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Thursday
Apr102008

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John Adams The Book, the marvy biography by David McCullough, is available here. John Adams The Documentary is available for pre-order here (release date: June 10, and a pop of the cork to Katy The Reader on the headsup.) And John Adams The Blog Post is available here:

It was the morning of the SAT, and I tucked a worn hardback book under my arm as I headed for the car. My mother saw the cover, and she saw homework. "No," she said. "You take something fun to read during the breaks."

I was sixteen years old, and found myself convincing my teacher-mother that burrowing myself into John Adams and the American Revolution was fun. The book, far out of print and many years older than I, was lovingly patted on the spine whenever I passed it in the school library after I reluctantly returned it. This was very much pre-Amazon, and offered perhaps the only dangerous temptation of my entire high school career: Would anyone really notice if I checked it out and... you know... kind of... never returned it?

Other girls drink, smoke, sex out and speed; I coveted a 1950 biography of the second President. I cannot imagine why I didn't go to the senior prom.

I've never had HBO in my life, and a week ago it lit into our home, quite uninvited. It came about due to our current pooptastic phone-Internet-cable provider, which, when Josh The Pilot called and requested a new price for our service when a competitor began offering the same package for less, responded by heartily agreeing to lower our bill $30. And how was the $30 recovered? Why, by cutting our cable access.

Much shrieking later, the TV was restored, with a free year of HBO as a make-happy, which we chortled heavily over until we realized that our Cinemax access had also quietly ceased to be. Then we decided to return to chortling, because, while we sorrowed greatly over the loss of Cinemax's back-to-back-to-back showings of Ready to Rumble, here was HBO right when Tom Hanks is throwin' John Adams straaaaaaiiiight atcha.

Much like the Moonshot, if the American Revolution had been conducted with a single person one step to the right or the left (tm Nick The NASA Poobah), I strongly doubt it would have taken place at all. It was one of those God-appointed conglomerations which is rarely seen and, blessedly, rarely needed. Adams was an integral, underrated puzzle piece. I shall forever be indebted to Mr. Hanks for presenting Adams as he was: A great man, not a perfect one. Although I could have done with sightly less shipboard hurling and Abigail-humping (dude, they haven't seen each other in five years--we know what's going to happen when they reunite and she tosses his wig on the floor), he does well in beginning the story at the Boston Massacre (those of you interested in Adams' early life would do well to turn to John Adams and the American Revolution). He gets straight to the revolutionizin', and also drives home the rare point that the patriots of Boston weren't exactly church ladies. Such complexity is rarely found in historical dramatizations.

And still, it's largely accurate. Hanks, not being a stupid person, brought McCullough on board, and it is to him I bowed when I relaxed into the knowledge that Thomas Jefferson would not be seen wearing a "WHAT HAPPENS AT MONTICELLO, STAYS AT MONTICELLO!" tee shirt. The dialogue largely consists of of various Founding Fathers reclining at table, quoting their letters and diaries to one another, which is enormously soothing to this history minor's soul. Sadly, Richard Henry Lee does not vault himself onto a horse and ride shrieking off to Richmond after a rousing duet with Benjamin Franklin.

But John Adams sees the humanity presented in 1776, and raises it a Founding Father spewing into the camera. Adams had little patience for diplomacy or ability for intrigue, which is probably why he wasn't very good at either, and he was deeply hurt when political tactics were leveled against him, for, in his great honesty, he simply could not wrap his mighty intellect about the concept that other men might stoop to it. Legislative defeats were seen as judgments of his eternally flatlined popularity. His threshold for crap of others was cringingly low. He would not last thirty seconds in the 2008 election.

I was disappointed in the miniseries' presentation of the signing of the Declaration; it downplays 1776's slavery-fight angle (and horrendously inaccurate portrayal of the day-of-ratification action) in favor of an exploration of Adams' struggle for unanimity, but it does so at dramatic cost. Less talking quietly in taverns, more Continental Congressional yelling!

