Who was Elizabeth Tuttle?
In most histories, she is a footnote, a blip. At best, she is a minor villain in the story of Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the greatest American theologian of the colonial era. Many historians consider Jonathan Edwards a theological genius, wildly ahead of his time, a Puritan hero. Elizabeth Tuttle was Edwards’s “crazy grandmother,” the one whose madness and adultery drove his despairing grandfather to divorce.
In this compelling and meticulously researched work of micro-history, Ava Chamberlain unearths a fuller history of Elizabeth Tuttle. It is a violent and tragic story in which anxious patriarchs struggle to govern their households, unruly women disobey their husbands, mental illness tears families apart, and loved ones die sudden deaths. Through the lens of Elizabeth Tuttle, Chamberlain re-examines the common narrative of Jonathan Edwards’s ancestry, giving his long-ignored paternal grandmother a voice. Tracing this story into the 19th century, she creates a new way of looking at both ordinary families of colonial New England and how Jonathan Edwards’s family has been remembered by his descendants,contemporary historians, and, significantly, eugenicists. For as Chamberlain uncovers, it was during the eugenics movement, which employed the Edwards family as an ideal, that the crazy grandmother story took shape.
The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle not only brings to light the tragic story of an ordinary woman living in early New England, it also explores the deeper tension between the ideal of Puritan family life and its messy reality, complicating the way America has thought about its Puritan past.
Ava Chamberlain has constructed an amazing little book using shards, simple ingenuity, and adroitly focused scholarship upending a 300 year old myth about Elizabeth Tuttle, the allegedly crazed, sex-starved, divorced grandmother of the great eighteenth-century Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards. Chamberlain recovers a woman who exemplified the tragedy of a failed marriage in a society that, disastrously for Tuttle, saw poisonous accusation as the only way to explain common human foibles. That Tuttle's painful saga opened the way for the careers of both Jonathan Edwards and his father Timothy is only one of the ironies exposed by Chamberlain's ingenious book.
Jon Butler,Yale University
Chamberlain's book does far more than make a signal contribution to Edwards studies. Even readers with no investment in Edwards will find her book a remarkably reliable and expansive treatment of marriage, family, and gender relations in colonial New England.
The Journal of Religion
This book will be very valuable for those studying early American history, sociology, and religion.
In Ava Chamberlain's new book [...] she produces a groundbreaking microhistory that is inspiring in its meticulous research. [Her] book is inspiring.
Exploring the Study of Religious History
For any scholar thinking through the challenges of working with incomplete, inconclusive, or absent archives, the book is both a model and a small triumph.
Jordan Alexander Stein
Early American Literature
With indefatigable thoroughness, lucid prose, and a clear eye for interpersonal dynamics embedded in court records, Ava Chamberlain has left no stone unturned in describing the tragic aspect of the Edwards family's history. Students of colonial New England will find this deep investigation into the life and legacy of Elizabeth Tuttle nothing less than enthralling.
Amanda Porterfield,Florida State University
Recovering a lost chapter of early American intellectual and religious history, Chamberlain reveals not a harridan but a woman whose life was ruined by wrong choices and inconsolable griefs.
Chamberlains book does far more than make a signal contribution to Edwards studies. Even readers with no investment in Edwards will find her book a remarkably reliable and expansive treatment of marriage, family, and gender relations in colonial New England.
Journal of Religion
Chamberlain's book is a powerful, useful, and smart work of history.
This is a lucid, insightful and persuasive publication. Making the most of fragmentary evidence, Chaberlain weaves a compelling and ingenious narrative that challenges the centuries-old myth about Elizabeth Tuttle. This work is an especially necessary corrective to the cottage industry that has generated extensive scholarship on and about Jonathan Edwards over the last several decades; one which tends to focus more often on this minister's theology and ethics than on the social and historical circumstances of his family life....This book will ensure that historical context, family dynamics and gender relations are essential aspects of the Edwardsian legacy.
Janet Moore Lindman
Women's History Review
Scholarly and careful, Chamberlain tells a vivid story about how history itself is constructed according to each era's own desires.
Boston Sunday Globe
Chamberlain (religion, Wright State Univ.), an expert on religion in Colonial America, beautifully displays her expertise in this microhistory about Puritan goodwife Elizabeth Tuttle, the paternal grandmother of theologian Jonathan Edwards...Chamberlain paints a more human and sympathetic portrait. She condenses an immense amount of information into a relatively short book, with extensive notes showcasing the depth of research. The lack of a written record by Tuttle herself is a drawback, but Chamberlain uses the many other primary sources surrounding Tuttles life to flesh out the narrative. This is a lovely book that will appeal to all readers intrigued by American history, womens history, gender studies, or religious studies.
The overall result is inspiring. At the very least, her monograph should be appreciated as a foil to the plentiful trade books that roll off the presses each year which show little or no interaction with manuscripts and primary sources, and simply repackage the same stories in a different style of prose.
Chamberlain is sure-footed and imaginative as she scampers over the four centuries of the aftermath of a troubled life.
Bruce C. Daniels
The Journal of American History
The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle is a pleasure to read. Its compact size, clear and graceful prose, and layered insights into the enduring nature of American attitudes toward gender and family would make it easily adaptable for classroom use.
Michelle Marchetti Coughlin
The New England Quarterly
Long before there was Lizzie Borden, there were ax murders, insanity, and torn families in New England. No one has tackled the issues of domestic violence, divorce, murder, and madness in colonial New England in the masterly way that Chamberlain does in this historical detective story. The saga of Elizabeth Tuttle and her extended family sheds a light on the sometimes unpleasant realities of a romanticized past. At every turn, the author grounds the individual tragedies of Elizabeth and her families in the rich context of early modern Anglo-American society, drawing meaning from individual events. Anyone interested in seriously confronting the true past behind Elizabeth's grandson Jonathan Edwards, America's most influential religious figure, must come to grips with this revealing study.
Kenneth P. Minkema,Executive Editor, Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University
Ava Chamberlain's The Notorious Elizabeth Tuttle: Marriage, Murder, and Madness in the Family of Jonathan Edwards is an excellent example of just how interesting and worthwhile a microhistorical study can be if done well.
This fascinating revision of the tragic story of Jonathan Edwards' 'crazy grandmother' is one of the most important books in Edwards studies in many years. This book is a must reading for Edwards scholars, historians of gender, sex, power, and mental illness in America, and anyone else interested in New England cultural history.