Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage–Edith B. Gelles


Biography is the secret passion of the aging American reading population.  If you share in this secret passion, I urge you to pick up Gelles’ portrait of the Adams’ marriage.  Gelles has written on Abigail previously, which led me to believe that she might not be overly generous to John, who left Abigail alone for most of a decade while he pursued his political calling.  However, Gelles’ image of both partners is complex enough to seem likely.  Abigail is industrious and giving, but mean and even daring at times, such as when she continues a flirtatious correspondence with James Lovell.  John seems selfish and heartless as he ignores Abigail’s pleas for him to return home from Europe.  However, once they are reunited, he cannot stand to be parted from her and, as president, begs her in a series of letters to rejoin him in Philadelphia.  Even his choice to disinherit Charles, his alcoholic second son, seems like a human response to the disappointment of a father whose eldest son had followed in the family footsteps of duty to country and Puritanical virtues and who could not fathom the fate of a beloved second son.  In John’s disavowal of Charles rests the confused heartbreak of a parent who cannot understand what has gone wrong, but also cannot support the result.  Gelles makes a reasonable case that Adam’s behavior after the loss of his second term as president was as much driven by his grief over the loss of Charles to his alcoholism as to his public humiliation and feelings of personal betrayal by friends in government.  This is not the motivation of a cold, callous father.

Gelles’ portrait of Abigail reveals a woman we can admire for her independence and hutzpah and with whom we can commiserate as she loses children, misses her husband, and feels out of place in high European society.  Her portrait of Adams argues for a man who felt the weight of history pulling him along, even when it hurt himself and his family.  I was intrigued by his close relationship with John Quincy and young Charles when they accompanied him to Europe and to his grandchildren after his retirement from public life.  All in all, if time travel were possible, I would choose to meet Abigail in London as she solidified her sense of country and expanded her personal horizons and John in the first ten years of his retirement at Peacefield as he reflected on his career and immersed himself in his family.

I left high school thinking American history was boring, particularly the revolutionary period.  I’d been there done that year after year after year.  But not like this.  Gelles writes the best type of biography.  Her portrait follows the life of the Adams’ marriage, but uses that narrative stream to educate us about gender, religion, and the economy, as well as politics of life at that time.  The back cover of my Harper Perennial paperback edition bears a quote from the Washington Times… “a love story for the ages.”  I would agree, but it’s as much the love story of a family for their country and of the reader falling for the Adams as it is the love of Abigail and John.  An absolute must read.

Finished 3/5/12


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