ABIGAIL AND JOHN by Edith B.  Gelles


Portrait of a Marriage
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A dual biography spotlighting one of the most remarkable partnerships in American history.

The United States has had only a few First Couples in which the historical significance of the wife has approached that of the husband. John and Abigail Adams share this status almost entirely because of Abigail’s letters, a correspondence Gelles (Gender Studies/Stanford Univ.; Abigail Adams: A Writing Life, 2002, etc.) rightly terms the revolutionary era’s “best historical record written by a woman.” In letters to her husband, children and friends like Mercy Warren, James Lovell and Thomas Jefferson, Abigail revealed her liveliness, strong affections, abiding faith and keen intelligence, all crucial to maintaining a marriage marked by frequent forced separations. Certain passages from this epistolary treasure have become famous: Abigail’s eyewitness description of the Battle of Bunker Hill, her disquisition against slavery, her proto-feminist plea to her husband, occupied with theories of government at the Continental Congress, to “Remember the Ladies.” Gelles uses these letters and many more—including John’s to Abigail—to construct a moving picture of a marriage whose terms required constant renegotiation as events forced each partner to assume or relinquish tasks commonly ascribed to the other sex. Both subscribed to what the author terms their “family myth.” From Braintree to Boston, Paris to London, Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., where they became the first occupants of what would later become known as the White House, the Adams’s story is one of politics interwoven with family life. Notwithstanding some occasional, unfortunate academic locutions (e.g., “gender” used as a verb), Gelles pushes their marriage and family life vividly to the fore. She examines the couples’ shared sorrows—a daughter’s miserable marriage, an alcoholic son—as well as the many triumphs that would have been impossible, but for Abigail’s wise management of her household and solicitous care for her brilliant, deeply insecure husband.

A revealing exploration of an exceptional marriage marked by mutual understanding, empathy and deep love.

Pub Date: April 14th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-06-135387-1
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2009