Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Henry Adams and the Making of America


One of the books being suggested for discussion is Garry Wills study of Henry Adams and the value of his interpretations of early America. Of course everyone knows The Education of Henry Adams, and its impact on American history, but Richard Lingeman notes,

Wills maintains that Adams's sweeping nine-volume chronicle -- ''the nonfiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America'' -- has suffered not only neglect but also the humiliation of being misread by professional historians. Richard Hofstadter, for example, accused Adams of caricaturing America as a ''slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling and treasonous schemes, climaxed by a ludicrous and unnecessary war.'' 

36 comments:

  1. I like the way your name gets bigger and the title gets smaller with each book you write. It would seem the publishers think more people buy a book like this for Garry Wills than they do Henry Adams.

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  2. Which appears to be the very point Wills is making!

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  3. I read the introduction that Lingeman refers and it is interesting how harsh Henry was on his grandfather John Q, and the distance he apparently tried to create between himself and his famous family, to the point of adopting his Grandmother and the Johnson family she represented. So, it would seem Wills has a pretty good case against Hofstadter and others in their interpratations of Henry Adams' histories. I'm curious now to read them, but at 13 volumes it is a bit of a haul.

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  4. This is another one of those projects that would be fun to read with others. Library of America publishes it as two volumes, one on Jefferson and one on Madison. They are big books, but not prohibitively so:

    http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=15

    http://www.loa.org/volume.jsp?RequestID=16

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  5. I'm still listening to Gordon-Reed's book on Jefferson. It is LONG but worth the time commitment. I've taken to listening to the last three or four disks when driving around town.

    Her portraits of both Abigail Adams and JQ Adams are not flattering. I've always had better impressions of them both than, say, Jefferson but after this book that has reversed. They both come across as outspoken racists. Her portrait of Jefferson is much more nuanced than I would have expected.

    When picking up all the Henry James books, I also found a remaindered copy of Jefferson's Women which will probably provide an interesting contrast to Reed. As would Adams I would guess.

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  6. Hoping to find on-line versions, but no luck yet, except through google.

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  7. Try this:

    http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=History%20of%20the%20United%20States%20of%20America%20During%20the%20First%20Administration%20of%20Thomas%20Jefferson%20AND%20collection%3Aamericana

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  8. Here's an interesting bibliography on Jefferson that cautions about reading Adams:

    http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/bibliog/shuf1/shuf1500.html

    "This, along with the two volumes appearing in 1890 on TJ's second term, is a masterly account, one of the great works of American historiography, but it must be read carefully because of Adams' prejudices about TJ's character."

    Warnings about Adams are posted throughout the list, since he apparently influenced many subsequent historians.

    I will probably never read anything about Jefferson the same now that I've read/listened to the book on the Hemingses, but I'm also more curious than ever. My guess is her book put a damper on the book Wiencek was working on Jefferson and Slavery. I certainly wouldn't want a book on that subject to be released right after hers.

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  9. If chartres is still around, she should get excited about reading Henry Adams. As I recall, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres is one of her favorite books.

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  10. One of my favorite historians of Adams' era is Francis Parkman. You just can't beat The Oregon Trail in way he captured the opening up of the West.

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  11. Chartres read the Wills book and said she really liked it.

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  12. Interesting the character studies Wills provides of John Q. and Abigail. One of the interesting aspects was that the four grandchildren trusted to Abigail Adams' care all became dissipated adults, unable it seems to live up to the high standard Abigail set for her charges. Seems Louisa Adams (John Q's wife) never forgave either her husband or her mother-in-law for this, although in time she came to respect Abigail's feminist views and sparked up a relationship with the Grimke Sisters, which Wills credits as having reformed John Q's views on slavery. Very discussable book.

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  13. Cool. I'll take a look at it today.

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  14. Kind of sad really. Looking at his pictures, one can see that John Q. was a very austere man. I didn't know that Abigail could be so tough on her kids and grandkids. According to Wills' interpretation of Louisa's letters, it was John A. who was the kinder soul, but unfortunately he wouldn't stand up to Abigail.

    I was also stunned to read of all the miscarriages, stillborns and children who died young that Louisa had to suffer through. Wills noted that she was almost constantly pregnant.

    There was also quite a row of the first surviving son, who John Q. named George Washington, but Abigail wanted to be named John. Apparently, G.W. didn't last long so they named the next one John.

    I always cringe when I read this kind of stuff. On the one hand, it is not really important as far as the accomplishments of John Q are concerned, but on the other it definitely takes one image of him down a notch or two, and leads one to understand why Henry thought so little of his grandfather.

