John Adams, by David McCullough

Immediately, one is in the hands of a master biographer. This 2001 work begins with Adams headed for Philadelphia, where he will participate in writing the Declaration of Independence. En media res, so to speak. Then we ease back into a brief coverage of his youth and courtship of Abigail. The honesty of the biography emerges from their mutual portrait. That they are each intelligent, honest-speaking, responsible, and plain-looking. They are also dedicated to their four grown children, including the oldest, John Quincy, but the children are increasingly her responsibility. Because he is off on official business to Philadelphia, and then to France and Holland.

Indeed, their relationship deepens with the letters they write to one another, letters that become the foundation of this biography. One speculates how the intimacy of their portraits made possibly by these letters is to be lost to biographers of today’s subjects—who write few letters, and whose personal digital writing tend to be much more brief.

Reunited with Abigail after the Declaration was agreed to, Adams is shortly sent to France to negotiate an alliance with that country, which is later changed to negotiating a commercial treaty with England. McCullough emphasizes the long separations of those days by describing the harrowing ocean voyage, surviving both storms and engagements with enemy warships.

What is fascinating about the early foreign negotiations is, first, the antipathy Adams develops toward an elderly Benjamin Franklin, who seems to shirk his duties by contributing little and agreeing with the French more than with his American partners. And, second, the French work to protect their own commercial interests at the expense of the Americans. They even spread false reports about Adams and complain about his ineffectiveness. Which is interesting, given how France helped the American Revolution.

As a result, Adams is moved to Holland to explore a commercial treaty there, as well as a loan for the young United States. And, going against orders from home and the strategy of the French, he succeeds. Moreover, his efforts are recognized by Congress, and he is sent to Paris to join the negotiations for the final peace treaty with England. There, Franklin now sees things as Adams does, and, along with Jay, they get the peace agreement done.

Adams and Franklin are then joined in Paris by Thomas Jefferson. They are there to establish commercial treaties with the rest of Europe, but nothing really happens. Instead, the Adams and Jefferson families establish a close relationship. The men agree on most things, even if their personalities are quite different, while son John Quincy and wife Abigail are really taken with the intelligent and cultured Jefferson. Again, interesting, since, the men will become rivals later.

Adams next step is as ambassador to England, and he insists that Abigail join him. There, everyone is personally courteous, including the king; but the press, the public, and government officials make life hard for both the ambassador and his family. Unable to make progress on the peace treaty agreement, Adams resigns and returns to Boston, where he receives a hero’s welcome. He has been in Europe for ten years, and his achievements include getting the French navy to help the Revolution, culminating at Yorktown; attaining U.S. recognition and a key loan from Holland; and writing the peace treaty agreement. He also became warm friends with Jefferson, although at the end this seems to turn into respect more than friendship.

Back in the U.S., with no plans, Adams is chosen to be Washington’s vice-president. He is the logical choice as a Northerner to balance Washington as a Southerner. He also was writing then about the importance of a balanced government, of equality among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Whereas, Jefferson favored a democracy in which the majority ruled. Thus, Jefferson initially supported the revolution in the France of 1789, while Adams was concerned about the violence of the mob and the destructions of its institutions. This was to be the beginning of their separation in politics, and of increasing political attacks on Adams.

While Adams’ role as vice-president is uneventful, interest lies in his disagreements with Jefferson (who cites Adams’ “heresies”), in Jefferson’s disputes with Hamilton (now the hero of a Broadway hit, but whom Abigail Adams labels as an underhanded Cassius), and the Republicans’ (Jefferson’s party) criticism of Washington. The latter are happy when Washington’s second term is over, and favor Jefferson to succeed him. But the electoral college gives Adams three more votes than Jefferson, who becomes his vice-president under the system of that era. Interestingly, Jefferson then writes a very friendly letter congratulating Adams, but forwards it first to his Republican colleague James Madison, who tells Jefferson that to send it would be a political mistake. And the letter, which McCullough says “could have been one of the most important letters he [Adams] ever received,” is never sent.

Adams’ time as president is dominated by the country’s relationship with France, which refuses to receive a U.S. peace delegation after the U.S. declared neutrality in France’s war with England. The Republicans and Jefferson were identifying with France because of its revolution, and saying that the Federalists and Adams espousal of neutrality was to turn their back on France. Except, this was complicated by the High Federalists and Hamilton, who want to declare war on France, and said Adams was weak for not doing so. This detail reflects how close we were to waging war in 1800 against France, which I was not aware of, and which, if it had happened, would likely have made Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase impossible.

