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A Mere Woman

June 2024
10min read

A shy Yankee named Hannah Adams never thought of herself as liberated, but she was our first professional female writer.

If they should care to, the leaders of Women’s Liberation may add Miss Hannah Adams, born in 1755, to their roster of distinguished women. She was probably the first native American woman to earn a living as a professional writer.

Worthy soul though she was, Hannah nevertheless presents problems as a symbol of womanhood on the march. First of all, she had the unforgivable habit of calling herself “a mere woman.” One could predict that if she had been called upon to harangue a Women’s Lib rally, she would promptly have toppled over in a dead faint, for she was excessively shy and tongue-tied in the presence of strangers. Male chauvinist pigs would grunt with satisfaction when they read her description of her own books on history and religion as nothing more than compilations of facts gleaned from desultory and unconnected materials by an insufficiently educated woman.

Nor was Miss Hannah one to preen herself on the fact that she belonged to one of America’s most distinguished families. She was a direct descendant of Henry Adams of Braintree, Massachusetts, and thus a kinswoman of two American Presidents, of the Revolutionary patriot Sam Adams, and of a substantial number of other notable Americans. She knew John Adams after he returned to Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1801, following his single term in the White House, and spent several weeks at the Adams mansion on Adams Street to consult her distant cousin’s library, which was then one of the most complete private book collections in the United States. She used the occasion to gather notes for the book on which she was then at work, The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion . The former President, an omnivorous lifelong reader, expressed his admiration at her swift reading and comprehension of his books.

Hannah may even have managed a mousy little smile over some of the marginal comments he had written in his books, for he was no passive reader. John Adams battled his books as he did his political foes, scribbling “Fool!” “Stark mad,” and “Oh, blindness!” beside some authors’ debatable words, but writing “Excellent” or “Very true” beside sentences he approved. Hannah had won his chivalrous approval. She dedicated a revised edition of her first book, a dictionary of religions, to him and in return received a graceful letter of acknowledgement. In it, the great man said that he and Hannah were “undoubtedly related by birth” and that both were born in “humble obscurity” with no claim to noble ancestors, yet “I should think a descent from a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers, for one hundred and sixty years, was a better foundation [for family pride] than a descent through royal or titled scoundrels ever since the flood.”

The distinct ion of her family name did not hing to rescue Hannah from a life of chronic illness, genteel poverty, and the sharp practices of printer-publishers. In Adams petitioned Massachusetts congressman Fisher Ames to introduce “a general law … to secure to authors the copy-right of their publications.” With Ames’s powerful sponsorship the first United States copyright law was enacted in that year. Nonetheless, a pair of prominent clergymen appear to have flimflammed her by plagiarizing her Summary History of New England to publish their own profitable “school edition” of the work.

Hannah’s puny income, partly from royalties, partly from an annuity settled on her late in life, gave successive generations of struggling writers a chilling preview of the road to Parnassus. Meager earnings did not stop her; not even failing eyesight, brought on by reading old historical documents, could permanently halt her work. For two years, following the treatment recommended by her physician, one Dr. Jeffries, she sought to improve her vision by bathing her eyes several times daily in a solution of laudanum and sea water. By a miracle surpassing the wisdom of medicine she regained sufficient vision to resume her historical studies.

From her father, Thomas “Book” Adams, Jr., Hannah inherited little more than the love of learning that earned him his nickname. Book Adams is alleged once to have said, “I’d rather be librarian of Harvard College than emperor of all the Russias.” He never got the Harvard job, and his occupational history—importer of English books and other goods, farmer, literary agent for his daughter—is a chronicle of failures. Her mother died when Hannah was ten, her father’s import business collapsed, and the family escaped starvation by taking in student boarders. Physically, Hannah was too weak to hold any regular job, and she was too poor to attend school. Her older sister seems to have reared her with little help from Book, who was generally off in cloudland, reading incessantly.

Hannah, too frail to join in children’s games, spent long hours in her father’s library, reading the poetry of John Milton, James Thomson, and other English writers, memorizing lines as she went along. She waded purposefully through novels, history, and biography and gained the rudiments of an education in Latin, Greek, geography, and logic from the family’s student boarders, who taught her without charge.

