Monday, October 22, 2012
I really doubt many people are unaware of David McCullough's masterpiece, John Adams. It was a New York Times bestselling book by a very well known historian, and was the basis for the recent HBO miniseries. If for some reason you have ANY inklings toward presidential biographies, or biographies in general, and have not read this book--READ IT. It is magnificent. It is stunning. It deserved every award it received and should have won Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and People's Choice Awards. Yes, it's not a movie/TV show/CD, but its awesomeness exceeds categories. Trust me.
It's unfortunate that John Adams is usually eclipsed by his predecessor, George Washington, and his successor, Thomas Jefferson. Adams had (and has, I believe) an unfortunate reputation for being obstinate and not very well liked (a reputation not helped by the musical 1776), which McCullough reveals to be unfounded, for the most part. Adams was astonishingly learned. McCullough remarks that Adams was an exceptionally ravenous reader in an age of ravenous readers; his eagerness for knowledge is impressive. Not only does McCullough deftly reveal Adams's intellect and leadership, he movingly brings to life Adams's great love and devotion to his wife, Abigail, and his children (and later, grandchildren), especially his beloved son, John Quincy, later the sixth president of the United States. His love and admiration for Abigail was immense and his pride in John Quincy (whom he lived to see elected as president) was delightful; his heartbreak over Abigail's death, the deaths of several grandchildren, and son Thomas, who eventually died of alcoholism, is wrenching to read.
Reading John Adams on the heels of Washington: A Life was remarkable and has increased my enthusiasm for this presidential reading project tremendously Knowing what Washington and his troops were enduring at the same time Adams (and at various times, his family) created and sustained important diplomatic relations with the glittering courts of Europe enriched my reading tenfold.
Mr. Jefferson, that great Virginian, is next. I've decided against the single-volume Jefferson biographies and will read two titles: A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, America's First Presidential Campaign, and Madison and Jefferson. I chose A Magnificent Catastrophe because the 1800 election was one of the most divisive campaigns in American history (Jefferson was called a "howling atheist" who was bent on destroying the role of religion in the States, and Adams's opponents were determined to scare everyone into thinking that he was going to drag the country back to monarchy) and solidified the role of political parties in elections. I chose Madison and Jefferson because I'm really enjoying learning about the relationship between presidents (and because I can include it for my Madison selection as well). I've figured out that while soup-to-nuts biographies are fine and great reading, the moments that keep me reading "just one more chapter" concern the president's impact on the country and his life after presidency (also his relationships with family). But Madison and Jefferson will have to wait--I need to catch up on some chapter books, and this is another doorstopper (800 or so pages).
I have some children's chapter books to tell you about later this week; look for that in a few days. Hope you're reading something fantastic!
Opening line of A Magnificent Catastrophe: "They could write like angels and scheme like demons."