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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
From her early years in Medfield, eighteen miles from Boston, until her death at nearby Brookline in 1831, libraries were Hannah Adams’ real home. There her uneasiness with strangers and her awkward self-consciousness caused her no distress. She is believed by some—without conclusive evidence—to have been the first woman ever to enter and use the library of the Boston Athenaeum, which opened in 1807. No confrontation was necessary; librarian William Shaw admitted her without demur, and she browsed happily in the Athenaeum’s extensive book collection.
She became so absorbed by her research at the Athenaeum library that she is reported to have been locked in the building on several occasions while Mr. Shaw went home for lunch. Miss Adams said in her Memoir that such reports were “very much exaggerated, I don’t think it ever happened more than once or twice.” Male patrons were not greatly upset by her presence in the library; at that period a woman with scholarly interests may have struck them as a curiosity, unlikely to be followed by others of her kind.
When Hannah visited the library of the Reverend Joseph Buckminster, the young pastor of Brattle Street Church, it was agreed that she could take home any book she wanted and that neither she nor the minister need speak a word to each other unless they chose to. Mr. Buckminster was much younger than Miss Adams, but he treated her with rare understanding and kindness.
Hannah’s love for libraries was so great that at one time she considered starting a circulating library at Salem and had set aside a number of books to form the nucleus of its collection. But here her Puritan streak asserted itself. She felt that her library would have to depend on novels, plays, and romances to maintain itself. Thus, she feared, it would distract library users from moral and religious instruction. She regretted the time she had “wasted” on such books in her youth and accordingly abandoned her library plans.
She never married. From childhood her closest friends were other single women with literary interests. Like Hannah, most of them were not well off financially. Unlike her, the majority of these friends died in early youth, whereas she lived to be seventy-six. The death of Mr. Buckminster at the age of twenty-eight was one of the great sorrows of her life. Her father died shortly afterward, leaving his house and property to his son but providing nothing for Hannah’s future support.
Hannah came of age as the American Revolution began, and she partially supported herself by tutoring young pupils and making bobbin lace, for which a temporary demand existed. The market for this lace ended when the war was over. She then began an intensive reading of Christian theologians and became so disgusted with the bigotry and parochialism of many religious writers that she started to compile her own “dictionary” of the various denominations. Her initial purpose was simply to inject fairness and impartiality into a consideration of all sects. Almost unintentionally, she expanded the undertaking into a book with the summary-title An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the world from the Beginning ofthe Christian Era to the Present Day with an Appendix Containing a Brief Account of the Different Schemes of Religion Now Embraced among Mankind, the Whole Collected from the Best Authors, Ancient and Modern.
Her father placed her manuscript with a printer, completing the deal to the printer’s absolute satisfaction. The printer got all the income from the four hundred subscribers to the book; Hannah got only fifty copies to sell at whatever profit she could. That disastrous contract was not the worst of it; Hannah’s painful attempts to cut a path through the thickets of denominational disputation brought her to the brink of a nervous collapse. She recovered, brought out a second, expanded edition with the assistance of a minister, the Reverend Mr. Freeman, and at last realized a small profit.
For her next venture Hannah embarked on the writing of A Summary History of New England . Sources were few and scattered, obliging Hannah to travel to Providence for a personal study of Rhode Island state records. It was this task that nearly destroyed her vision. When Dr. Jeffries’ eyewash treatments took effect, Hannah continued her research with the aid of an amanuensis. The history was published in 1799. The author bore most of the printing costs, earning only a tiny profit, but she believed that her abridgment of the book for schoolchildren would bring in substantial earnings.
Hannah’s hopes were dashed when two clergymen, Jedidiah Morse and E. Parish, beat her into print with their “school edition” of the history. She accused them publicly of stealing her work—a charge vehemently denied by both ministers in an answering pamphlet. No, swore Dr. Morse, they had not stolen her stuff; had not even seen it before publishing their own book. What is more, Dr. Morse continued, he had known Miss Adams and her father for fifteen years and had often helped them in their literary pursuits.