Thus, Adams has two camps working against him, and this includes his own Federalist cabinet that he has retained from Washington’s administration. Battered on all sides, his popularity collapses. But, suddenly, there is a revelation: that Talleyrand had earlier demanded a bribe for France to enter into peace negotiations. Whereupon, Adams sends a new delegation and demands the French prove their sincerity; and his popularity revives when France then does welcome the delegation and does reach an agreement.

But it is too late to affect the election. For, at the last moment, Hamilton, who has his own ambitions, writes a scurrilous pamphlet against Adams that turns many Federalists against the president. (One wonders if this intrigue is in the Hamilton musical now on Broadway.) The result is that the electoral college gives Jefferson and Burr 73 votes each, and Adams 65—although McCullough notes that a change of 250 votes in New York State, where Burr was based, would have given Adams the election.

McCullough sums up: “In the last analysis, it was not Jefferson or the ‘dexterous’ Burr who defeated Adams [his second term] so much as the Federalist war faction and the rampaging Hamilton. And none of this would have happened but for Adams’ decision to send the second peace mission to France. It was his determination to find peace and check Hamilton that cost him the full support of the party and thus the election.”

At this time also, the U.S. capital is moved to the banks of the Potomac. Originally, New York, where the first inauguration took place; Philadelphia, where the Declaration and Constitution were written; and the Potomac area, where Southerners wanted the capital—all sought to house the seat of the federal government. The compromise reached placed the capital in Philadelphia for ten years, Washington’s and Adam’s years, while a brand new city was being built on the Potomac.

McCullough sums up the Adams presidency: “To his everlasting credit, at the risk of his career, reputation, and his hold on the presidency, he chose not to go to war [against France] when that would have been highly popular and politically advantageous in the short run. As a result, the country was spared what would almost certainly have been a disastrous mistake.”

He also cites how even if Adams endured malicious attacks, personal disloyalty, the loss of his mother, the near death of his wife, the death of a son, and his own physical ailments, “his [Adams] bedrock integrity, his spirit of independence, his devotion to country, his marriage, his humor, and a great underlying love of life were all still very much intact.”

I have been impressed but was not moved emotionally by this fine biography, until the next-to-last chapter. In a casual moment, Adams tells a friend of Jefferson that he still loves Jefferson. Adams’ friend Dr. Benjamin Rush tells Adams that Jefferson has reacted positively to this news, and an exchange of letters begins. Thus, these two old friends from the past who have been separated by their politics, and often nasty politics, reconnect. They begin writing long letters to each other, discussing a variety of political, philosophical, and personal subjects. I reacted to this because a revived communication between two people always moves me, whether in fiction or in history. Indeed, it is why I myself write, in order to communicate.

The final chapter is also moving, but for a different reason. Here is where the vigorous Adams sees some in his family struggling to survive, and his colleagues dying. Except not his son John Quincy Adams, who becomes Secretary of State and then the nation’s sixth president. And not Thomas Jefferson, with whom he continues to exchange letters about their political life, for which they forgive each other, as well as about literature and other matters.

And then the bodies of these two patriots begin to fail. The fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence is approaching, and both are asked to attend celebrations marking that day. But they are infirm, and cannot. And McCullough realizes he need not embellish these final days. Because the events speak for themselves. It is not the author who makes this moment so moving, but the lives of these two men who have meant so much to their country. And the breath of Divine Providence also seems to be behind their joint death on July 4, 1826. Jefferson died around one in the afternoon, and Adams at about six, whispering mistakenly near the end, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

The humanity of Adams shines through a letter he wrote to his granddaughter Caroline: “The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know….Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough.” He also wrote of his faith: “He who loves the Workman and his work, and does what he can to preserve and improve it, shall be accepted of Him.”

This is a triumphant biography. It captures Adams relationship with his family, the national and international politics of his era, and his key relationship with Thomas Jefferson. The expanse of this biography, the interrelationship of all these historic figures and all these interlocking events, follows from the tremendous organization ability of David McCullough, and surely of his team of colleagues who likely fed him the information he needed. And the depth of this biography comes from the letters the Adams family left, particularly those between John and Abigail but also those of their children and grandchildren. And, fortunately, these family figures were frank in their letters; they were not writing for historians, or for posterity.