From her early years in Medfield, eighteen miles from Boston, until her death at nearby Brookline in 1831, libraries were Hannah Adams’ real home. There her uneasiness with strangers and her awkward self-consciousness caused her no distress. She is believed by some—without conclusive evidence—to have been the first woman ever to enter and use the library of the Boston Athenaeum, which opened in 1807. No confrontation was necessary; librarian William Shaw admitted her without demur, and she browsed happily in the Athenaeum’s extensive book collection.

She became so absorbed by her research at the Athenaeum library that she is reported to have been locked in the building on several occasions while Mr. Shaw went home for lunch. Miss Adams said in her Memoir that such reports were “very much exaggerated, I don’t think it ever happened more than once or twice.” Male patrons were not greatly upset by her presence in the library; at that period a woman with scholarly interests may have struck them as a curiosity, unlikely to be followed by others of her kind.

When Hannah visited the library of the Reverend Joseph Buckminster, the young pastor of Brattle Street Church, it was agreed that she could take home any book she wanted and that neither she nor the minister need speak a word to each other unless they chose to. Mr. Buckminster was much younger than Miss Adams, but he treated her with rare understanding and kindness.

Hannah’s love for libraries was so great that at one time she considered starting a circulating library at Salem and had set aside a number of books to form the nucleus of its collection. But here her Puritan streak asserted itself. She felt that her library would have to depend on novels, plays, and romances to maintain itself. Thus, she feared, it would distract library users from moral and religious instruction. She regretted the time she had “wasted” on such books in her youth and accordingly abandoned her library plans.

She never married. From childhood her closest friends were other single women with literary interests. Like Hannah, most of them were not well off financially. Unlike her, the majority of these friends died in early youth, whereas she lived to be seventy-six. The death of Mr. Buckminster at the age of twenty-eight was one of the great sorrows of her life. Her father died shortly afterward, leaving his house and property to his son but providing nothing for Hannah’s future support.

Hannah came of age as the American Revolution began, and she partially supported herself by tutoring young pupils and making bobbin lace, for which a temporary demand existed. The market for this lace ended when the war was over. She then began an intensive reading of Christian theologians and became so disgusted with the bigotry and parochialism of many religious writers that she started to compile her own “dictionary” of the various denominations. Her initial purpose was simply to inject fairness and impartiality into a consideration of all sects. Almost unintentionally, she expanded the undertaking into a book with the summary-title An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the world from the Beginning ofthe Christian Era to the Present Day with an Appendix Containing a Brief Account of the Different Schemes of Religion Now Embraced among Mankind, the Whole Collected from the Best Authors, Ancient and Modern.

Her father placed her manuscript with a printer, completing the deal to the printer’s absolute satisfaction. The printer got all the income from the four hundred subscribers to the book; Hannah got only fifty copies to sell at whatever profit she could. That disastrous contract was not the worst of it; Hannah’s painful attempts to cut a path through the thickets of denominational disputation brought her to the brink of a nervous collapse. She recovered, brought out a second, expanded edition with the assistance of a minister, the Reverend Mr. Freeman, and at last realized a small profit.

For her next venture Hannah embarked on the writing of A Summary History of New England . Sources were few and scattered, obliging Hannah to travel to Providence for a personal study of Rhode Island state records. It was this task that nearly destroyed her vision. When Dr. Jeffries’ eyewash treatments took effect, Hannah continued her research with the aid of an amanuensis. The history was published in 1799. The author bore most of the printing costs, earning only a tiny profit, but she believed that her abridgment of the book for schoolchildren would bring in substantial earnings.

Hannah’s hopes were dashed when two clergymen, Jedidiah Morse and E. Parish, beat her into print with their “school edition” of the history. She accused them publicly of stealing her work—a charge vehemently denied by both ministers in an answering pamphlet. No, swore Dr. Morse, they had not stolen her stuff; had not even seen it before publishing their own book. What is more, Dr. Morse continued, he had known Miss Adams and her father for fifteen years and had often helped them in their literary pursuits.

While the Athens of America reverberated with the blasts and counterblasts of the warring authors, a threeman board of referees—Samuel Dexter and judges John Davis and Thomas Dawes —was appointed to adjudicate the squabble. On May 11, 1809, the Boston board handed down its ruling, declaring that the two reverend doctors owed Miss Adams “a substantial and valuable recompense for their interference with her work.” Then they fudged the matter by stating that the ministers had not violated any right enforceable by a court, and by failing to specify the amount of damages.

