Saturday, April 16, 2011

John Adams Readalong, Chapters 1-2

Wallace at Unputdownables is hosting a John Adams Read-along and I'm participating, I'm just a little behind. We are reading through David McCullough’s John Adams this April, May, and June. Feel free to jump in at any time. You can see our reading schedule and guidelines in the starting post. You can find the Week 1 Check-in here, and the Week 2 Check-in here.

I missed last week's check-in because I wasn't finished with Chapter 1 (and I was insanely busy) and today I'm a day behind the scheduled post day for Chapter 2, but I'm here! I'm caught up and here are my thoughts on the book so far.

First of all, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that at various points in my reading I start to imagine the book narrated in my head by David McCullough. My many years of enjoying his rich voice as host of American Experience on PBS has seeped into this reading, and it tends to make me (A) laugh at myself, and (B) enjoy the book even more. This is my first time reading a book by David McCullough (I know, someone should take away my historian credentials), and just two chapters in I already understand why his books are so well-read and spoken of so highly. His writing is so clear and easy to understand, it is a pleasure to read. He truly writes for the general reader, without the confusing jargon and intellectual wordiness that sometimes plagues my non-fiction choices.

Secondly, although most of the events of this book are familiar to me as a history teacher, I am still really enjoying this book. The difference, I think, is that I've not read about the time period from the point of view of John Adams before. It's always been an overview of all of the different actors in the action. I am liking this process. I also think McCullough has done a particularly nice job of portraying Adams, not as one of the sainted founding fathers who could do no wrong, but as a real person, with human weaknesses and failings, and with endearing qualities that make you wish you could have met the man in person.

That is possible because John Adams was so prolific! McCullough weaves in Adams's own words throughout the narrative--his feelings, his thought processes, his passions are all there for the reader to view. And the content of his correspondence and personal journals is all the more admirable when I got to the part of Chapter 2 that talks about just how impersonal and sparse Thomas Jefferson's own journals were. I love that we can get to know Adams through his words, and I wish other historical figures had done the same.

One of the things I'm loving in Chapter 2 is the characterizations of the people around John Adams. Here is my favorite example so far:
Knowing nothing of armed ships, he made himself expert, and would call his work on the naval committee the pleasantest part of his labors, in part because it brought him in contact with one of the singular figures in Congress, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, who was nearly as old as Franklin and always wore his broad-brimmed Quaker hat in the chamber. Adams found most Quakers to be "dull as beetles," but Hopkins was an exception. A lively, learned man, he had seen a great deal of life, suffered the loss of three sons at sea, and served in one public office or other continuously from the time he was twenty-five. The old gentleman loved to drink rum and expound on his favorite writers. The experience and judgment he brought to the business of Congress were of great use, as Adams wrote, but it was in after-hours that he "kept us alive."
His custom was to drink nothing all day, nor 'til eight o'clock in the evening, and then his beverage was Jamaica spirits and water.... He read Greek, Roman, and British history, and was familiar with English poetry.... And the flow of his soul made his reading our own, and seemed to bring to recollection in all of us all we had ever read.
Hopkins never drank to excess, according to Adams, but all he drank was promptly "converted into wit, sense, knowledge, and good humor." (100)
I love this. I want to go back in time and meet Stephen Hopkins.

On a related note, I not only have been enjoying McCullough's prose, but John and Abigail's words as well! The excerpts of their writings that have been presented in the book so far are quite readable as well, and easy to understand. I particularly enjoyed John's feelings on speeches and writing:
He had no liking for grand oratorical flourishes. 'Affectation is as disagreeable in a letter as in conversation,' he once told Abigail, in explanation of his views on 'epistolary style,' and the same principle applied to making a speech. The art of persuasion, he held, depended mainly on a marshaling of facts, clarity, conviction, and the ability to think on one's feet. True eloquence consisted of truth and 'rapid reason.' As a British spy was later to write astutely of Adams, he also had a particular gift for seeing 'large subjects largely.' (99)
A writer and orator after my own heart.

So chapter 2 ends as the Committee of Five, those who would work on the Declaration of Independence, puts its finishing touches on the document. It is all very exciting and suspenseful, even though I know what is going to happen. The experience of reading this book has been similar to my first viewing of the HBO series based on this book, John Adams. Throughout that series I found myself doing fist-pumps when I recognized the various persons in the room just by their attitudes and stances in the Continental Congress toward independence (yes, I know, OMG what a nerd). John Dickinson, for example, was easy for me to pick out. It's kind of funny that I get so excited when I feel like I know what is going on, like I'm part of the party. So perhaps that is one of the reasons why I am enjoying the narrative even though I know how it's going to end. It's almost like re-reading a book you loved once and enjoying it all over again as you pick out things you didn't notice the first time through.

That's all for now. I'll admit that I didn't expect the chapters to be quite as long as they have been, but I'm making my way through and enjoying myself.


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