Book Reviews -- "Worthy Partner": The Papers of Martha Washington Edited by Joseph E. Fields and with an Introduction by Ellen McCallister Clark

Article excerpt

"Worthy Partner": The Papers of Martha Washington. Edited by JOSEPH E. FIELDS. Introduction by ELLEN McCALLISTER CLARK. Contributions in American History, 155. Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1994. xxxviii, 501 pp. $49.95.

A true labor of love, collecting the scanty and scattered papers of Martha Washington has clearly been Joseph E. Fields's longtime dedication. The difficulty of coaxing the elusive Mrs. Washington from her chosen role in the background is reflected in this collection with its gaping holes caused by the willful or accidental destruction of documents. Although she was retiring, Martha Washington was no weakling but a strong woman who defined her own life and refused to let the public redefine it for her. Her sphere was the private, and she stayed firmly planted there.

The introduction by Ellen McCallister Clark, formerly librarian at Mount Vernon, provides a very useful biographical overview, informed by her years of immersion in Washington family history. Although necessarily compressed, Clark's words are like densely stuffed portmanteaus--they open vistas, when unpacked, onto the life of the Washingtons and early America. Her finely honed characterizations bring to life the icons of the nation.

Fields set himself a difficult task, painstakingly collecting all of Martha Washington's incoming and outgoing correspondence, most of it clustered around certain key periods in her life: the first widowhood, the Revolutionary War, Washington's presidency, and the second widowhood.

The first section shows the bewildering financial complexities facing a relatively untutored young widow with minor children left to deal with a large estate. These documents clearly demonstrate the dependence of the Virginia planter class on its English agents, factors, and merchants. There is a hint of Bleak House, too, in the generation-old Custis lawsuit inherited by Martha Custis, seemingly endless and threatening to beggar the estate.

There are two sorts of letters written by Martha Washington: those she composed herself--direct, concerned with domestic and family matters, and uncertain as to grammar, diction, and spelling--and those much more technically correct and formal efforts composed by Washington or Tobias Lear for her to copy and send as her own. …