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A Mere Woman
A shy Yankee named Hannah Adams never thought of herself as liberated, but she was our first professional female writer.
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
If they should care to, the leaders of Women’s Liberation may add Miss Hannah Adams, born in 1755, to their roster of distinguished women. She was probably the first native American woman to earn a living as a professional writer.
Worthy soul though she was, Hannah nevertheless presents problems as a symbol of womanhood on the march. First of all, she had the unforgivable habit of calling herself “a mere woman.” One could predict that if she had been called upon to harangue a Women’s Lib rally, she would promptly have toppled over in a dead faint, for she was excessively shy and tongue-tied in the presence of strangers. Male chauvinist pigs would grunt with satisfaction when they read her description of her own books on history and religion as nothing more than compilations of facts gleaned from desultory and unconnected materials by an insufficiently educated woman.
Nor was Miss Hannah one to preen herself on the fact that she belonged to one of America’s most distinguished families. She was a direct descendant of Henry Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts, and thus a kinswoman of two American Presidents, of the Revolutionary patriot Sam Adams, and of a substantial number of other notable Americans. She knew John Adams after he returned to Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1801, following his single term in the White House, and spent several weeks at the Adams mansion on Adams Street to consult her distant cousin’s library, which was then one of the most complete private book collections in the United States. She used the occasion to gather notes for the book on which she was then at work, The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion . The former President, an omnivorous lifelong reader, expressed his admiration at her swift reading and comprehension of his books.
Hannah may even have managed a mousy little smile over some of the marginal comments he had written in his books, for he was no passive reader. John Adams battled his books as he did his political foes, scribbling “Fool!” “Stark mad,” and “Oh, blindness!” beside some authors’ debatable words, but writing “Excellent” or “Very true” beside sentences he approved. Hannah had won his chivalrous approval. She dedicated a revised edition of her first book, a dictionary of religions, to him and in return received a graceful letter of acknowledgement. In it, the great man said that he and Hannah were “undoubtedly related by birth” and that both were born in “humble obscurity” with no claim to noble ancestors, yet “I should think a descent from a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers, for one hundred and sixty years, was a better foundation [for family pride] than a descent through royal or titled scoundrels ever since the flood.”
The distinct ion of her family name did not hing to rescue Hannah from a life of chronic illness, genteel poverty, and the sharp practices of printer-publishers. In Adams petitioned Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames to introduce “a general law … to secure to authors the copy-right of their publications.” With Ames’s powerful sponsorship the first United States copyright law was enacted in that year. Nonetheless, a pair of prominent clergymen appear to have flimflammed her by plagiarizing her Summary History of New England to publish their own profitable “school edition” of the work.
Hannah’s puny income, partly from royalties, partly from an annuity settled on her late in life, gave successive generations of struggling writers a chilling preview of the road to Parnassus. Meager earnings did not stop her; not even failing eyesight, brought on by reading old historical documents, could permanently halt her work. For two years, following the treatment recommended by her physician, one Dr. Jeffries, she sought to improve her vision by bathing her eyes several times daily in a solution of laudanum and sea water. By a miracle surpassing the wisdom of medicine she regained sufficient vision to resume her historical studies.
From her father, Thomas “Book” Adams, Jr., Hannah inherited little more than the love of learning that earned him his nickname. Book Adams is alleged once to have said, “I’d rather be librarian of Harvard College than emperor of all the Russias.” He never got the Harvard job, and his occupational history—importer of English books and other goods, farmer, literary agent for his daughter—is a chronicle of failures. Her mother died when Hannah was ten, her father’s import business collapsed, and the family escaped starvation by taking in student boarders. Physically, Hannah was too weak to hold any regular job, and she was too poor to attend school. Her older sister seems to have reared her with little help from Book, who was generally off in cloudland, reading incessantly.
Hannah, too frail to join in children’s games, spent long hours in her father’s library, reading the poetry of John Milton, James Thomson, and other English writers, memorizing lines as she went along. She waded purposefully through novels, history, and biography and gained the rudiments of an education in Latin, Greek, geography, and logic from the family’s student boarders, who taught her without charge.