Sunday, July 16, 2017

`Sentimental Effusions of the Heart'

Evolution does not apply to the realm of emotion. We are no more sophisticated than our forebears, and recent developments suggest the reverse. We love and hate as our ancestors did. Complaint is eternal. One of the reasons we read literature written centuries or millennia ago is to learn to fathom our unchanging nature. Take this passage from a letter Abigail Adams wrote from Boston to her husband on this date, July 16, in 1775:

“All the Letters I receive from you seem to be wrote in so much haste, that they scarcely leave room for a social feeling. They let me know that you exist, but some of them contain scarcely six lines. I want some sentimental Effusions of the Heart.”

John Adams was in Philadelphia, midwifing the birth of the United States. He was a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, and would nominate George Washington to serve as commander of the colonial forces in the Revolutionary War. As a congressional delegate, Adams would later nominate Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence. One is tempted to dismiss Abigail Adams as a stereotypical shrew, nagging her work-driven, high-minded husband. Such a judgment would be unfair. She was brilliant and devoted to her family. She could write wittily and eloquently: “I want some sentimental Effusions of the Heart.” Eleven years later, on July 21, 1786, Abigail writes to John Quincy Adams, her son the future president:

“The attention you have always given to your studies, and the fondness You have for Literature, precludes any other injunctions to you than that of taking care of your Health. I believe I ought to except one other—which is a watchfulness over yourself; that the knowledge you have acquired does not make you assumeing [sic], and too tenacious of your own opinions.”

Timeless advice. Abigail goes on to quote Pope’s “Essay on Criticism” and writes of Dr. Johnson:

“I have met with many persons here, who were personally acquainted with the dr. They have a great respect for his memory, but they all agree that he was an unpleasent [sic] companion who would never bear the least contradiction. Your sister Sent you Mrs Pioggi [sic] anecdotes of him. Boswells are too contemptable to be worth reading.”

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