We all tend to read our own lives through the biographies of others. We judge their challenges, successes and failures through the prism of our own. So when I came to Diane Jacobs “Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters,” published this spring, I took a very personal approach.
This was justified, I felt, by more than simply the aforementioned self-reference of biography reading. Having three daughters and three sisters myself, I know how intimate and how fraught these relationships can be. I also have my own visceral anecdote of mothering in Abigail Adams’ world. A few years ago, while touring Adams National Park– a tour that entails visiting the house where John Adams was born – with my family on a cold, rainy New England afternoon, I had to breastfeed my suddenly cantankerous ten-week old while her two older sisters followed the guide. There was nowhere to sit in the drafty, dark house, and the babies’ screams were overpowering the tour guide, so I nursed her while we walked, a blanket thrown over us, feeling some sort of kinship with the other mothers who had lived there.
Jacobs tells a good story. Abigail Adams, her husband and sons have had some pretty thorough treatments these past 20 years or so, from the likes of David McCollough, Joseph Ellis and Lynne Withey, among many others. This new offering, however, picks the particular and fruitful vantage point of her relationships with her older sister Mary and younger sister Elizabeth (Betsy). These dedicated and talented diarists and letter writers provide vivid accounts of their time from the roles all three shared as 18th Century housewives, to say nothing of their front row seats to the revolution John Adams played so dominant a role in bringing about. We’re told, for instance, how a newly married Betsy, having always wanted to be a writer, was overjoyed at the opportunity “of writing letters worth publishing as she would be living an inconceivable distance – fifty miles, farther than any female in her family had ever traveled – from her sisters.” Sturdy Mary plays peacekeeper when her two younger sisters clash, smoothing tensions even as Abigail climbs the same social scale her sisters generally descend.
It’s that dynamic which lies behind the book’s greatest frustration. Mary, Betsy and their respective broods are compelling characters. They hold the stage with their own dramas while simultaneously offering color and context to their famous relatives, their society and the many upheavals of their age. They can’t quite pull off parity. However remarkable Jacobs suggests these sisters are, they are undeniably witnesses, rather than participants, to the great events of Revolutionary America. The events in which they do participate are of a much smaller scale. Reportage on ordinary life contributes greatly to any history and especially to a period and cast of characters so embalmed in glossy lore. The sense of scale, though, is crucial and Jacobs, understandably, had a hard time conveying it.
Consider Jacobs’ discussion of the election year 1800, when then-President John Adams was running in the first election in our young nation’s history to pit two clearly defined political parties in opposition.
“Electioneering is already began (sic.),” Abigail had written Mary when she first arrived in Philadelphia. There was a similar commotion in Quincy as the town prepared for yet another vote on a pastor for the First Church.
The election of that pastor gets a lot of ink in this telling. This is justified since Mary plays an active role. Her husband was leading the search for candidates, and, as Jacobs tells us, “it was understood that [husband and wife] would work as a team.” So this is clearly an important event in the family’s life and also for the small farming community named for Abigail and Mary’s family to begin with. The juxtaposition, however, sounds off-key. Jacobs herself seems aware of this strain even as it reaches its zenith.
[T]here are moments when men and women did manage to speak in a single voice: the election of George Washington was one of them and so, in its modest way, was Quincy’s reception of its new minister.
The qualification of “in its modest way” doesn’t alleviate the pressure so much as underline it in boldface type. By that point in the book, the friction catches on nearly every page.
“The great men” theory in popular history writing has been with us from the beginning and isn’t going anywhere soon. Alternative voices, though, have broken into the conversation enough to allow some real dialogue. Jacobs finds an ingenious path between these two access points, cultivating the testimonies of three sisters struggling as wives, mothers, citizens and individuals.
The scope of their concerns is historic enough to be inspiring and human enough to be heartbreaking. This personal approach, even when a little clumsy, offers a view of the revolutionary generation I’ve never quite seen before. That accomplishment speaks for itself.
“Dear Abigail: The Intimate Lives and Revolutionary Ideas of Abigail Adams and Her Two Remarkable Sisters,” by Diane Jacobs. Ballantine Books. 528 pp.