Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Abigail Adams

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Abigail Adams

Article excerpt

Abigail Adams. By Woody Holton. (New York and other cities: Free Press, 2009. Pp. [xx], 483. $30.00, ISBN 978-1-4165-4680-1.)

Abigail Adams is far from a neglected biographical subject. Thanks partly to the survival of voluminous correspondence and partly to her distinctive pedigree as the wife of one president and the mother of another, she has been picked up, examined, and recategorized by hundreds of writers. Over twenty years ago, Edith B. Gelles described the existence of "a veritable industry in Abigail literature" ("The Abigail Industry," William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 45 [October 1988], 657), and this industry has been marching on since, with substantial works proliferating--including full-length biographies and edited collections of her correspondence, as well as an HBO breakthrough miniseries (2008) that saw Adams's depicter win a slew of awards. In light of this richness of coverage, which surely makes Adams the most illustrious female presence in the founding era, two questions naturally spring to mind: first, what can another biography of Abigail Adams offer? And, second, will this also happen to Barbara Bush?

Woody Holton offers a rich, insightful account that works on two levels. He does a splendid job of rather covertly constructing a balanced synthesis of earlier literature about Adams and conveying it in such a stylish way that it will appeal to a wide readership--though sadly there is no bibliography. The biography is divided chronologically into thirty-four bite-sized chapters that elegantly follow Adams's life cycle rather than plotting her on her husband's axes, as others have done. But Holton also brings fresh evidence and fresh perspective to his portrayal that significantly shifts the historical focus and, in every sense, makes Abigail a sharper figure. Of course, he draws extensively on the Adamses' wonderful letters, but he has great success in reading these against other sources and drawing contextual inferences, with especially strong insights into race, disease, and religion. …

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