I remember several years ago writing Hannah Adam’s name in a notebook when I was at the library: “First Professional Woman Writer in the United States.” I remembered, naturally, that Anne Bradstreet had preceded her in having a book published, but I suppose she was seen more as a poet “on the side” secondary to being a mother and a wife.
As I was researching her life I wondered how it would have been different if she had been raised in a different circumstance. What if she had been raised, for example, not exactly privileged but solidly middle class.
Hannah Adams was born into a family whose life was shaped by financial struggle. They lived on a farm and brought in boarders. These were actually young men from Harvard who weren’t up to snuff academically or had disciplinary problems. They were sent “to the country” to get tutoring and come back to Harvard more prepared.
Little Hannah never went to school. Instead she had her intellectual hunger filled from these young men who happily taught her Greek, Latin, Religion and whatever they were learning. She loved to talk to her father who, like Hannah, loved to learn and was perhaps more suited to a life of learning than a life of farming.
When Hannah was seventeen, her father went bankrupt. She couldn’t wait anymore, she had to get out into the world to support her family. She started as a lace maker, and then became a school teacher. She continued to run a country schoolhouse while doing research lead to her work View of Religious Opinions which was published in 1784. Her first edition was most fruitful for the publisher, so she gained that knowledge to edition push for the passage of the United States’ first copywriting law in 1790. James Freeman, a clergyman respectful of Hannah’s work, gained “subscribers” for her second edition.
She was one of very few women who gained access to the Boston Athenaeum, who didn’t loan books until 1827. It was and is a sort of temple for scholarship. The gentle and steadfast Hannah made friends with many of her fellow scholars, the top intellectuals in Boston society.
It was 1799 when her popularity began to soar and she became a “dinner and house party star.” She was the perfect model for Education for Girls and Women as she wrote about faith and her research and high intelligence were revered.
She published several more books before getting into a legal tangle with Rev. Jedediah Morse who, like Hannah, was working on a school book about the history of New England. Once again, the woman labeled “quiet and frail” won a legal battle against the loud, rambunctious man and naturally, gained even more followers.
Hannah did not base her career on helping women establish themselves as professionals, she explained her first priority was to take care of and financially support her father and sister. In response, her supporters started an annuity for her.
She wrote until her death, with her memoirs being published posthumously because Hannah wanted the proceeds from it to support her sister. She always, always thought of family first and foremost. Even in her death she was focused on being sure her family members would have money to survive.
I knew I loved Hannah even more when I read this quote – which could have been written by me these two hundred years later: “My first idea of Heaven was of a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified.
I asked a question about how Hannah’s circumstances influenced the shape of her life.
What about you? Which of your circumstances influences your life most on a daily basis? What will you/have you done with these “gifts” that sometimes, to some people, seem unfortunate?
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Tomorrow’s Literary Granny: Isabelle Eberhardt, Eccentric Writer & World Traveler of the 19th Century.
This post is a part of my series Our Literary Grannies from A t0 Z which was inspired by the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. Find out more about the Challenge by clicking here.
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