Monday, May 25, 2009

American History Rethunk

I've been reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams since, I think, last fall--I started reading it, and then stopped, and then started from the beginning, and I actually think I may finish it this week. It's filled in a lot of my knowledge of the Revolution, and is generally interesting, but the parts I have found most intriguing have had to do with the Adamses' attitudes about slavery. They were staunch anti-slavery folks, these Massachusetts Puritan types, and McCullough gives some interesting insights as to how this affected their world view, for example, mentioning Abigail's fear at one point that the war effort will fail because the colonies have permitted the sin of slavery.

Much later in the book, when the Adamses are living in London, Abigail goes to see Sarah Siddons as Desdemona in Othello. (MA puritans though they may have been, the Adamses liked theater, and since there were none in Boston, living in Europe was a chance to rock out.)

McCullough writes:

To Abigail, Mrs. Siddons was brilliant but miscast as Lady Macbeth. It was
in Othello, as Desdemona, that she was "interesting beyond any actress
I had ever seen."

Yet to read of Desdemona in the arms of a black man was, Abigail found, not
the same as seeing it before her eyes. "Othello was represented blacker than any
African," she wrote. Whether it was from "the prejudices of education" or from a
"natural antipathy", she knew not, "But my whole soul shuddered whenever I saw
the sooty heretic Moor touch the fair Desdemona." Othello was "manly, generous,
noble" in character, so much that was admirable. Still, she could not separate
the color from the man.

What I find fascinating is that she tries to, and feels disturbed that she can't. I suppose I'm projecting later ideas about race onto poor Abigail Adams, but I find it both interesting and informative that an eighteenth-century American woman (granted, one with a rock-solid anti-slavery bias) would feel bothered by the idea that she couldn't be open-minded enough to feel comfortable with interracial romance.

Apparently, while Thomas Jefferson was shuttling his kids around Europe, his daughter Polly ended up staying with the Adamses in London for a while, along with the soon-to-be-infamous Sally Hemings, who was at the time fourteen and non-infamous. Abigail was somewhat thrown off--she thought Sally was far too young to be taking care of Jefferson's daughter, and she'd never had a slave living under her roof before or since. One wonders what she made of it when the Jefferson/Hemings scandale later hit the papers.

No comments: