name of Hannah Adams to the modest but growing list of female luminaries about whom we should know much more than we do.
Hannah Adams was truly extraordinary. She was one of the few American writers—male or female—of her era whose work gained international recognition. She was the first American to make a living—just barely—from her literary efforts. She wrote under her own name, and she fought ferociously and publicly for what she considered her right to a niche in the market she had made for herself. From the time she published Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects in 1784, her pen was seldom still. Her last book, A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams, was published in 1832, less than a year after her death. Primarily a historian, Adams wrote about her native New England, sectarian movements, and Judaism. Indeed, she was the "first American writer to craft a full history of the [End Page 307] Jews" (9). For someone who was both shy and not well born, she was known in Boston's elite Federalist circles, received the patronage of both men and women who admired her and her work, and was even allowed access to the books of the all-male Massachusetts Historical Society library.
Adams was born in 1755, in tiny Medfield, Massachusetts, the daughter of Thomas and Elisebeth Adams. Her bookish and well-meaning father was never very successful. Adams did not marry and soon learned that she would have to make her own way in life. Writing became her means to achieve that end. Ironically, she never made the money she hoped for. Her financial security came to her late in life, thanks to the munificence of a few friends.
Adams was a compiler. Writing at a time when borrowing the work of other writers was less sinful than it has become in the modern era, she read deeply and widely, gathering and harmonizing her disparate sources and creating an end product that was altogether her own. Indeed, Schmidt is at his best when he painstakingly compares Adams's efforts with the work of the many historians upon whom she relied. If she was a compiler, she always had a point of view. She recognized almost instinctively that facts are not neutral, and thus she consciously shaped her narratives with her own perspective in mind. The changes she made to her original sources are illuminating. They reveal a woman who was judicious and tolerant, always trying to let members of various sects speak for themselves and refusing to judge their views by her own standards. A Christian who was highly influenced by the Unitarian faith that had begun to capture the interest of many of Boston's literati, she believed that Christianity was true, and that its truth could be proved scientifically by studying the historical record. A patriot, she saw in New England's very beginnings the struggle for freedom that would culminate in the American Revolution. A Federalist, she praised liberty but rejected enthusiasm and anarchy. Order—in her work and in her life—was essential to her sense of her own and her country's well being.
While Adams entered literary arenas where few women of her day would dare to go, she was not above using her position as a "helpless woman" in a public and forceful way (188). Her preface to her history of New England called attention to her "female...