Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Portia: The World of Abigail Adams

Synopsis

'Portia....is a refreshing change of pace....(Edith Gelles) is affectionate yet scholarly, determined to present Adams as a strong character who was very much a woman of her time, not merely a liberated precursor to feminism or the little wife behind the great man.' - Melanie Lawrence, San Francisco Chronicle

Excerpt

Abigail Adams has been a popular figure in biography for over a century and a half. Mrs. Adams, whose life spanned the second half of the eighteenth century and the first two decades of the nineteenth, has been chronicled and cited as an exemplary figure among women, primarily because she left a rich legacy of letters from which historians can draw. Still, she has been written about within the traditional framework that views her life in the shadow of the towering figures of her husband and son, who became the second and sixth presidents of the United States. Her independent legacy of letters notwithstanding, biographers have not given her an autonomous stature as a person separated from the men whose lives were integral to the founding of this nation and its political ideology.

I have thought about Abigail and about biography for many years, and it has become clear to me that John is at the center of her biographies because of chronology. As long as Abigail's life is told against the background or context that emphasizes events in which John took a major role during the Revolutionary War and early republican era, the story tends to slip into his world, making his life work the fulcrum of her biography. It follows that a different organizing principle than chronology is needed. This biography of Abigail Adams takes a new shape. It is written topically, focusing on episodes in her life and exploring them for the impact upon her of events in women's world. I call this approach a "collage," because the pieces, or chapters, are constructed from different materials. Each chapter presents an extended analysis of a single facet or topic in Abigail's life, that, in addition to portraying her, has implications for understanding generally the lives of eighteenth-century women. Each chapter is free-standing, in fact, not dependent upon its predecessors for definition or significance.

Taken together as in a collage, however, a whole picture emerges from the separate chapters. Unity comes because the central figure in each chapter is Abigail Adams, but also because the content overlaps from one chapter to another, giving a different vantage to an incident or a quotation. I have also provided a brief biographical chronology and historical context in most chapters to assist the reader. As in a collage, the chapters do not dangle in space, in part because this approach involves the readers, incorporating them into the creative process of imposing unity upon the elements of the subject's portrait. Also as in a collage, there may be many ways to see the picture, but in the end, the portrait is that of a woman, not of her men. Chapter 1, "The Abigail Industry," illustrates the contrast between . . .

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