Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review: "The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle"

Ava Chamberlain's The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards (NYU Press, 2012) is an excellent example of just how interesting and worthwhile a microhistorical study can be if done well. Far too many books like this are either full of rampant and unjustified speculation or just pile tangential discussion atop tangential discussion for several hundred pages. Chamberlain's book suffers from neither of those faults, I'm very pleased to say.

Chamberlain's subject is the woman who has been described as the "crazy grandmother" of Jonathan Edwards, Elizabeth Tuttle (the first wife of Edwards' grandfather Richard). Concluding that the traditional interpretation of Tuttle was at the very least overly simplistic if not simply untrue, Chamberlain went in search of her side of the story, so to speak. The result is both a compelling exploration of the Edwards-Tuttle family story, and a deeply interesting look at the historio-genealogical treatment of Elizabeth Tuttle.

Elizabeth Tuttle's life works beautifully as Chamberlain's springboard to discuss a whole range of topics, from migration patterns to colonial laws on marriage, divorce and mental illness, to uses of the "insanity defense" in criminal trials (one of Tuttle's brothers killed one of her sisters, and another sister killed her own son - events which had no small impact on the family). Richard Edwards' petitions for divorce are carefully analyzed, but Chamberlain goes further in a successful attempt to read between the lines and understand how the same sequence of events might have been seen from Elizabeth Tuttle's perspective (noting, for example, that Richard Edwards had prior to the divorce been implicated in a case of fornication with Mary Talcott, the woman who would become his second wife).

By examining the entire two decades of the Edwards-Tuttle marriage, Chamberlain is able to contextualize the final breakdown of the union in a much clearer way, and offers a much more coherent and more complete picture of the relationship than previous studies have done. And the final chapters, which explore how genealogists and biographers of Jonathan Edwards have treated Elizabeth Tuttle (at first ignoring the issue, either implicitly or explicitly declaring that she had died rather than been divorced from Edwards' grandfather and then adopting the "crazy grandmother" motif found in the modern Edwards biographical studies) are masterfully done.

One aspect of this whole story that was completely and utterly new to me was that the Edwards family was held up as a particularly "good" line during the period of the eugenics movement, with Elizabeth Tuttle deployed by anti-eugenicists as a personification of the "misguided aims and potentially tragic consequences of eugenic legislation" (p. 182). The addition of this curious and quite fascinating element is yet another reason to like this already thoroughly worthwhile book.