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Biography 26.2 (2003) 326-329



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Edith B. Gelles. Abigail Adams: A Writing Life. New York: Routledge, 2002. 204 pp. ISBN 0-415-93945-3, $19.95.

Emotions in and around Boston overflowed on June 18, 1775 following the battle on Breed's Hill, mislabeled for posterity by a British officer as Bunker's Hill. Among the many witnesses who recorded their reactions to this event was Abigail Adams, whose descriptive letter to her absent husband captured the importance and shock of the moment. "The day—perhaps the decisive day—is come, on which the fate of America depends," Adams wrote. "My bursting heart must find vent at my pen" (67). Throughout the Revolution and into the Early Republic, Abigail Adams would turn time and again to her pen to record her impressions; to distribute news, rumors, and gossip; and to moderate the solitude of the political widow.

Descriptive, poignant, and at the same time, intimate and vulnerable, Abigail Adams's correspondence left a valuable record for biographers, historians, and enthusiasts of American culture. But it is a daunting body of work that could leave researchers wondering where they should begin. Edith Gelles's newly published biography and critique—Abigail Adams: A Writing Life—offers an excellent entry point for anyone who is interested in Abigail Adams as a writer. A Writing Life is, in fact, the author's third contribution to the "Abigail industry"—a term she coined a few years ago to describe growing interest in Adams. 1

Organized episodically, A Writing Life begins with a knowledgeable introduction to the eighteenth-century letter. It continues with five chapters focusing on three genres of private correspondence: confidential, travel, and historic letters. Abigail Adams, readers learn, was a central figure in an ever widening network of female and male correspondents who exchanged a bounty of news, commentary, and gossip about issues large and small. On one level, Adams relied on her correspondence to mitigate the anxieties of the Revolution and to help pass the many hours of loneliness created by her husband's frequent absences. On a deeper level, Adams's correspondence, if read chronologically, reveals growing confidence in her abilities as a writer and observer of eighteenth-century Anglo-American society. Testifying to the value of the letter in the eighteenth century, Adams gained most of this experience and confidence by remaining within forty miles of Boston, until mid-June 1784, when she made the long voyage to Great Britain to join her husband. It was an important moment in Adams's life, and she dutifully recorded her impressions—not in a diary, as many elite women might, but in her correspondence.

Accordingly Gelles's treatment of Abigail Adams's travel letters, written during her voyage and her stay in Europe, opens a new chapter in Adams's [End Page 326] life, and an important window on the early American letter as an historical artifact. This is where the analysis shines. Drawing primarily on these letters, Gelles offers an effective assessment of transatlantic travel in the eighteenth century, along with a wonderfully descriptive account of Adams's first impressions as an American abroad. But Gelles's treatment of Adams's travel writings goes beyond biography, demonstrating a number of effective techniques for extracting meaningful information from private correspondence, particularly from a chain of letters that connect the correspondent to specific topics of conversation. The travel letters, for example, disclose more about the author's experience when they are read thoroughly and sequentially, as Gelles reads them, than they might if they were mined only for specific facts or pithy quotes. Viewed through Gelles's able interpretation, the travel letters bring to life the hardship of the voyage, and the continuing effect the transatlantic crossing had on passengers in the late eighteenth century. Close quarters, seasickness, and dependence on strangers forced Adams to surrender her New England modesty. At the same time, the crossing encouraged Adams to exercise her domestic authority, which she had already honed and refashioned during her husband's absence from the family estate. Gaining her sea legs at mid-passage...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1456
Print ISSN
0162-4962
Pages
pp. 326-329
Launched on MUSE
2003-07-08
Open Access
No
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