I’m sure all of our readers know that moment when you’re looking for one thing but find something else entirely (some call it serendipity—I just call it research). Such as doing a Name Browse in Hamnet for “Adams” (I believe at the time I was looking for something edited by our former director, Joseph Quincy Adams), and discovering the heading “Adams, Abigail, 1744-1818, correspondent.” I remember being bemused by this discovery, a little perplexed as to why we would have that in our collection, and filing its existence away for another time.
This letter was again brought to my mind last week, with Caroline’s post about pins—as I’m sure many of my fellow musical theatre fans will agree (at least when they’re not busy singing along with the songs from 1776.) 1
The curious part is not that an autograph letter from Abigail Adams survives, 2 but that we have it in our collection. Early nineteenth century letters from notable American revolutionaries are not precisely within the Folger’s collection development policies. So how did it end up here?
The Hamnet record itself gives the first clue as to how the letter ended up at the Folger: there is a Case File number, cs2079. As readers of this blog may know, Case File numbers were given to the materials that the Folgers themselves purchased (based, literally, on which crate—or case—the item was packed in). In this case, 3 the file for Case 2079 contains a list of items from a lot of autograph letters that the Folgers purchased from rare book and ephemera dealer, John Heise Autographs. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a date for the purchase, but looking through the list gave a clear idea of why the Folgers were interested in the lot: most, if not all, of the letters had some sort of Shakespearean connection, either in the person writing the letter, 4 or in the form of quotations within the letters themselves.
Abigail Adams’s letter is addressed to “Elizabeth” Rush, wife of Richard Rush, then Attorney General of the United States. (Mrs. Rush’s name was actually Catherine Elizabeth, and she signed the return letter “Cath. E Rush.”)
The Adamses had a long connection with the Rush family, 5 and Abigail begins the letter by apologizing to Mrs. Rush for “intruding” upon her hospitality “by my frequent introduction of my friends to your acquaintance.” And that is, in essence, the scope of the letter—a letter of introduction for Miss Eliza Sumner and her brother, who were planning on spending the winter in Washington.
Abigail goes on to admit that, if pressed whether she knew Richard Rush, “personally I do not think I Should recognize him, or he me” but that she is still comfortable making these introductions because “his Heart and Soul are my familiar Friend’s, and as Such, in the Language of Shakespear— ‘I Grapple him to my Soul with hooks of Steel'”.
This (almost) quotation of Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 3, line 69, is certainly the reason the letter was included in the lot. The misquotations of “my” instead of “thy” and “hooks” instead of “hoops” might or might not have been intentional. Abigail was unafraid of adapting quotations to suit her purposes, and did so frequently in her letters. However, it could also have been an honest mistake by a woman who had probably learned the passage some 60 years prior. But the intent is clear: because Richard Rush was considered by John to be a friend, Abigail could consider him (and, by extension, his wife) one as well.
Abigail had a habit of sprinkling quotations of Shakespeare (among others) into much of her correspondence, and this habit allowed one of her letters to find a home here at the Folger, amidst so many of the writers that she admired. I’d like to think that she’d be pleased with that.
- Relevant lyrics and cast recording
- Although her letters to her husband are most well known, Abigail maintained extensive correspondence with many of her contemporaries, both men and women.
- The puns are impossible to resist; don’t try.
- For example, the lot also included autograph letters from J.O. Halliwell-Phillipps and Horace Howard Furness, who was one of the leading American Shakespearean scholars of the late 19th and was Emily Folger’s advisor and mentor for her Master’s thesis.
- Richard was the son of Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Richard’s political career overlapped greatly with that of John Quincy Adams.