First Family

Since 1840, when Charles Francis Adams first published his grandmother's letters, the story of John and Abigail Adams has often been told. Over the last several generations, biographies of both have rapidly multiplied and, in most of these works, assessments have been offered of their marriage, usually benign (as in David McCullough's John Adams), rarely critical (as in Paul Nagel's Descent from Glory). Nonetheless, when last year Edith B. Gelles published Abigail & John: Portrait of a Marriage, she was justified in saying that hers was "the first double biography of Abigail and John Adams." Now immediately we have a second, written by a very practiced and able biographer, in a book evidently in process before Gelles's appeared.


Portraying marriages is not easy work, because most of what matters about them is intimate and often concealed, not least by the husband from the wife and vice versa. We have all known couples who seemed content but who, one drastic day, split violently apart and thereafter tumbled out confessions of sustained unhappiness, frequent betrayals, and unexpected longings to whichever friend or therapist proved patient enough to listen. Though there is every reason to believe that secrets and lies were scarce in the Adams marriage, nonetheless what is known about it is mainly what each was prepared to let the other know. This is so because, as Joseph Ellis rightly observes, our knowledge of the marriage mostly comes from John and Abigail's letters to one another when separated by the demands of his political life. Such distance created strain, difficult moments when he failed to write, when she was bitter and lonely, and when each failed to imagine what the other was experiencing. It also created pleasure, glad moments when each shared what the other could not experience.


An especial problem in describing the Adams marriage is the inequality of evidence. For John Adams, there are many thousands of letters, a diary and autobiography, innumerable public and legal papers, not to mention a myriad of contemporary accounts of him. For Abigail, we have more letters than is usual for a woman of her time as well as some legal documents, but only a very brief diary and little in which she reflected on her experience. It would probably be a grave underestimate to assert that, for every Abigail document, we have twenty for John. So the acid test for any double biographer of the Adamses is how well he or she handles this disparity, since it will not do to permit either Adams to dominate the story. (At least, it will not do if gender equality is thought to be a literary obligation, as well as a civic ethic.) Fundamentally, this means John's story needs to be shrunk down to match the scale of Abigail's, not because she is the lesser, but because there is less available to make her known. Is this possible?


Evidently not. On balance, Edith Gelles has come close to achieving the impossible, mostly because her earlier writing was about Abigail and, as a historian of women, she is sensitive to the history of domesticity and family life, which framed most of Abigail's existence. Joseph Ellis, by comparison, is by long and distinguished training a historian of early American politics and politicians. He shows only a passing and dutiful interest in how a drawing room might have looked, how a mother handled servants, or what childbirth felt like, but is much more absorbed by the nuances of the Treaty of Paris and the spitefulness of Alexander Hamilton. For the most part, then, First Family: Abigail & John Adams is a book about John Adams, in which Abigail Adams makes sustained appearances.


Ellis is a very gifted writer, often a shrewd psychologist, and has the self-confidence to offer refreshingly brisk and persuasive judgments. On occasion, usually when a minor character is being described, he can be a little reckless and wander beyond strict evidence, because tempted by the eye-catching phrase. (Calling their daughter-in-law Louisa Catherine Adams "a delicate orchid" prone to collapsing into "heaps of sobbing insecurity" is one instance.) On the whole, Ellis is a partisan of the Adams pair and, when he can, gives them the benefit of the doubt. For instance, his account of the death of their alcoholic rake of a son, Charles, ends on a kindly note about Abigail's grief and quietly ignores the bleak fact that his parents refused to allow Charles to be buried in the family vault in Quincy. Such a partisanship occasionally strays into hyperbole, though admittedly the book's opening gambit—"some would say [the Adamses are] the premier husband-and-wife team in all American history"—is coy. The claims that John Adams was "one of the master letter writers" of his age and that there was "a seamless symmetry between them that made conflicting convictions virtually impossible" is, however, far from coy and seem doubtful, an unnecessary gilding of the lily. Still, Ellis's partisanship is not relentless, a fact which—along with his urbane command of late eighteenth-century politics—comfortably saves his book from the peril of becoming a discursive Hallmark card, sent to mark the Adamses' umpteenth wedding anniversary. He is, for example, scathing about John in the immediate aftermath of the presidency, when he is described as a loopy "one-man bonfire of vanities," and Ellis recognizes that the extended Adams family was sometimes "dysfunctional," with sufficient lost souls to cast a play by Eugene O'Neill.


So, the question necessarily arises: if a reader goes into a bookshop and sees Gelles and Ellis side by side on a table, which is the better choice? Their dust jackets are virtually identical, so aesthetics do not help, except that Ellis has the larger and more elegant typeface. On the whole, it strikes me as a matter of taste. If you care more for Abigail and precise scholarship, Gelles is probably the better choice. If you care more for John and literary verve, pick up a copy of Ellis. Either or both would serve you well.

Michael O'Brien is Professor of American Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860 (2004), which won the Bancroft Prize and was a Nominated Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and most recently of Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon (2010).

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