Sunday, December 12, 2010

Day 12: Two First Couples, Two Generations

Day 12 in our 24 Days of Books looks at two books about two presidential marriages in two different eras: First Family: Abigail & John Adams by Joseph J. Ellis and Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage by Hazel Rowley.

Both marriages played out in the spotlight, with the burden of challenges both personal and political. Both marriages featured intelligent, opinionated first ladies who each served as a true partner to the president, although the earlier in a less public way.

Joseph Ellis is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Founding Brothers and American Sphinx. His newest book is part biography, part political history, and part love story. The book tells the full story of their relationship in the context of America's creation as a people and as a nation, bringing human scale to the telling of great events.

John and Abigal met in 1759, when John was 24 and Abigail not quite 15. They soon began a passionate correspondence that resulted in their marriage five years later -- but the correspondence continued. During their marriage, they were separated nearly as much as they were together, which led to voluminous correspondence -- some 1200+ letters.Despite her lack of formal education, Abigail was a true partner in John's life, with reading habits and a level of opinion and intellectual engagement that would have been "downright scandalous" if she had been raised in Virginia, rather than in Massachusetts.

In this day of emailing and texting -- instant communication across countless miles -- it's hard to imagine a relationship that plays out in large part through printed correspondence that could take weeks or even months to reach its destination.

Almost 150 years later came another political marriage of intellectual equals: that of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt.

Hazel Rowley's book tells the story of the Roosevelt marriage, and in particular its "evolution from a conventional Victorian family into the bold and radical partnership that made Eleanor and Franklin go down in history as one of the most inspiring couples of all time." According to Rowley, their marriage was not a "gracious facade" while each went about their own lives but rather a supportive and daring partnership consciously created in pursuit of their own ambitions and needs.

Eleanor and Franklin were married in 1905, and Franklin took office in 1933, at the height of the depression and six weeks after Hitler became Chancellor in Germany. The book chronicles the Roosevelt marriage from its beginning through 1962, the year Eleanor died (Franklin died in 1945) and clearly shows just how magnetic both Franklin and Eleanor were as personalities. Eleanor was certainly more of a politcal player in her own right than Abigail Adams was, yet they both played strong roles as first wives.

In an article in last Saturday's Oregonian, Jeff Baker wrote of his interview (via email) with Rowley.

Rowley, who currently lives in New York City, was born in London and educated in England and Australia. She has written three previous biographies: Christina Stead: A Biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times, and Tete-a-Tete: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. She wrote her PhD thesis on Simone de Beauvoir and Existentialism and interviewed Beauvoir in her Montparnasse apartment in 1976.

 How did she come to write about these people, and now about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt? Rowley addresses the question on her website: "Some people wonder what my books have in common. An Australian woman, an African-American man, the most notorious French couple in the twentieth century, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt? For those who have read all four, the thread is clear. They were courageous people, who all, in some way, felt 'outsiders' in society. Above all, they were passionate people who cared about the world and felt angry about its injustices. It is no coincidence that they were born around the turn of the century, within a few years of each other. They came of age at a time of revolutionary change and hope. They were all progressives. And then the Cold War descended on them, like a thick fog. I see parallels with my own lifetime. I came of age in the late 60s and 70s, a time of revolutionary change and hope. And then came the fog."

"My books are all, in their different ways, voyages of discovery. I write books to learn, to stretch my horizons. These voyages of mine are full of risk and passion. But each time they leave me inspired and enriched. And I hope to do the same for my readers."

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