Thursday, July 21, 2011
Book Review: Parlor Politics by Catherine Allgor
I absolutely loved this book. I thought it was incredibly well written and a totally new look at history and a time period that is pretty well documented. It's not easy to bring a new perspective to the table, but this book does an amazing job.
The author focus on a thirty year period, 1800-1830, that gave birth to the Washington, D.C. we are familiar with today. In particular, the women behind the scenes that structured the social scene in D.C. and served as partners to their husbands and agents for their families in the common goal of obtaining jobs, social standing and networks of kin and friends. The book is structured into five parts. First, President Thomas Jefferson's administration and his attempts to keep women at the margins of the city and politics. Second, Dolley Madison's impact on D.C. and the White House. Third, women in Washington in general. Fourth, Louisa Catherine Adams campaign to win the Presidency for her husband. Five, how one woman brought down the Jackson Cabinet, and almost the republic.
What was so amazing to me about this book is that it takes place in an era I am really familiar with. I wrote my thesis on John Quincy Adams during his tenure of Secretary of State, which is the exact same time period as section four in this book. Yet, somehow, I overlooked the tremendous contributions of Louisa Catherine (I am really embarrassed to admit that). To be fair, I wasn't writing about the 1824 election, which was her primary focus, but she was a huge social player in D.C. and should not have been missed. In fact, that's really the point of the book. To demonstrate the massive role women played in the first 30 years of the capital, but how they brokered deals, managed people and pulled strings from inside their protected parlors. It was critical that they be able to deny any interest in affecting politics such that they were complying with social expectations about the behavior of women, and that they instead were only trying to help their family or close friends.
I particularly liked that the author didn't try and make the story fit into today's feminism. The women, the main characters in the book, were not trying to change how men thought about women. They weren't trying to change how society viewed them. Rather, they recognized the important role they played as wives, mothers, sisters, etc. in developing the social scene to enhance and support the political work of the capital. This job was something they were proud of and it was important and deserves recognition. But, I think it deserves recognition for what it was and we shouldn't try and change or alter their work to fit today's goals.
A few other, less substantial thoughts about the book. The author used the word pose too much. It's not like it was every other sentence, so I can see how the author or an editor would miss it. However, whenever describing someone's actions, particularly if they were trying to appear different than they actually were, she used the word pose. Not a big deal really, but it just sort of irked me. Also, I found certain points to be a little repetitive. It seemed as though the author really wanted to stress the importance of some fact, but I felt like she should have cut the paragraph a sentence or two shorter. Again, a small and nit-picky thing.
Because I wrote my thesis on John Quincy Adams, or perhaps I focused on JQA because I find him so interesting, I was drawn to the section on Louisa Catherine. It is my firm belief that JQA is under recognized in history, and his wife, as most wives were, is as well. After reading this book, I could really see myself writing about her or their partnership in the future. It even got me thinking about changing my dissertation topic. No decisions on that yet, still just pondering, but the fact that this book even got me thinking about such a big change, says a lot about my high opinion of it.
Anyway, while reading the Louisa Catherine section, I noticed that they lived in a house on F street, which they renovated to include more space for social functions. Being the history nerd that I am and a resident of Washington, D.C., I know where most historical homes are, or at least can picture the location in my mind. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out where their house was. After way too much time googling, I was sort of able to deduce a few things. Evidently, their home was first used by Madison, when he was Secretary of State. Also, several years later it was across the street from the Ebbitt House, the precursor to the Old Ebbitt Grill. The Ebbitt house was believed to be closer to Chinatown than it is now. Finally, in some random blog, I was able to find an address: 1333-1335 F Street NW. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to find that information and I have found no way to verify it. All I know is, currently 1333-1335 F street is large, modern office buildings. It breaks my heart to think that so much history was made in a house that no longer exists. I wish more care had been taken to preserve these special places. There isn't even a plaque. If anyone can or is able to verify my findings, I would be so grateful. Also, don't be surprised if you read in a newspaper one day in the future that I've started a campaign to get the city to put a plaque there :). Just saying, wouldn't be totally out of character.