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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage is important because it helps to regender early American history which remains overly focused on generals and male political leaders. Lori Hahnel’s collection of short fiction, Nothing Sacred, is spare, subtle, literary but not pretentious in any way, and very pleasing. Now in paperback, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, gives the reader a deep sense of the connectedness of the small town and its inhabitants, and of Olive’s place in the scheme of things.


Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage
By Edith B. Gelles
Published by William Morrow; Hardbound, ©2009, 352 pp

Biographer Brenda Wineapple argues that an author who is generous, who makes the best case for the worse things, is appreciated by readers. Edith Gelles’ portrait of the marriage of Abigail and John Adams has just this sympathy. Abigail and John is a love story, a contemplation of an enduring domestic union. However, because of John’s public service, it is also a meditation on time, on soul-wrenching, relationship-testing separations that on several occasions had husband and wife, as well as their young offspring, separated for years. Gelles’ great gift to their story is her ability to lay out the details of these family relationships with an honesty and understanding that wins the respect and trust of her reader.

Abigail Smith Adams, whose life was previously narrated by Gelles in Portia (1995) and First Thoughts (1998), was born in 1744 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She lived much of her life there. John, born in 1735, later to become the second president of the United States, also began life in the Massachusetts colony but spent many of his middle years outside of the state, several of them in Europe.

Gelles opens her very readable tale of this famous marriage by underscoring the importance that each partner placed on the selection of a life partner. For Abigail taking John as her husband was a “fateful” decision. John was drawn to Abigail for her energy, intelligence, and considerable sympathy for his ambitions. Gelles clearly believes that this was a marriage made in heaven. In the early years of their union, the couple lived in a Braintree, Massachusetts house that John inherited from his father. Almost immediately, John’s profession of law drew him away from his young bride as he traveled the state, in particular, spending time in Boston. The pair was unaware that separation would be the hallmark of their middle years.

In 1770 John was elected one of Boston’s four representatives to the colonial assembly. However, his full-time commitment to rebellion and, later, governance did not begin until late in 1774. In that year the British Parliament signaled its unwillingness to back down on matters of importance to the colonies by passing the Coercive Acts (known in America as the Intolerable Acts). Within months John Adams had joined other leaders of the thirteen colonies in Philadelphia where they intended to talk through a response to the British position.

John’s work with the Continental Congress was the beginning of his long political career and Abigail’s equally long and extraordinary role as political helpmate and financial manager as well as guardian of their children. She, far more than her husband, experienced the separation from England and the Revolutionary War “on the ground.” Gelles writes, for example, about an outbreak of much dreaded and often fatal dysentery: “While John was negotiating the establishment of political institutions, Abigail at home coped with a household of dysentery patients. Their struggles could hardly have been more different.”

Their long separations required managerial acumen on Abigail’s part as well as independence in personal family matters. In 1776, she made the then risky and courageous decision to have herself, her children, and her servants inoculated against smallpox.

Most of all, for the Adamses, John’s public service meant giving up one another’s companionship. Still, though their letter-writing, each passed on personal and political news and Gelles says that they remained close. Abigail had a keen interest in politics, an engagement that John appreciated. She was progressive on the issue of women’s rights. While a member of the Continental Congress John apparently accepted with grace, and perhaps humor, Abigail’s plea that any new Code of Laws “Remember the Ladies” and “not put such power [as did the ancestors] into the hands of the Husbands.” Later, she again wrote “I can not say that I think you very generous to the Ladies…. For whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives.”  When penning her opinions, Abigail Adams was not shy.

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