Abigail and John Adams : The Americanization of Sensibility
LJ Reviews 2010 September #2
Barker-Benfield (history, SUNY at Albany; The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes Toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America) assumes a readership already steeped in the essential details of Abigail and John Adams's lives. He approaches them here not biographically but by reading their correspondence (they were often apart during the Revolutionary and Federalist eras) through the lens of sensibility—that is, the British term from the 18th century meaning the capacity for strong feelings, emotions, pains, and pleasures, caused not only by relationships but also by art, literature, and culture. Barker-Benfield organizes the book by the themes that he identifies as the Adamses discuss their own lives and what they read: male and female roles, manners, public life, child rearing. Last, he explores how the American Revolution sparked the Americanization of what had been originally a British concept. The author's dizzying number of references to both classical and 18th-century writers and philosophers can be confusing; nonspecialist readers will miss a supporting chronological narrative of the Adamses' marriage. VERDICT Lest the title mislead, this is not a biography but an advanced cultural-historical study and analysis. Those very familiar both with the Adamses and with the specialized language of this kind of critical discourse will most appreciate this.—Kathryn Stewart, American Folklife Ctr., Washington, DC[Page 84]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
PW Reviews 2010 August #3
In this dense academic study, the celebrated correspondence of John Adams and his wife, Abigail, is mined for clues to the Revolutionary era's cult of emotionalism. Historian Barker-Benfield, at the State University of New York at Albany, investigates the 18th-century rise of "sensibility"--a worldview, expressed by the period's sentimental literary style, that held feelings and passions, rather than reason, to be the proper grounding of human psychology and morality. He traces its spread from British philosophers, moralists, and novelists into the awareness of genteel Americans like the Adamses, where it emerges, for example, in Abigail's plea for John to insert more "personal and tender soothings" into his letters. Barker-Benfield's rich analysis posits sensibility as a feminization of culture, an assertion of women's emotional claims against heartless rakes and gruff, tyrannical husbands, but also situates it at the heart of male revolutionaries' political rhetoric, with its appeal to the world for its sentimental allegiance. But the author's gray, jargon-riddled writing is a turnoff; under his plodding exegeses the charm of the Adams correspondence wilts. (Nov.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.