This biography works because it is about the times as much as it is about Adams—that is, until the final two chapters. Because Adams was so much a part of those times. It might also be termed a corrective biography, because it makes Adams equally as important as Jefferson. And makes Adams’ character superior to Jefferson’s. (McCullough originally was going to write a dual biography, until he realized the significance of Adams’ own life.) Regarding Hamilton, this work reflects his political maneuvering, regarding them negatively, as Adams did, but not his political beliefs or his contribution to the country. While Washington remains a quiet cipher.

This work should be required reading for all those who wish to learn more about the first forty years of this nation. It is not the only story to tell, but it is an important and fascinating one. Because Adams is an important and fascinating figure. (December, 2015)

On the Contrary, by Andre Brink

This 1993 work is a strange novel. It took me a long time to get into it. It is narrated by Estienne Barbier, a Frenchman who has mysteriously fled to South Africa, arriving in 1734. We meet him imprisoned in a dark hole in a dungeon, unable to see light and fed sparingly. But who is he, and why is he there? He passes the time by writing letters to Rosette, a slave who once fascinated him, and whom he once helped escape but soon lost. And these letters to Rosette, this illiterate slave girl, is the novel we are reading. He is explaining to her, and to us, why he has ended up where he is.

He begins with his life story, how he escaped Holland and France with a girl named Jeanne, fleeing in part to escape family responsibility but primarily to escape obvious complications from the scorned husbands of the many women he had seduced. Slowly, we realize that Jeanne is Joan of Arc, and that she is not real but the voice of his conscience, guiding and defending his actions.

He also carries a book that he uses as a guide. It is about Don Quixote de la Mancha, and we realize that Estienne is also a dreamer, an idealist, who initially seeks a mythical city of gold far away in the beautiful African landscape. He learns of it while acting as a record-keeper on an army expedition. And when this idealist tries to write of the injustices he also encounters on that expedition, he is order not to do so. It is the first evidence of his refusal to accommodate to the reality around him, which will soon be exemplified by his pursuit of justice.

The reality that Estienne ignores is that the harsh local government steals from the colonists; and he becomes a leader of the colonialists’ cause. For much of the book he is fleeing from government forces who are after him, finding refuge with various farmers (and their wives). Eventually, however, his colonialist friends desert him, and while the government’s solution, which is to reward his friends, is completely unjust, he realizes his failure and surrenders—and ends up in the dungeon in which we find him at the start of the novel.

Brink obviously intended this novel to offer commentary on the origins of his country, how the modern prejudice against blacks was forecasted in this earlier era when the Dutch administrators controlled the life and the economics of the white settlers, the Afrikans, and the frustrated Afrikans sought wealth by expanding their settlements into the territory of the Hottentots, longtime livestock farmers who came from central Africa—and who became the scapegoats in this failing society.

But Brink has also stacked some of the odds against himself. For while he has created a hero whose position as a fugitive underdog is easy to relate to, and who works in the cause of justice for the settlers, he is also a man who also regards women as victims to satisfy his passions, and who is insecure, often debating with Jeanne to decide and then justify his actions. It is Jeanne, for example, who helps him rationalize leaving his original wife, Neeltje, and their children, and then abandoning the succeeding fiancée, Ghislaine—all so he can achieve his destined glory. For an author to create a complex hero is often desirable, but here the complexity for me is in black and white, rather then in shades of grey.

When Brink also tells us at the beginning what will be the fate of his hero, he forgoes much of the suspense that would be natural as his hero flees the government authorities during most of this book. Which means he wants the focus to be on the society he is depicting and the role of justice in that society. Not on Estienne himself. With the inevitability of Estienne’s failure only emphasizing the injustice he is intent on depicting. It is these hindrances, the absence of a hero I can identify with and the inevitability of his fate, that have thwarted me from becoming involved in this story and in this book.

To sum up, this work has been a disappointment. Not because of its historical setting. Not because of the injustice that is depicted at the heart of this novel. But because of the initial difficulty in understanding who Estienne is and where he has come from. And then because of the focus on his situation, the conclusion of which we know, rather than on the complexity within him as a person. (December, 2015)

Flesh and Blood, by Michael Cunningham

This 1995 work is Cunningham before he found his literary voice. I did finally get caught up by this family at the end of their saga, but for much of this book it is a kind of bildungsroman, a family saga novel in which three generations come of age and a lot happens. But it is life happening rather than one or more characters influencing or motivating the actions of others. And this is the kind of novel that does not appeal to me.

