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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
While the Athens of America reverberated with the blasts and counterblasts of the warring authors, a threeman board of referees—Samuel Dexter and judges John Davis and Thomas Dawes —was appointed to adjudicate the squabble. On May 11, 1809, the Boston board handed down its ruling, declaring that the two reverend doctors owed Miss Adams “a substantial and valuable recompense for their interference with her work.” Then they fudged the matter by stating that the ministers had not violated any right enforceable by a court, and by failing to specify the amount of damages.
Dr. Morse’s son, Sidney Edwards Morse (Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was another son), jumped into the controversy with his own pamphlet, published in 1814. Sidney brought in a whole series of theological issues, but he hit hardest with the argument that the entire case was a “getup business” to make it seem that his father had taken advantage of a helpless woman. No settlement was ever made. Justly or not, an impression persisted that a couple of upstanding men of the cloth had been made to look like a pair of heels.
The long wrangle over the New England history did not keep Miss Adams from her regular writing chores. In 1804 she published The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion , containing a series of sketches on lay defenders of Christianity. Printers told her that too much had already been written on the subject, but she finally located one who agreed to publish it, giving her a hundred dollars’ worth of the volumes to sell on her own. She was less than idolatrous about a number of her fellow Christians, finding them guilty of slanting and unfairness in their writings about rival sects.
Although the two clergymen had beaten her to the punch with a school edition of the New England history, Hannah completed her own abridgment and found a printer for it. He failed before issuing it, and so did a second printer who contracted to publish it two years later. No faint-heart, she turned to a fresh project that quickly absorbed her interest and sympathy: a history of the Jewish people. Her research, covering the long period from the fall of Jerusalem to the beginning of the nineteenth century, drew on standard works for the early centuries, but she had access only to “desultory publications and manuscripts” for the later years. Correspondence with a French writer, the Abbé Gré goire, helped her to round out her data, which came principally from secondary sources. Much reading was involved, further straining her weak eyes, but she said, “I determined to persevere in my attempt to investigate the fate of this wonderful people.” She was enthusiastic about the Jews, who had preserved their integrity and religion in the face of savage persecutions, and her selfimposed job of retracing their history was, she wrote, “one of the happiest periods of my life.” She regarded the Jewish religion as “the first and best of God’s gifts to men.”
By the time Hannah completed the book, her old friends had either died or were too feeble to assist her in selling it. At the age of sixty she became her own book salesman—an occupation that frightened her far more than writing. But she knew that she faced old age without any funds except the one-hundred-dollar-a-year annuity created for her by a few Massachusetts friends and admirers, and she admitted that her mind “was at times depressed by this gloomy prospect.”
The History of the Jews added to her literary reputation; many New Englanders who knew her only slightly regarded her variously as an expert on the Jews, a walking dictionary, and a respected New England historian. One friend said of her, “No one could see her without feeling she was not of this world.” Sometimes, when talking with a circle of close friends, she warmed to her subject and astonished them with her eloquence and breadth of knowledge. Poetry and nature study were her deepest interests. In spite of her long silences and extreme reserve, Hannah’s friends considered her cheerful and optimistic, gentle in manner, and as sensitively attuned to the feelings of those around her as she was to the beauties of nature. If she ever felt a romantic attachment for a man, it has escaped the notice of her contemporaries. Like many other Adamses, she could quarrel with her Puritan heritage but never quite efface it. Throughout her life she kept a list of “Resolutions” to correct her moral weaknesses.
Her last book, except for numerous revisions and editions of her earlier works, was Letters on the Gospels , which appeared in 1826. Her Memoir , written by Hannah with additional notes by her friends, was published in 1832, a year after her death. Her later years were divided between residence in Boston and other cities of eastern Massachusetts. She was staying with friends at Brookline in November, 1831, when her declining health indicated that death was not far off. Hannah was in no hurry to go. On a matchless fall morning, with sunlight streaming into her large, comfortable room, she asked a visitor, “How can anybody be impatient to quit such a beautiful world?” One month later, on December 15, 1831, Hannah died at Brookline. Burial was at Mount Auburn, near Boston; a subscription campaign paid for her monument.