What makes up for it is the depiction of Abigail Adams as, again, herself--a remarkably intelligent and strong woman, but no saint. Nor is she dressed in a soldier's uniform and dropped into the Battle of Bunker Hill for PC want of a female superhero. The woman scrubs floors and cries out in bitter loneliness and then goes back to scrubbing the floors again. Laura Linney is well-cast; it was a relief to see that Hanks decided against tossing some 20-year-old pile of Hollywood silicone into the role. Linney is playing an 18th century New England woman who has led a stressful, farm-y life. And she looks it, bless her.

When I was asked during The Hundred Dollar Lunch which marriage I most admired, I wrote down the names of John and Abigail Adams, for their divinely-matched dedication to spouse and country. Theirs is the greatest meeting of soulmates in American history. "I want ballast," John Adams wrote as a young man; I read this diary entry of his fifteen years ago, and nodded-- indeed, Mr. Adams. Like him, I knew at an early age that I would require a mate with an extremely high tolerance for fits of anger, self-pity, wounded vanity, and poorly bottled passions... and we have not his prodigious character or staggering lists of accomplishments for consolation. He hung out with George Washington. I? Ram horse-realm antibiotics down my throat with two swallows of water and then lie in bed wondering why I feel somewhat bilious.

Now my own ballast sits ten feet away from me, wearing my ring and with a pile of my business cards at his elbow. He sleeps in my bed and with one eye open. I awaken next to him each morning deeply grateful, and deeply afraid of what pain my wild self-hatred will bring him that day. A re-examination of Adams' life in the light of having found that ballast has only deepened my appreciation for Abigail, she who in the same letter wrote of her great love to the man who called her "Miss Adorable" while also insisting that he "remember the ladies" as he helped draft the Declaration of Independence.

John Adams prognosticated the Civil War, the manner in which the Fourth of July would be celebrated, and the sad fact that Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, both more people-persons than he, would be better and more fondly remembered in the great reach of history. But for the even greater reach of that glowy box in the corner and a set of tiny rainbow-bent disks, he may yet be proven wrong on that last count.

dearest friend at: mbe@drinktothelasses.com

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Reader Comments (8)

You know MB, I majored in History with an emphasis on US pre 1865. (I really don''t care what happened after the Civil War.) Anyway, in all my school readings, Adams was glossed over. I had no idea how much he actually did until a friend recommended his biography. It is amazing how much of his works were either downplayed or credited to others. I am looking forward to ordering the DVD set. (I am sure it'll be worth the investment.)

I am so glad youi got that phone call and let The Readers know all about John and his wonderful works.
Special thanks to Katy for letting us know about the DVDs.

Thanks also to

April 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKell Belle

"Sadly, Richard Henry Lee does not vault himself onto a horse and ride shrieking off to Richmond after a rousing duet with Benjamin Franklin."

It is for much the same reason I don't think I'll ever be able to watch the "Taming of the Shrew." It just doesn't have Bianca singing, "Tom, Dick or Harry."

April 11, 2008 | Unregistered Commentertruetitipudlian

Luckily I had a real HIstory teacher, who did real research... Thank you Mr. Roscoe for teaching us about the humanity of the forefathers.

I actually fell in love with John "Sexy" Adams after I read McCullough's bio. I think I'm in love with Mr. McCullough, too. But I'm more in love with my husband of 13 years, who provides my ballast.

We are lucky, MB, to have found that kind of love and friendship. Thanks to the Adams' for showing that marriage has both.

April 11, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnne From Iowa

Once again, MB, you have blown me away. All I could say after reading this post was, "Wow! You're spot on!"

As a Social Studies teacher, I give you my thanks, for helping to spread the word about one of America's most influential founding fathers.

Love you!

April 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEsther-the-S.I.L

Thank you, my SIL. Love is hereby officially returned.

April 12, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMB

Much as I respect John, my Founding Father homeboy is his second cousin: "Without the character of Samuel Adams, the true history of the American Revolution can never be written. For fifty years his pen, his tongue, his activity, were constantly exerted for his country without fee or reward."

I am thoroughly addicted to the series. History fanatics like my husband and I--who is also a Master Cabinetmaker of furniture from the Colonial and Revolutionary time periods--really get off on this stuff.

April 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterHollee Chadwick Spicer

[...] Rick Brookhiser and I talk my Founding Father boyfriend, John Adams, and he brings up the Adams quote in which he referred to Hamilton as “the bastard brat of a [...]

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