Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters

Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters

Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters

Annie Adams Fields: Woman of Letters

Excerpt

At the time of her death, Annie Adams Fields (1834–1915) was primarily known as the widow of nineteenth-century Boston's major literary publisher, James T. Fields, and as the hostess of celebrated writers he had published—among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Dickens. Seven years after she died, her literary executor Mark DeWolfe Howe perpetuated that identity in his Memories of a Hostess: A Chronicle of Eminent Friendships Drawn Chiefly from the Diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields (1922), from which she emerges as the publisher's charming wife, an animating presence in Boston's literary life during the 1860s and 1870s.

Though her interest and importance are hardly limited to those roles, it is useful to approach Annie Fields as an embodiment of genteel Boston. Born into privilege and raised in New England traditions of self-reliance and public service, she married into Boston's highest cultural echelon during a period of remarkable cultural efflorescence, and soon became known as a consummate hostess and a womanly woman—“one of the dearest little women in the world, ” as Dickens put it. The woman who from childhood on accepted period definitions of womanliness that required deference to men, and who revered literary genius, delighted in such praise even while lamenting that she never had enough time for projects of her own. Yet she was a fairly good poet, her celebrated friends leap to life from the pages of her journals, and she became an entrepreneurial philanthropist. Along the way, the genteel lady—who survived her husband by more than thirty years—exerted considerable power.

My book divides into two parts, the first covering the years of her marriage and the second her decades of widowhood, each focused on Annie Fields's personal relationships as they meshed with her personal, professional, and cultural goals and obligations. I follow her as she grew to authority without violating cultural norms that required womanly self-subordination. During her years of marriage . . .

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