DEAREST FRIEND: A Life of Abigail Adams by Lynne Withey

DEAREST FRIEND: A Life of Abigail Adams

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Bringing Abigail Adams out of her husband's shadow and then explaining why she of all people became an early advocate for the emancipation of women are perhaps the two most difficult tasks that have faced her biographers; and Lynn Withey, a Berkeley historian, handles both with skill and sensitivity. She is not a graceful writer, and often flounders in banality (Abigail loved John ""as deeply as any woman ever loved a man"") or stoops to penny-dreadful melodramatics (""little did she know that. . ."" and ""she had little inkling. . .""). But Withey has also done her homework in the sources and makes excellent use of the most recent scholarly investigations of everything from colonial childrearing practices to demography and the intricacies of republican ideology. She keeps John's career and the epic events of the time firmly in the background, always focusing instead upon Abigail and Abigail's life: the satisfaction she derived from his success and the deep depressions she endured when it caused them to be separated for long periods of time; the endless nuisances of organizing and reorganizing a household as they moved up and around in the world; the increasing confidence with which she learned to manage money and real-estate; the pleasures to be found in children who turned out well and the pains caused by those who did not. Along the way, Withey is thus able to reveal--more effectively than anyone else has managed to do--the complex character of Abigail's lifelong concern for women's rights. It becomes almost embarrassingly evident that she was in no sense a radical: her support for the Revolution never altered her old-fashioned, even simplistic, provincial morality, while in later years, defending John from the attacks of both real and imagined political enemies, she became downright reactionary and xenophobic. She always believed, too, that men and women were by nature different and the occupants of entirely different social ""spheres."" But that was just the point: precisely because they occupied their own spheres, each with its own rights and privileges and immunities, neither had the right to impose its will unjustly upon the other, any more than England had had the right to violate the liberties of American colonists. Withey has not only brought Abigail to life, she has also added new depth and richness to our understanding of the intricate history of feminist thought.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1981
ISBN: 074323443X
Publisher: Free Press/Macmillan