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)

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

One senses on the very first page of this 2013 novel that Gilbert is a master of the novel’s craft. After introducing the birth of her heroine, Alma Whittaker, she says: let’s give her time to grow up. And so, instead, she tells the story of Alma’s rich Philadelphia father, Henry Whittaker, who was raised in poverty in England.

And one thinks: Oh, no. But immediately, we begin a fascinating tale of this poor lad whose father teaches him all he can about plant life. And then a rich patron sends the boy abroad, first, with the last expedition of Captain Cook to the Pacific, and, second, on an exploration of Peru. There, Henry encounters the cinchona bark that contains a cure for yellow fever. It is the bark that will be the source of quinine, and it will make Henry rich.

Even as Alma is introduced at age five, the novel continues more as narration than as drama. This was understandable when offering a summary of Henry’s life, but it also seems reasonable when Alma is young and less able to think and act on her own. But we do wonder if this narrative approach will continue.

But it does not. As Alma grows older, she develops her own instincts, and her scenes amid Philadelphia society are dramatized. Thank goodness! Interest comes from two young friends, Prudence and Retta, each taken into the Whittaker household under different circumstances—and both eventually marrying, somewhat to Alma’s distress. Meanwhile, she grows at 21 or so into a respected scientist, focusing on the study of moss.

And then, suddenly, the book jumps ahead 25 years. Alma is 48 and still unmarried, and we are less than half-way into this novel. So, we wonder, what interest we will find in this tall, large, plain-looking, middle-aged woman? Answer: romance. It enters in the form of Ambrose Pike—and culminates in the most unusual sex scene in literary history. It seems Ambrose is a genius at drawing flowers; and Alma, seeing a colleague as interested in botany as herself, is happy with him like with no other person. Although, when she suggests marriage, he is a different kind of cat—or should we say a different kind of angel? And, inevitably, they part.

The final portion of the novel begins as Alma, disillusioned with her marriage, takes a Boston whaler around Cape Horn and across the Pacific to Tahiti, where her husband had earlier been banished. He had gone there to use his skills to portray more of nature. It is a marvelously created sea voyage for Alma, this middle-aged woman, as she survives both the male world of sailors and the ferocious power of nature. While this represents a remarkable transition to a vastly different world, the early Tahiti scenes lack the solidity of the Philadelphia setting, because Alma does not understand the language, the customs, or the culture of these natives.

Finally, however, she has a mission. It is to find the Boy whose figure her husband drew and who appeared to inspire his final days. But when she finds the Boy, he seems too perfect, too self-possessed to be real. He seems also, to the reader, to be a tool Gilbert uses to bring an end and a fulfillment to Alma’s Tahiti experience. Note it also brings a moment of sex that harkens back to her youth, but its symbolic intent does not for me enhance or enlarge her portrait.

Alma leaves Tahiti finally, and decides to settle in Amsterdam with the family of her dead mother. Here, as she lives her final decades, the novel’s meaning comes to the front, and Alma’s human experiences recede into the background. For on her voyage home, she has written an essay in which she draws on her study of mosses to explain her interpretation of nature itself. Her conclusion is that all life evolves and advances as a result of the struggle of living beings to survive, to overcome adversity, and to triumph over their environment.

This belief is, of course, remarkably close to Darwin’s belief in the survival of the fittest, and Gilbert draws on this scientific development to conclude her novel. For there is another scientist, Alfred R. Wallace, a real person, who has developed a theory similar to Darwin’s, and she invites Wallace to Amsterdam to lecture on his theory. It is an arrogant step by Gilbert to finalize the credentials of her heroine, who has held back on publishing her own treatise because she believes her theory has a hole—that evolution cannot explain the altruism of human beings, how people will sacrifice themselves for others, rather than try to survive them.

And now, Gilbert introduces the idea of a supreme being, an idea that even gives this novel its title. That idea is that God has left a signature of his existence in the perfectly designed things of nature, from the world of the smallest flower to that of the largest star. But, Wallace explains to Alma, he does not believe that evolution can account for human consciousness, the creation of the human mind, with its imagination and its search for beauty. He believes, instead, that there is a supreme intelligence “which wishes for communion with us….It draws us close to its mystery, and it grants us these remarkable minds, in order that we try to reach for it. It wants us to find it. It wants union with us.”

Not that Gilbert is directing this novel or her scientific heroine toward God. Far from it. For Wallace declares he is an atheist still, that by his supreme intelligence he does not mean God. And Alma herself carefully explains that “I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me.. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others—why they must dream up beautiful and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere….All I ever wanted to know was this world.”

Which leads me to conclude that this is an honest novel, as well as a beautiful, a fascinating one. Its heroine is a scientist, and its purpose is to explore both the world of science and the role of this woman in that science. But it also allows for the possibility of a world beyond science. Indeed, such a world was suggested much earlier, by the presence of Ambrose. His was not a scientific world, and barely a physical world. Not only in his unusual sex with Alma, but also with his admission that he saw himself as an angel.

Gilbert sets up all of this beautifully with the creation of these characters. Alma, as we said, is tall, has a stocky body, and is plain-faced, and we are continually reminded of this. Because this is to be a portrait of her intellectual life, of her scientific life, not of her emotional, romantic life. And her two “sisters” are not blood-sisters, but two young woman who play a certain role: Prudence, who is beautiful, and Retta, now flighty but who will go mad. Each is a contrast to Alma, and each is to play a role in Alma’s spinsterhood. And there is also the Dutch servant Hanneke, who will explain to Alma the events of her youth that led to that spinsterhood. It is so beautifully done, because what seemed so natural from Alma’s viewpoint in her youth now becomes, we see, the author’s strategy to focus the reader on, first, Alma’s true destiny as a scientist, and, then, on the author’s theme of the dichotomy between science and religion.

This novel works not only because Alma is such a complex woman, so intelligent, so confident in her convictions, in an era when women play a family role and are given no professional recognition, but also because her world of botany is made so real and so understandable to the lay reader. It begins in the world of flowers, so beautifully drawn by Ambrose, but ends up with the world of mosses. Alma will draw her scientific conclusions as she studies why some mosses thrive in a damp environment and others in a dry environment, why some will advance on a rock surface and others will withdraw, why some will have a soft texture and others are brittle, while some will advance or retreat quickly and others will do so slowly.

We, the reader, are as convinced of Alma’s professionalism as are, at the end, her fellow scientists. And yet all this information is fed to us naturally, as Alma makes new discoveries and expands her knowledge. What we are really following is Alma’s personal life, and yet part of this life is these scientific discoveries that deepen her intellectual life and deepen our understanding of her. It is only at the end that we realize they also deepen our understanding of this novel.

The New York Times Book Review heads its front-page appraisal with the title, The Botany of Desire. This is so accurate. For sexual desire is on the surface of Alma’s life, from her early self-pleasuring to her desire for her husband Ambrose. But the true desire in her life is her desire to penetrate the world of botany, how plants propagate, how they transform themselves, how they conquer the world about them, and how moss, regarded as one of the lowest forms of plant life, does so. It is a desire that earns Alma, a woman, the highest respect of scientific society. The female species that is regarded as the fountain of desire has transformed itself from the desire for physical pleasure into the desire for intellectual pleasure.

This is truly a remarkable novel, in its scientific scope, its geographic scope, and its philosophic scope. It begins as the story of a family, and ends as the story of mankind. (August, 2015)