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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

A Literary Woman in the Last Century

By Hannah Adams (1755–1831)

[A Memoir of Miss Hannah Adams. Written by Herself. 1832.]

FROM my infancy I had a feeble constitution; in particular, an extreme weakness and irritability in my nervous system. Hence I can recollect uneasiness and pain previous to any pleasurable sensations. My mother was an excellent woman, and deservedly esteemed and beloved; but as her own health was delicate, and she possessed great tenderness and sensibility, I was educated in all the habits of debilitating softness, which probably added to my constitutional want of bodily and mental firmness.

My father’s circumstances then appeared affluent, and it was not supposed I should be reduced to the necessity of supporting myself by my own exertions. Partly from ill health, and an early singularity of taste, I took no pleasure in the amusements to which children are generally much attached. My health did not even admit of attending school with the children in the neighborhood where I resided. The country schools, at that time, were kept but a few months in the year, and all that was then taught in them was reading, writing and arithmetic. In the summer, the children were instructed by females in reading, sewing, and other kinds of work. The books chiefly made use of were the Bible and Psalter. Those who have had the advantages of receiving the rudiments of their education at the schools of the present day, can scarcely form an adequate idea of the contrast between them, and those of an earlier age; and of the great improvements which have been made even in the common country schools. The disadvantages of my early education I have experienced during life; and, among various others, the acquiring a very faulty pronunciation; a habit contracted so early, that I cannot wholly rectify it in later years.

In my early years I was extremely timid, and averse from appearing in company. Indeed, I found but few with whom I could happily associate. My life, however, was not devoid of enjoyment. The first strong propensity of my mind which I can recollect, was an ardent curiosity, and desire to acquire knowledge. I remember that my first idea of the happiness of heaven was of a place where we should find our thirst for knowledge fully gratified. From my predominant taste I was induced to apply to reading, and as my father had a considerable library, I was enabled to gratify my inclination. I read with avidity a variety of books, previously to my mind’s being sufficiently matured and strengthened to make a proper selection. I was passionately fond of novels; and, as I lived in a state of seclusion, I acquired false ideas of life. The ideal world which my imagination formed was very different from the real. My passions were naturally strong, and this kind of reading heightened my sensibility, by calling it forth to realize scenes of imaginary distress. I was also an enthusiastic admirer of poetry; and as my memory, at an early period, was very tenacious, I committed much of the writings of my favorite poets to memory, such as Milton, Thomson, Young, etc. I did not, however, neglect the study of history and biography, in each of which kind of reading I found an inexhaustible fund to feast my mind, and gratify my curiosity.

Another source of my enjoyments in early life was an ardent admiration of the beauties of nature. This enthusiasm was heightened by the glowing descriptions of poetic writers, and I entered into all their feelings. This taste has continued through life. At the present time, when age and experience have in some measure repressed the warmth of my feelings, and while I am now writing, I should be more delighted with beautiful rural prospects, and fine flowers, than when in early life I used to be enraptured with contemplating the sublime and beautiful in the works of creation.

My early life was diversified with few events, and those of a painful nature. The loss of my excellent mother, which happened when I had reached my tenth year, was the first severe trial I was called to suffer. When her death took place, I was at an age when maternal direction is of the greatest importance, particularly in the education of daughters. Soon after, I was bereaved of an aunt, who was attached to me with almost maternal fondness. A few years after, my father failed in trade, in consequence of which I was reduced to poverty, with a constitution and early habits which appeared invincible obstacles to my supporting myself by my own exertions. Instead of that gayety, which is often attendant on youth, I was early accustomed to scenes of melancholy and distress; and every misfortune was enhanced by a radical want of health and firmness of mind. My life passed in seclusion, with gloomy prospects before me, and surrounded with various perplexities from which I could not extricate myself. The solitude in which I lived was, however, to me, preferable to society in general; and to that, and to my natural singularity, I must impute that awkwardness of manners, of which I never could divest myself at an advanced period of life. A consciousness of this awkwardness produced a dislike to the company of strangers. Those who have been accustomed to general society when young, can scarcely imagine the trembling timidity I felt, when introduced to my superiors in circumstances and education. I, however, enjoyed society upon a small scale. I had a few dear friends (for novels had taught me to be very romantic), who were chiefly in indigent circumstances, and like myself had imbibed a taste for reading, and were particularly fond of poetry and novels. Most of them wrote verses, which were read and admired by the whole little circle. Our mutual love of literature, want of fortune, and indifference to the society of those whose minds were wholly uncultivated, served to cement a union between us, which was interrupted only by the removal of the parties to distant places, and dissolved only by their death. Yet I soon experienced this melancholy change. One after another became victims to the King of Terrors, till our little society was greatly diminished; and I deeply felt these bereavements which were irreparable.