Because, while there is a maturing inside the characters, there is an absence of interaction that prompts the reader to want to know what comes next. That may also be why each time I returned to reading about this family, I found it difficult to remember where I had left off. There was no moment of action, no event, that had me wondering what would be coming next.

But at the end, the characters do begin reacting to the family situation, and to the arrival of death and their own vulnerability. And I ended up being unexpectedly moved by this novel. Moved not so much by the individual fate of the characters as by an interactive portrait of family life that I could relate to.

This novel basically covers the years from 1958 to 1995, a period of significant social change. It begins with a beautiful, ambitious Mary and a shy, immature Constantine falling in love and marrying. But then the portrait of Constantine changes, for once he has children he becomes an old-school protective father, a strict disciplinarian. Whereupon, Cunningham becomes more interested, anyway, in the children: Billy (later Will), Susan, and Zoe. Will discovers he is homosexual, Susan marries a lawyer and enters an unsatisfied but comfortable life, and Zoe has an affair with a black man who leaves her pregnant. This rich material extends through the novel, but while the characters interact with sympathy regarding each one’s situation, they really do not affect each other’s situation.

The final portion of the novel introduces Ben, the son of Susan, and Jamal, the slightly younger son of Zoe. Ben is quiet, and is troubled despite his comfortable life, but we cannot more than suspect the source of that trouble until the end. Jamal is more outgoing but as a half-black boy has his own problems.

Two other major characters are Cassandra and Harry. Cassandra is a friend of Zoe’s, a transvestite, a man whose dress and social life is that of a woman. She was for me the most interesting character in the book, not least because she was very outspoken about who she is and was not afraid to bluntly advise others about their lives. Indeed, she is appreciated by the conservative Mary, who recognizes how much she has helped Zoe.

Harry, on the other hand, is not complex at all. In fact, he seems to serve mainly as an opportunity for Will to be a sexual person and to have an emotional life that is never probed. (Only father Constantine reacts to it.) Perhaps it is because I know the author is gay, but my reaction to Will and Harry is that that their relationship is never developed, and that it exists chiefly to enable the author to treat the fact of homosexuality and, early on, to describe intimate homosexual scenes. I will acknowledge the effectiveness of one such scene, however, in which a stranger lets Will seduce him and then reveals he is to be married the next day and just wanted to have such an experience before his life changed. The unfairness of a gay man’s life in that era really hits home in this scene.

My problem with this novel is that I did not care for these characters as much as Cunningham obviously did. The details of family life, the understanding that each of the children and the mother shows for the others, in fact, made me wonder how much this work may be autobiographical. This was particularly true of the gay life here. Of course, other parts may not be, because the children of this family are carefully split up to express three different life styles, the gay life, the traditional suburban life, and the life of a single rebellious girl in a world of drugs and poverty. Cunningham sympathetically portrays each child, of course, even as he exposes their failures to fulfill their dreams, thus suggesting that their suburban origin is not all it’s cracked up to be.

To sum up, this work was a disappointment until the end, when death enters and the children are finally forced to react to each other’s situation, especially to that of Zoe and Cassandra and that of Susan through Ben. A tacked on explanation of the rest of their lives was unnecessary, however, even as it leaves Jamal as the surviving heart of the family. In fact, its main purpose seems to be to reflect the traditions of the old-fashioned novel. Not that the family stories told here are old-fashioned at all.

This novel will deflect me from searching out more early Cunningham novels, but I am still interested in his more recent work. When gay life is at the heart of the novel, such as coming to terms with it, it works for me in literature. But when it is on the periphery, and yet is explored, it turns me off. Yes, the author wants to present how natural it is in some people, but I do not need to follow it into the bedroom—as I do not need to in straight love stories, either. (December, 2015)

Only Say the Word, by Niall Williams

Is this 2004 work one novel or two novels? It is surely one commenting on the other. But is it one completing the other? And which is completing which? The one guide, the only clue, we have is that one part is printed in italic and one in roman type.

We begin in italics, with the first-person narrator, Jim, in his forties and apparently a successful author. He is bemoaning the death of his wife Kate, and in later italic sections is attempting to make a normal family life for his two children, older Hannah and younger Jack.