Dr. Morse’s son, Sidney Edwards Morse (Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was another son), jumped into the controversy with his own pamphlet, published in 1814. Sidney brought in a whole series of theological issues, but he hit hardest with the argument that the entire case was a “getup business” to make it seem that his father had taken advantage of a helpless woman. No settlement was ever made. Justly or not, an impression persisted that a couple of upstanding men of the cloth had been made to look like a pair of heels.

The long wrangle over the New England history did not keep Miss Adams from her regular writing chores. In 1804 she published The Truth and Excellence of the Christian Religion , containing a series of sketches on lay defenders of Christianity. Printers told her that too much had already been written on the subject, but she finally located one who agreed to publish it, giving her a hundred dollars’ worth of the volumes to sell on her own. She was less than idolatrous about a number of her fellow Christians, finding them guilty of slanting and unfairness in their writings about rival sects.

Although the two clergymen had beaten her to the punch with a school edition of the New England history, Hannah completed her own abridgment and found a printer for it. He failed before issuing it, and so did a second printer who contracted to publish it two years later. No faint-heart, she turned to a fresh project that quickly absorbed her interest and sympathy: a history of the Jewish people. Her research, covering the long period from the fall of Jerusalem to the beginning of the nineteenth century, drew on standard works for the early centuries, but she had access only to “desultory publications and manuscripts” for the later years. Correspondence with a French writer, the Abbé Gré goire, helped her to round out her data, which came principally from secondary sources. Much reading was involved, further straining her weak eyes, but she said, “I determined to persevere in my attempt to investigate the fate of this wonderful people.” She was enthusiastic about the Jews, who had preserved their integrity and religion in the face of savage persecutions, and her selfimposed job of retracing their history was, she wrote, “one of the happiest periods of my life.” She regarded the Jewish religion as “the first and best of God’s gifts to men.”

By the time Hannah completed the book, her old friends had either died or were too feeble to assist her in selling it. At the age of sixty she became her own book salesman—an occupation that frightened her far more than writing. But she knew that she faced old age without any funds except the one-hundred-dollar-a-year annuity created for her by a few Massachusetts friends and admirers, and she admitted that her mind “was at times depressed by this gloomy prospect.”

The History of the Jews added to her literary reputation; many New Englanders who knew her only slightly regarded her variously as an expert on the Jews, a walking dictionary, and a respected New England historian. One friend said of her, “No one could see her without feeling she was not of this world.” Sometimes, when talking with a circle of close friends, she warmed to her subject and astonished them with her eloquence and breadth of knowledge. Poetry and nature study were her deepest interests. In spite of her long silences and extreme reserve, Hannah’s friends considered her cheerful and optimistic, gentle in manner, and as sensitively attuned to the feelings of those around her as she was to the beauties of nature. If she ever felt a romantic attachment for a man, it has escaped the notice of her contemporaries. Like many other Adamses, she could quarrel with her Puritan heritage but never quite efface it. Throughout her life she kept a list of “Resolutions” to correct her moral weaknesses.

Her last book, except for numerous revisions and editions of her earlier works, was Letters on the Gospels , which appeared in 1826. Her Memoir , written by Hannah with additional notes by her friends, was published in 1832, a year after her death. Her later years were divided between residence in Boston and other cities of eastern Massachusetts. She was staying with friends at Brookline in November, 1831, when her declining health indicated that death was not far off. Hannah was in no hurry to go. On a matchless fall morning, with sunlight streaming into her large, comfortable room, she asked a visitor, “How can anybody be impatient to quit such a beautiful world?” One month later, on December 15, 1831, Hannah died at Brookline. Burial was at Mount Auburn, near Boston; a subscription campaign paid for her monument.

At her death, Hannah Adams remained the earliest native-born American woman to have published a book under her own name. She was much too shy to advance a public claim to be any sort of “first” among American writers, yet the evidence is strong that she was likewise the first American writer of either sex to earn her living at that profession. Her dictionary of religions, first published under that marathon title in 1784, predated by fourteen years the publication of Alcuin, a Dialogue , by Charles Brockden Brown, who is sometimes called America’s first professional writer. However, that claim is a matter of interpretation —for she did not make enough profit from writing to undertake it as a full-time means of support until the reissue of her first book in 1791. Nevertheless, Miss Adams was in the forefront of the American literary parade, no small honor for someone who probably never saw herself as a Liberated Woman.

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