Still, however, I was blessed with a sister of similar taste and sentiments, but very different in her disposition. I was warm and irritable in my temper; she, placid and even. I was fluctuating and undecided; she, steady and judicious. I was extremely timid; she blended softness with courage and fortitude. I was inclined to be melancholy, though sometimes in high spirits; she was uniformly serene and cheerful. I placed the strongest reliance upon her judgment, and as she was older than myself, she seemed the maternal friend, as well as the best of sisters. In short, “she was my guide, my friend, my earthly all.”

As I was too feeble to engage in any laborious employments, I found considerable leisure for reading; and as my happiness chiefly consisted in literary pursuits, I was very desirous of learning the rudiments of Latin, Greek, geography, and logic. Some gentlemen who boarded at my father’s offered to instruct me in these branches of learning gratis, and I pursued these studies with indescribable pleasure and avidity. I still, however, sensibly felt the want of a more systematic education, and those advantages which females enjoy in the present day. Yet as I always read with great rapidity, perhaps few of my sex have perused more books at the age of twenty than I had. Yet my reading was very desultory, and novels engaged too much of my attention. Though my seclusion from the world preserved me from many temptations which are incident to young people, I was perhaps more exposed to errors of the understanding, than those who in early life have mixed more with the world. Time and experience have led me to see the falsity of many of my early opinions and ideas, and made me sensible that they were the source of a large share of the misfortunes of my following life.

Until I had attained the twentieth year of my age, my reading had chiefly consisted of works of imagination and feeling; such as novels and poetry. Even the religious works I perused were chiefly devotional poetry, and such works as Mrs. Rowe’s Devout Exercises, and the lives of persons who were eminently distinguished for their piety. I was almost a stranger to controversial works, and had never examined the points in dispute between different denominations of Christians. But at length an incident in my life gave a different turn to my literary pursuit.

While I was engaged in learning Latin and Greek, one of the gentlemen who taught me had by him a small manuscript from Broughton’s Dictionary, giving an account of Arminians, Calvinists, and several other denominations which were most common. This awakened my curiosity, and I assiduously engaged myself in perusing all the books which I could obtain, which gave an account of the various sentiments described. I soon became disgusted with the want of candor in the authors I consulted, in giving the most unfavorable descriptions of the denominations they disliked, and applying to them the names of heretics, fanatics, enthusiasts, etc. I therefore formed a plan for myself, made a blank book, and wrote rules for transcribing, and adding to, my compilation. But as I was stimulated to proceed only by curiosity, and never had an idea of deriving any profit from it, the compilation went on but slowly, though I was pressed by necessity to make every exertion in my power for my immediate support. During the American revolutionary war, I learned to weave bobbin lace, which was then salable, and much more profitable to me than spinning, sewing or knitting, which had previously been my employment. At this period I found but little time for literary pursuits. But at the termination of the American war, this resource failed, and I was again left in a destitute situation. My health did not admit of my teaching a school, and I was glad to avail myself of every opportunity of taking any kind of work which I could do, though the profit was very small, and inadequate to my support. One pleasing event occurred in this gloomy period. I had the satisfaction of teaching the rudiments of Latin and Greek to three young gentlemen, who resided in the vicinity. This was some advantage to me. Besides, it was a pleasant amusement. One of these young gentlemen was the Rev. Mr. Clark, of Norton, who pursued his studies with me till he entered Cambridge University, and has continued his friendship for me during life; and his uniform excellent character I have ever highly appreciated.

The difficulty of taking in such kinds of work as I could do, for I was not, like my sister, ingenious in all kinds of needle-work, induced me, as the last resort, to attend to my manuscript, with the faint hope that it might be printed, and afford me some little advantage. I was far from being sanguine as to the result, even if I accomplished this object. I had been in the habit of employing myself very diligently for trifling profits, and those who are in easy circumstances cannot form an adequate idea of the lively satisfaction I felt, when I could procure any work by which I could earn a few shillings. This kind of enjoyment, which Providence has given to the poor, appears intended to soften the many difficulties in their situation.

I was sensible, that, in printing my manuscript, I had various obstacles to encounter. It was difficult to procure proper materials for the work in my sequestered abode. I felt that my ignorance of the world, and little acquaintance with business, would put me in the power of every printer to whom I might apply. I, however, resumed my compilation on an enlarged scale, which included a few of the reasons which the various denominations give in defence of their different religious systems. Stimulated by an ardent curiosity, I entered into the vast field of religious controversy, for which my early reading had ill prepared me. I perused all the controversial works I could possibly obtain with the utmost attention, in order to abridge what appeared to me the most plausible arguments for every denomination. As I read controversy with a mind naturally wanting in firmness and decision, and without that pertinacity which blunts the force of arguments which are opposed to the tenets we have once imbibed, I suffered extremely from mental indecision, while perusing the various and contradictory arguments adduced by men of piety and learning in defence of their respective religious systems. Sometimes my mind was so strongly excited, that extreme feeling obliged me for a time to lay aside my employment. Notwithstanding it required much reading to perform my task, the painful feelings I suffered while preparing my work for the press far outweighed all the other labor. Reading much religious controversy must be extremely trying to a female, whose mind, instead of being strengthened by those studies which exercise the judgment, and give stability to the character, is debilitated by reading romances and novels, which are addressed to the fancy and imagination, and are calculated to heighten the feelings.

