Review by Choice Review
Both of these volumes have things to contribute to the understanding of Abigail and John Adams and the 18th-century world within which they lived. At the heart of both volumes is the splendid correspondence between Abigail and John--some 1,200 surviving letters, the result of living for years at a time separated from each other. But Barker-Benfield and Ellis approach their subjects from very different perspectives and, one suspects, with different readers in mind. Barker-Benfield (SUNY, Albany) has written a volume that is scholarly and academic in tone and presentation, actively engaging an extensive historiography from which he frequently quotes. The volume is largely thematic, with particular attention given to the topic of "gender," which is "fundamental to this book's organization.. Barker-Benfield provides a history of the "vocabulary of feeling" and in his detailed analysis presents the Adamses in a wide historical setting that ranges from the intellectual origins of sensibility in 17th-century England to the "Americanization of sensibility" in Mark Twain's 19th century.Ellis (Mouth Holyoke College) tells a story that is firmly rooted in the lives of his subjects--primarily Abigail and John, and to a lesser extent their children and grandchildren. The volume is organized on chronological lines; the point of departure is Abigail and John's meeting in 1759, and the narrative ends with John's death in 1826. In his clearly written book, Ellis gracefully weaves together the Adamses' private lives and "the larger public story of the American founding.. There is insight on Abigail and John's "startling capacity ... to sustain their love over a lifetime filled with daunting challenges," but the volume also casts light on their relationships with figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Mercy Otis Warren. Summing Up: Recommended. Both. Graduate students and faculty (Barker-Benfield). All levels (Ellis). M. G. Spencer Brock University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review
WHEN Leo Tolstoy formulated his dictum that all happy families are alike, he overlooked at least one counterexample, albeit drawn from a world quite foreign to his own: the household of John and Abigail Adams. "The happiness of our family," Abigail noted in 1788, "seems ever to have been so interwoven with the politics of our country as to be in a great degree dependent upon them." That the Adamses succeeded both in helping to shape the American Republic and in securing for themselves a striking measure of domestic bliss was, as Joseph J. Ellis shows in "First Family: Abigail and John," a testament to the exceptional strength and vitality of their marriage. Although beset by myriad "twitches, traumas, throbbings and tribulations" (Ellis's purple-prosy terms) in politics and at home, John and Abigail remained passionately devoted to each other, to their family and to their country. "As I see it," Ellis explains, "Abigail and John have much to teach us about both the reasons for that improbable success called the American Revolution and the equally startling capacity for a man and woman - husband and wife - to sustain their love over a lifetime filled with daunting challenges." As one of today's leading historians of the Revolutionary era (his books include a biography of John Adams, a National Book Award-winning biography of Thomas Jefferson and a Pulitzer Prize-winning group portrait of the founders), Ellis is more qualified than most to tell this engaging tale. Yet his reasons for doing so - and for doing so now - are less clear than his credentials. After all, since the start of this millennium, audiences have been feasting on a veritable Adams smorgasbord: from David McCullough's magisterial, bestselling "John Adams" (2001) to the HBO miniseries (2008) that McCullough's book inspired; and from a spate of Abigail biographies, both new (Woody Holton's "Abigail Adams" in 2009) and rereleased (Phyllis Lee Levin's, Lynne Withey's and Charles W. Akers's monographs from the 1980s, all reissued in recent years), to two edited volumes of the couple's correspondence. The relationship between John and his wife is, moreover, the subject of Edith B. Gelles's excellent "Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage" (2009). On such a crowded playing field, a late-tothe-game work like "First Family" could hope to distinguish itself only by bringing significant new findings to light or by narrating the couple's shared biography in a particularly deft and persuasive way; ideally, it would do both. Unfortunately, "First Family" accomplishes neither. Instead, it covers ground with which most Adams fans will already be familiar, and in a sloppy, inelegant manner that will leave admirers of Ellis's previous books sorely disappointed. Both born upstanding Massachusetts-colony Puritans, John Adams and Abigail Smith first met in 1759, in Abigail's family parlor, which Ellis - with