John Adams to Abigail Adams
Philadelphia July 7. 1776
It is worth the while of a Person, obliged to write as much as I do, to consider the Varieties of Style. . . .1 The Epistolary, is essentially different from the oratorical, and the Historical Style. . . . Oratory abounds with Figures. History is simple, but grave, majestic and formal. Letters, like Conversation, should be free, easy, and familiar.
Simplicity and Familiarity,2 are the Characteristicks of this Kind of Writing. Affectation is as disagreable, in a Letter, as in Conversation, and therefore, studied Language, premeditated Method, and sublime Sentiments are not expected in a Letter. Notwithstanding which, the Sublime, as well as the beautifull, and the Novel, may naturally enough, appear, in familiar Letters among Friends.—Among the ancients there are two illustrious Examples of the Epistolary Style, Cicero and Pliny, whose Letters present you with Modells of fine Writing, which has borne the Criticism of almost two thousand Years. In these, you see the Sublime, the beautifull, the Novell, and the Pathetick, conveyed in as much Simplicity, Ease, Freedom, and Familiarity, as Language is capable of.
Let me request you, to turn over the Leaves of the Praeceptor, to a Letter of Pliny the Younger, in which he has transmitted, to these days, the History of his Uncles Philosophical Curiosity, his Heroic Courage and his melancholly Catastrophe.3 Read it, and say, whether it is possible to write a Narrative of Facts, in a better Manner. It is copious and particular, in selecting the Circumstances, most natural, remarkable and affecting. There is not an incident omitted, which ought to have been remembered, nor one inserted that is not worth Remembrance.
It gives you, an Idea of the Scaene, as distinct and perfect, as if a Painter had drawn it to the Life, before your Eyes. It interests your Passions, as much as if you had been an Eye Witness of the whole Transaction. Yet there are no Figures, or Art used. All is as simple, natural, easy, and familiar, as if the Story had been told in Conversation, without a Moments Premeditation.
Pope and Swift have given the World a Collection of their Letters; but I think in general, they fall short, in the Epistolary Way, of their own Emminence in Poetry and other Branches of Literature. Very few of their Letters, have ever engaged much of my Attention. Gays Letter, concerning the Pair of Lovers kill’d by Lightning, is worth more than the whole Collection, in Point of Simplicity, and Elegance of Composition, and as a genuine Model of the epistolary Style.4—There is a Book, which I wish you owned, I mean Rollins Belles Letters, in which the Variations of Style are explained.5
Early Youth is the Time, to learn the Arts and Sciences, and especially to correct the Ear, and the Imagination, by forming a Style. I wish you would think of forming the Taste, and Judgment of your Children, now, before any unchaste Sounds have fastened on their Ears, and before any Affectation, or Vanity, is settled on their Minds, upon the pure Principles of Nature. . . . Musick is a great Advantage, for Style depends in Part upon a delicate Ear.
The Faculty of Writing is attainable, by Art, Practice, and Habit only. The sooner, therefore the Practice begins, the more likely it will be to succeed. Have no Mercy upon an affected Phrase, any more than an affected Air, Gate, Dress, or Manners.
Your Children have Capacities equal to any Thing. There is a Vigour in the Understanding, and a Spirit and Fire in the Temper of every one of them, which is capable of ascending the Heights of Art, Science, Trade, War, or Politicks.
They should be set to compose Descriptions of Scaenes and Objects, and Narrations of Facts and Events, Declamations upon Topicks, and other Exercises of various sorts, should be prescribed to them.
Set a Child to form a Description of a Battle, a Storm, a seige, a Cloud, a Mountain, a Lake, a City, an Harbour, a Country seat, a Meadow, a Forrest, or almost any Thing, that may occur to your Thoughts.
Set him to compose a Narration of all the little Incidents and Events of a Day, a Journey, a Ride, or a Walk. In this Way, a Taste will be formed, and a Facility of Writing acquired.
For myself, as I never had a regular Tutor, I never studied any Thing methodically, and consequently never was compleatly accomplished in any Thing. But as I am conscious of my own Deficiency, in these Respects, I should be the less pardonable, if I neglected the Education of my Children.
In Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, my Education was imperfect, because unmethodical. Yet I have perhaps read more upon these Arts, and considered them in a more extensive View than some6 others.
RC and LbC (Adams Papers).
1. Here and below, suspension points are in MS.
2. LbC adds “and Freedom,” perhaps unintentionally omitted from RC.
3. Among JA’s books in the Boston Public Library is a copy of Robert Dodsley, The Preceptor: Containing a General Course of Education, 5th edn., 2 vols., London, 1769. The younger Pliny’s letter that JA praises was addressed to Tacitus and is at 1:97–100. See also JA’s Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:24–25.
4. JA could have encountered this letter, supposedly written by John Gay in 1718, either in Dodsley’s Preceptor (see preceding note) or in one or another of the several editions of Alexander Pope’s Works that he owned and that remain (though with numerous volumes missing) among his books in the Boston Public Library; see Catalogue of JA’s Library description begins Catalogue of the John Adams Library in the Public Library of the City of Boston, Boston, 1917. description ends . But the letter itself has a most curious and complex history. Judging from the texts and commentary in the latest and best edition of Pope’s correspondence, it is still not possible to tell whether the letter was written by Gay, by Pope, by both of them in collaboration, or, since the story it tells is known in so many versions, perhaps by neither in its earliest form. The letter relates a sentimental tale, of a kind that soon became very popular, about two rustic and utterly virtuous lovers who were struck dead in each other’s arms by lightning when they sought shelter in a haycock from a storm. Although Pope published Gay’s version in 1737, as by Gay, Pope himself signed and sent versions of the tale in nearly identical language to sundry friends, including Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Lady Mary did not admire the attitudes of the new school of sensibility and replied astringently:
“I must applaud your good nature in supposing that your pastoral lovers, (vulgarly called Haymakers) would have lived in everlasting joy and harmony, if the lightning had not interrupted their scheme of happiness. I see no reason to imagine that John Hughes and Sarah Drew were either wiser or more virtuous than their neighbours. That a well-set man of twenty-five should have a fancy to marry a brown woman of eighteen, is nothing marvellous; and I cannot help thinking that had they married, their lives would have passed in the common track with their fellow-parishioners. His endeavouring to shield her from a storm was a natural action, and what he would have certainly done for his horse, if he had been in the same situation. Neither am I of opinion that their sudden death was a reward of their mutual virtue” (Pope, Correspondence, ed. George Sherburn, Oxford, 1956, 1:523; see also p. 479–483, 494–496).
5. On Charles Rollin and his books, which were favorites in the Adams family, see AA to JA, 19 Aug. 1774, above, and note there. JA eventually acquired a copy (and it is now among his books in the Boston Public Library) of Rollin’s The Method of Teaching and Studying the Belles Lettres, or, an Introduction to Languages, Poetry, Rhetoric, History, Moral Philosophy, Physics, &c., 6th edn., 3 vols., London, 1769.
6. LbC: “most.”