After my View of Religions was prepared for the press, the difficulty still remained of finding any printer willing and able to print it without money immediately paid. But at length, after various perplexities, this compilation was put to the press in 1784. The profit to myself was very small; for, as it might well have been expected from my father’s inexperience in the business of book-making, he was completely duped by the printer, in making the bargain. After being at the trouble of procuring upwards of four hundred subscribers, all the compensation I was able to obtain, was only fifty books; and I was obliged to find a sale for them, after the printer (whose name, out of respect to his descendants, I omit to mention) had received all the subscription money. As my books sold very well, the printer must have made something handsome by the publication.

The effect of reading so much religious controversy, which had been very trying to my mind, was extremely prejudicial to my health, and introduced a train of the most painful nervous complaints. I was at length brought so low, that the physician who attended me supposed I was in a decline. But after a tedious interval of extreme suffering, I began gradually to recover; and afterwards found my complaints were increased by following the injudicious advice of the physician who attended me. To the skill and attention of my friend Dr. Mann, formerly of Wrentham, I owe, under Heaven, the preservation of my life at this period.

Soon after I began to recover, I received a letter from the printer of my View of Religions, informing me that he had sold the greatest part of the edition, and was about to reprint it; and requesting me to inform him if I wished to make any additions to my work. As I had the precaution to secure the copyright, agreeably to the law passed in Massachusetts, 1783, I returned a laconic answer, forbidding him to reprint it; and he finally relinquished the design.

The information, that the first edition of my View of Religions was sold, gave me the idea of reprinting it for my own benefit. But as I was entirely destitute of pecuniary resources, ignorant of the world, incapable of conducting business, and precluded from almost all intercourse with persons of literature and information, and consequently destitute of friends who were able and willing to assist me, the execution of the plan was extremely difficult. Even the few friends I had gained at that time supposed the disadvantages in my situation too great to encourage my undertaking. Instead of assisting me, they considered my plan as chimerical, and depressed my hopes and discouraged my exertions….

The death of my beloved sister made me feel almost alone in the world. Our joys and sorrows, and all our interests were so closely blended, that I nearly identified her existence with my own. Everything appeared gloomy in my situation. My health was feeble; I was entirely destitute of property; my father’s circumstances were very low; and I had no other relation or friend from whom I might expect to derive assistance. But notwithstanding all the difficulties in my situation, I determined to use every possible exertion to help myself; considering that, if I was unsuccessful in attempting to extricate myself from poverty, my efforts would awaken the activity of my mind, and preserve me from sinking under the weight of affliction I sustained in losing the best of sisters. It was, perhaps, a happy circumstance, that necessity stimulated me to exertion in this most gloomy period of my existence.

After I began to prepare the additions to my View of Religions, I found it required a great effort to detach my mind from the recollection of past sufferings, and force myself to that mental exertion which is naturally so congenial to my mind. At length, however, I completed the task of preparing my work for the press. I had previously, in 1790, sent a petition to Congress, which was presented by the late Fisher Ames, Esq., for a general law to be passed, to secure to authors the copyright of their publications. I now applied to a large number of printers to know on what terms they would publish my work. But, though I wrote nearly the same letter to all, consisting of a few direct questions, their answers were generally various, prolix, and ambiguous.

I at length concluded to accept the terms of one of the printers to whom I applied, who offered me one hundred dollars in books, for an edition of one thousand copies. When I went to Boston for this purpose, a friend of mine introduced me to the Rev. Mr. Freeman, whom I had only once before seen: but I was well apprised of his benevolent character, which I found more than realized the ideas which I had formed of it from report. I shall ever recollect the generous interest he took in my affairs, with the most lively gratitude. He removed my perplexity, by transacting the business with the printer. By his advice, a subscription paper was published; and I soon found the benefit of his patronage, in procuring a large number of subscribers, and concluding an advantageous bargain for me with Mr. Folsom, the printer. The second edition was published in 1791; and the emolument I derived from it not only placed me in a comfortable situation, but enabled me to pay the debts I had contracted during mine and my sister’s illness, and to put out a small sum upon interest.