characteristic redundancy - mentions three times in the space of the book's first two pages. Reunited three years later, 18-year-old Abigail and 27-year-old John found in each other the kindred spirit they both fervently desired. The attraction between these restlessly intelligent, strong-willed individuals was at once emotional, intellectual and sexual: "There is a threefold chord," Abigail informed her suitor in 1763, "and by this chord I am not ashamed to say that I am bound, nor do I [believe] that you are wholly free from it" Leading them to the altar in October 1764, this chord would remain their relationship's leitmotif for the 54 eventful years they would spend as husband and wife. Not long after their wedding, John was swept up in colonial politics, becoming "a major player" in the founding and government of the Republic. (Ellis likes this locution so much that he reuses it, with only slight variation, twice more in the space of five pages: John "was now publicly recognized as a major player"; "history was calling him to play a major role") Like many of the other founders, John was driven in part by his own formidable ambition. Unlike his revolutionary brothers-in-arms, however, Adams also drew strength and motivation from an uncommonly bright, fearlessly vocal, ardently supportive spouse. While scrupulously fulfilling her more conventional duties as wife and mother, Abigail served as John's most trusted confidante and sparring partner, staying informed about, and sometimes challenging him on, the vital issues of the day. Such active intellectual engagement was, Ellis rightly stresses, a rarity in "a conventional New England woman" (and would have been downright scandalous "if she had been raised in Virginia"). For his part, John not only prized his wife's acuity and independence, but reveled in his own domestic role, enthusiastically (if, because of his many long stints away from home, sporadically) participating in their four children's education. "In that sense," Ellis argues, "they were both androgynous, not for any deeply ideological reasons but because neither one was comfortable denying any important dimension of their respective personalities." So appealing is this marriage of the minds that Ellis, like many Adams chroniclers before him, cannot help presenting it in a suspiciously idealized light. Too often, with no cited evidence, he indulges in sweeping generalizations like: "It is . . . safe to assume a seamless symmetry between them that made conflicting convictions virtually impossible"; "The combination of patriotism and ambition was seamless in his soul" ; "The apparent contradiction" between intellectual autonomy and wifely submissiveness "felt to her like a seamless continuity"; and "In her mind and in her letters, the public affairs of state and the private family imperatives blended seamlessly." Putting aside the overuse of "seamless," these statements are problematic because they imply that the author has an absolute knowledge of the Adamses' innermost emotions and beliefs (John's "soul"; Abigail's "mind"). But as Ellis himself admits elsewhere, "There are some things . . . that we can never know for sure about their deepest thoughts and feelings." And those are the things that the couple, notwithstanding their wonderfully revealing correspondence, never committed to paper. YET documents are the responsible biographer's oxygen, without which his or her resuscitated figures cannot be credibly made to breathe. In the absence of textual proof, it is not "safe to assume" anything about a historical figure's unrecorded viewpoints. It is not acceptable to present authorial speculation as fact, as when Ellis says of John and Abigail: "Their minds were so perfectly aligned . . . that no discussion was necessary. . . . The larger issues required only nods and glances." To be sure, nonverbal communication features just as centrally in any relationship as do the spoken and written (the documentable and documented) sorts. To the extent that such cues and clues never found their way "into the historical record in the first place" - as Ellis concedes in another of his too-rare methodological disclaimers - the biographer has no business postulating them. The beauty of the Adamses' marriage was, and remains, that its written artifacts obviate the need for invention. Toward the end of her life, Abigail confided to her sister (in a passage that Ellis, curiously, neglects to quote) that despite the many challenges she and John endured, "after half a century, I can say, my choice" to marry him "would be the same if I again had youth, and opportunity to make it." Better than any putative, unspoken merging of spirits, these words evince that sweetest and hardest-won of conjugal triumphs: weathering the long, hard years together, and being happy. John and Abigail remained passionately devoted to each other, to their family and to the country. Caroline Weber is a frequent contributor to the Book Review.
Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [November 14, 2010]
Review by Booklist Review
When so much has been written and televised about John and Abigail Adams, do we need another book? Yes, when the author is distinguished historian Ellis. Although Ellis notes that any study of either John or Abigail is necessarily about them both since their partnership was so central to their story, his focus is on that partnership (an approach also taken by Edith B. Gelles in Abigail and John: Portrait of a Marriage, published last year). The letters John and Abigail exchanged are the chief documents an ongoing conversation that ceased (to the frustration of historians) when they were together but also sometimes when they were apart. John was not a good correspondent when he was in Europe, for example, and what letters he did write often took six months to arrive, when they were not lost at sea. In addition to looking at the strengths of the Adams' marriage, the book examines the toll taken by their years apart and the misfortunes in the lives of all their children except John Quincy. Ellis has produced a very readable history of the nation's founding as lived by these two.--Quinn, Mary Ellen Copyright 2010 Booklist
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Ellis (Founding Brothers) gives "the premier husband-wife team in all American history" starring roles in an engrossing romance. His Abigail has an acute intellect, but is not quite a protofeminist heroine: her ambitions are limited to being a mother and helpmeet, and in the iconic correspondence she often strikes the traditional pose of a neglected wife who sacrifices her happiness by giving up her husband to the call of duty. The author's more piquant portrait of John depicts an insecure, mercurial, neurotic man stabilized by Abigail's love and advice. Ellis's implicit argument-that the John/Abigail partnership lies at the foundation of the Adams family's public achievements-is a bit over-played, and not always to the advantage of the partnership: "Her judgment was a victim of her love for John.," Ellis writes of Abigail's support for the Alien and Sedition Acts, the ugliest blot on John's presidency, all of which explains little and excuses less. Still, Ellis's supple prose and keen psychological insight give a vivid sense of the human drama behind history's upheavals. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review
The story of Abigail and John Adams has been told before, and there is little that is new in this biography. However, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ellis's (history, Mount Holyoke Coll.; Abigail Adams) narrative style and actress/narrator Kimberly Farr's warm, sympathetic reading make this a very listenable audio experience. Farr ostensibly becomes Abigail as she reads her letters, and she successfully projects John's longing for Abigail into her reading of his own letters. This popular biography is an easy introduction to the Adamses and their political life that even readers/listeners of other Adams biographies are sure to enjoy. [The Knopf hc was recommended for "biography buffs who haven't yet read about John and Abigail," LJ 8/10.-Ed.]-Juleigh Muirhead Clark, Colonial Williamsburg Fdn. Lib., VA (c) Copyright 2011. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
The Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awardwinning author presents a vivid and insightful portrait of John and Abigail Adams.A telling aspect of John's nature was his confidence (some might say arrogance) in the fact that his life story would be an important part of thepolitical history of theAmerican Revolution. Because of this prescience, he and Abigail preserved a massive number of documents, including their own personal correspondence. Ellis (American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic, 2007, etc.) makes good use of this archive, reconstructing a detailed chronology of the Adams marriage. From the beginning, Abigail was an intelligent and loyal partner, privy to every aspect of John's involvement in the nascent Revolution; the author describes Abigail as a vital "ballast" to John's excitability and mood swings. As his place in the new government strengthened, John was often called away from their Massachusetts home, a circumstance that brought much sadness to the couple but provides historians with intimate letters that the two sent each other throughout each separation. In these, John and Abigail discuss everything from domestic issues to politics to their relationship, displaying the unusually egalitarian and loving partnership they shared. John adored Abigail's confidence and intellect, and Abigail was proud to support and advise her famous husband as he navigated his remarkably productive political career. This special connection lasted for more than 50 years and survived a litany of domestic hardships amid the political successes, including the heartbreak of witnessing their adult children (excepting John Quincy)devolve into poverty, depression and alcoholism. Despite this, writes Ellis, "Abigail and John remained resolute, infinitely resilient, the invulnerable center that would always hold." The author's beautiful writing draws the reader wholly into this relationship, bringing new perspective to the historical importance of this enduring love story.An impeccable account of the politics, civics and devotion behind the Adams marriage.]] Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.