Recently I read about a woman who received the recognition of being the first American woman to support herself by writing. I have a feeling none of you have heard of her and this is partly because she was born in 1755 and died in 1831, and maybe missed being in history books. Readers of Shirl and You know that I enjoy writing, but never serious enough about it that I have tried to sell my writings. Of course that’s mainly because I have never needed to support myself. Thanks to a hard working husband.
Hannah Adams didn’t have this security. She never married. A person is more likely to
take their abilities more seriously if faced with poverty like she did. As a young girl, she lost her mother at age 10, then an aunt. Her father’s business failed and she was reduced to poverty. And, she had a sister she so desired to support.
Hannah overcame great and peculiar difficulties in her pursuit of knowledge, but had a strong desire for it. She was unhealthy as a child and didn’t attend school, but her father had a love for literature. A teacher did eventually teach her to read and write. The books, chiefly used, were the Bible and Psalter. She was then able to read her father’s books and loved poetry and novels which taught her to be romantic.
She was still just a child that had already faced a number of trials. Her father began to
make somewhat of a living for he and his family by housing boarders, many of whom were divinity students. These men taught her Latin and Greek. By the age of twenty she had read many books. Hannah, though, was extremely timid in early years and averse to appearing in company. So, what would become of her after her father died?
She found that any kind of work she could do for profit was very small and inadequate to her support. During the American Revolutionary War she learned to weave bobbin lace which was then salable, and was much more profitable than spinning, sewing or knitting. After the war, however this resource failed and again, poverty pressed heavily upon her. As a teacher,she oftentimes did not have a home and lived with students’ parents. She began seeing old age approaching without any provision for it.
Earlier in her life the boarders in her father’s home sparked an interest in religion. She wrote a manuscript, in 1784, which she hoped to see published. It was entitled, “An
Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects.” It was an encyclopedic outline of world religions. In the book she strove to maintain an impartial tone and never examined the points of dispute between different denominations of Christians. A printer agreed to publish the book, but she received very little reimbursement. When he asked about a second printing, she refused. The reprinting of the book would be for her benefit. In 1791, she wrote “A Summary History of New England,” and in 1812 she completed a work on the Jews, whom she felt were suffering. persecuted people.
Hannah began to lose her vision, and at the encouragement of others, she wrote her memoirs. She hoped the publishing of this manuscript would provide for her aged and infirm sister. She had friends who believed that the circumstances of her life and the traits of her character, well deserved to be remembered.
Her life had, at times, presented her with a gloomy existence. But, she persevered at a time when penalties and discouragements facing authors fell upon women with double weight. I am impressed with her humility when she wrote:” It is other people’s thoughts that I put into my own language.” Her search for knowledge and love for literature allowed her to become a literary woman when literature was a rare accomplishment in our country.
President John Adams was a follower of her works and offered to her the use of his library.
He said that somewhere along the line they must be related. Hope you enjoyed this tribute to a woman who didn’t let poverty or dire circumstances stop her from accomplishing much. You all have a story to tell and I’m hoping you will write to Shirl And You.