Leaving London

February 20, 1788 – August 2, 1788

AA to TJ: “I thank you my dear sir for all your kind wishes and prayers. Heaven only knows how we are to be disposed of. You have resided long enough abroad to feel and experience how inadequate our allowance is to our decent expenses, and that it is wholy impossible for any thing to be saved from it. This our countrymen in general will neither know or feel. I have lived long enough, and seen enough of the world, to check expectations, and to bring my mind to my circumstances, and retiring to our own little farm feeding my poultry and improveing my garden has more charms for my fancy, than residing at the court of Saint James’s where I seldom meet with characters so innofensive as my Hens and chicklings, or minds so well improved as my garden.”

This is a charming goodbye from Abigail Adams as she and her husband pack their bags to return to the USofA. But I’m finding Mrs. Adams’s letters a bit melodramatic. It seems unlikely, from what I understand about her intellect and drive, that she would really rather hole up on the farm than forge ahead with Mr. Adams in carving out a new government in the company of the nation’s political elite (plus she manages to get in a dig about JA’s crap paycheck). It’s probably a common refrain among leaders, warriors, and CEOs—and not to say there isn’t some truth in it. Heck, I insist on my desire for a life of hermitude, but I’d probably lose my mind in about two weeks if it actually happened. Kind of reminds me of this:

The New Yorker, March 19, 20122

The previous paragraph leads me to derail the theme and voice some thoughts about vocabulary. “Hermitude” isn’t really a word, is it? What am I looking for? A life of “solitude?” But that doesn’t paint the picture of the ascetic up in a mountain cave that I’m going for. Also, “melodramatic” isn’t really the word I wanted. What I had in mind was the adjective form of “affectation,” which up until just now when I looked in the dictionary, I thought was (and having been using in conversations, at least in my head) “affectatious.” That is not a word either. “Bombastic?” “Pretentious?” I’m a bit horrified that I’ve trained my brain to use “affectatious” (and “hermitude”) when there is no such thing. That’s going to be a tough one to unlearn. As I get older, I find I have a growing fear of being accused of catechresis. OK, no one is going to use that word in a conversation—at least no one I know—but if my friends and acquaintances are anything like me, they may be thinking, “Whoops, he just used the wrong word and doesn’t even know it. What’s the word for doing that?” I could have sworn it was something other than catachresis, too. Please help.

To conclude (in case you were wondering), this comes from TJ to JA on August 2, 1788: “I have received with a great deal of pleasure the account of your safe arrival and joyful reception at Boston.”


2 thoughts on “Leaving London

  1. But this much, by AA, “I have lived long enough, and seen enough of the world, to check expectations …” is worth pondering.

    When do enough moments where one says, “wait, I’ve seen this before” or “I’ve heard that before” accumulate with the result that a bit of skepticism rises its head early in a reaction.

    At that watershed point, the struggle becomes an effort to maintain a sense of tolerance, hopefulness and sympathy for others reflections and actions.

    1. Good point. To me, AA seems like one of those people who enjoys using language, meaning that her letters are deliberately dramatic, humorous, and even sarcastic, because she is “crafting” a letter, not just spilling her thoughts. If that is true, I want to maintain some distance. And it is probably true for all three of these people, since especially JA and TJ probably expect their letters to survive for posterity. But it isn’t an excuse to dismiss what they say. I suppose this is the challenge in reading anyone’s letters, historical or not. How much of our real selves are revealed in our written word? Distance and skepticism is good, but I agree that it’s equally important to resist cynicism – and even worse, mockery – and to accept sincerity and true emotion.

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