This story alternates with a much longer story in roman type. Told in much greater detail and also in Williams’ elegant prose, this is about Jim Foley growing up in Ireland, always reading and wanting to be a writer but not knowing how. His is not an easy life. A younger sister dies, disrupting family life, then his mother does also, suddenly, and his aloof father suffers a stroke. While a brilliant brother deserts the family for London.

Reaching manhood, the roman type Jim falls in love with a wealthy American girl and follows her back to New York to marry her. But, uncomfortable in adapting to American life, he persuades wife Kate to return with him to the same house in the small Irish village where he grew up. There, she attempts to become a painter and he a novelist.

What becomes confusing at the end is that the italic section seems to reach a completeness, while the roman section, which is much longer, appears not to. All along, the reader has sensed that the roman section is the earlier life of the successful novelist of the italic section. That is, this is one story we are reading. And so, the completeness of the italic section is meant to bring completeness to the novel. But there is an Afterward that completely undermines this interpretation. Indeed, it represents a surprise ending, if I am reading it correctly.

And because Kate is not present in the italic sections, having died, although we do not know how she died, and because Kate is alive in the roman sections, and there is no hint that she will die, I am drawn to the conclusion that these are not, despite appearances, the same families. I see this interpretation in none of the comments on this novel, so perhaps I am wrong. But the work shows such a sensitivity to family life and the emptiness behind the lack of love that the separation of the two families seems deliberate.

And, still, there is more to my interpretation. In Church liturgy, the title, “Only Say the World,” is followed by “and my soul shall be healed.” This clearly applies to the italic portion, in which the narrator father and the two children are traumatized by the loss of Kate, their wife and mother. And they are “healed” by their confrontation with water at the climax of that section, water often being a symbol of rebirth. But the title suggests a deeper meaning, as well, if one focuses on the word “word.” In this case, “word” represents the written word, or Jim’s efforts in the roman typeface to write his first novel. And the Afterword reveals that by writing his initial words, his initial novel, be conquers the writer’s block he has endured in the roman section and is on the road to becoming an author.

But, in another sense, my interpretations do not matter. For this beautifully written novel can be appreciated on so many other levels than its plot. It is a novel about family life, about the relationships between parents and children, about their inability to express love to one another, and about children being able to conform to the world they are growing into. It is also about death, and the survivors adjusting to it. Indeed, it begins with the narrator rejecting God after the death of his wife, then ignores any spiritual aspect until the end, when a dramatic scene at the seashore helps both the narrator and his children to accept her loss—and, by implication, the spiritual world as well. It is also a novel about the written word and the reading of books, even the stealing of them, and even more the writing of books, especially the difficulty of writing that first book. It is a work that takes full advantage of the meaning behind “word” as used in the Gospel of John.

This is a complex novel in my reading. If this reading is true, it is a far richer novel that that perceived by most critics. If it is not, I apologize to my own readers. I am partisan to family stories that focus on personal relationships, the world of faith, and love. I am also needless to say, a partisan of works that explore the mind of a writer as he explores the art of creation. (November, 2015)


Note. Unsure about my interpretation, I e-mailed a query, and received an immediate reply from the author himself. He wrote:

“For me the aim in that novel was…to try and capture something of the healing if mysterious power of art, in this case fiction. And to dramatize this by engaging the reader on two fronts at the same time, so that in fact the reader would experience the same journey the writer in the novel does. That is, healing through words, through storytelling….I do believe the two ‘Jims’ are the same person, but with this difference: the one in Roman type has been written [been created, I would add] by the one in italics, and so by necessity therefore less real in the normal use of that word. If that makes any sense.
“My intention was that The Afterword be on a different plane entirely. It should ideally have been in a different typeface. I wrote it, deleted it, added and removed it several times before publication. But in the end I thought it was the most truthful way to finish the book. Here there is no Jim and the woman says ‘You call me Kate in this one.’…This is the person who in turn writes the two Jim narratives and by doing so faces the fear that he will lose his wife, who in this one he calls Kate.
“I know that many readers hated the Afterword….So perhaps it was a misjudgment. You can’t go back and delete it now. Personally I still tend towards believing it was truthful to the intention of the book, even if it failed artistically.” [The book itself didn’t fail. I am grateful to the author for the clarification.]