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  15. Abigail Adams is always painted as this figure of virtue, mostly because of her anti-slavery views, but that appears not to be the case. And JQ is another who has been misread as far as I can tell. Their deep seated racism and sense of superiority are startling to read about, given their anti-slavery stances. Reed discusses at length an exchange about Othello in which they both express disgust and believe that Desdemona got what she deserved in the end.

    I didn't get to the Wills book last night but will this weekend and try to catch up with you. Sounds like a good one.

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  16. Gintaras: Found my book and realized that I had read the opening 60 pages. I'll reread quickly and catch up with you.

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  17. Restarted Wills last night. I'd forgotten how he just jumps in and starts without any warning. Almost as if you pick up with him in a lecture hall, having missed the introductory remarks.

    After all the books we read at the Times with Robert, who tends to like the big best sellers, I'm sort of spoiled when it comes to reading good narrative history (started to write the word "fiction" there -- talk about a subconscious slip!).

    But Henry Adams is such an interesting character and the family is so fascinating, I'll stick with it this time.

    I'd also forgotten Adams' orientation toward the south, through his grandmother -- even though she seems more European than southern. Probably more a rejection of Braintree and Quincy than anything (although I think he and Clover had a summer house at Beverly Farms).

    And yes, Wills holds no punches when it comes to Abigail. I think this was the first time I'd read anything quite so critical of her -- but my guess is realistically so. I"m sure it couldn't have been easy in her position, basically living as a single mother and then grandmother. But she ran a tight ship, even passing the boys portraits and telling them to hold up their chins.

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  18. Fascinating book as Wills probes the inconsistencies in Adams' "Education" with the record of his accomplishments. Adams said he used the Confessions of St. Augustine as the model for his "Education," so it shouldn't be read literally. Wills notes that in many incidences Adams purposefully presented the opposite of what happened, deliberately downplayed his achievements, and presented views that weren't necessarily his own. Makes me want to reread "Education."

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  19. I don't think I've ever read all of The Education, although I've read parts of it. In fact, just the other day I read some of his musings about evolution. But now I'm wondering how I should read it -- as memoir or maybe more like A Million Little Pieces?

    The book I for sure want to go back to is Democracy. Although some of the scenes are still vividly in my mind, I lost interest in it about half way through. Some of this background will help make it more interesting.

    Interesting too to read about some of the negotiations going on with Britain during the war. And how Adams would use his observations to better understand how history is made and, thus, written.

    I still get the feeling from this book that Wills is just talking without notes. I turn a page and haven't a clue which direction I'll be headed next. That doesn't bother me too much since the material is so interesting, but it does leave me a bit confused at times.

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  20. You see the direction soon enough. What makes it confusing in the beginning is that appears that Wills is drawing principally from "Education," but he is also drawing a lot from Henry's letters. It is all pretty much in chronological order.

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  21. Fascinating that Adams and his brother tried to create a "third way," using the North American Review as an organ for independent minded political thinkers and leaders. The idea wasn't so much to create a third party as it was to remain neutral and throw their "united" support behind one or the other of the two presidential candidates, but while he and his brother threw their lot behind Tilden, others at the NAR went with Hayes, thereby canceling each other out.

    You get a similar feeling today with all these so-called "Independents." The Teabaggers are the first to emerge since the Perot Reformers as something resembling a third party, albeit a most heinous looking one, making me think of the Copperheads.

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  22. Started the next section of the Wills book, and don't think I"m going to make it to the end, at least until I read the books he's writing about.

    It's so odd because this is exactly the kind of book I usually love. How many people write a biography based on historiography? And I'm fascinated by Adams.

    And now he's talking about Gallatin and Jefferson, both of whom also interest me. But Wills just seems to be all over the place.

    Some of the points he's making seem to be important advances -- e.g., Adams' understanding of the importance of using primary documents -- but there's no context to understand that. At one point in his bio of, I think, Gallatin, Wills writes that Adams had all his documents copied and in order but lacked the distance to write a real history. That would be my critique of this book.

    Now I know why I started it before and put it down (and then forgot I had done so). Darn. I was hoping for more.

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  23. I have had Wills' book on Jefferson and the University of Virginia, which I've been looking forward to reading. Now I'm wondering if all of his books are like that. I liked the Negro President, but looking over a list of his books, it appears he might simply write too much.

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  24. Really enjoying Wills survey of the Lousiana Purchase and the participants involved. He approaches it from the POV of Adams but fills in with Dumas Malone and other sources to get a broader view of events. However, judging by the excerpts from Adams' History, HA had a very good grasp of events, which makes me want to turn to those pages in his History.

    This to me is one of the most fascinating times in American History and World History. It seems the US was able to take advantage of the Revolution that was in full bloom in Europe. My wife and I are watching the 6-hr Russian War and Peace at the moment that covers the same time frame.

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  25. Oh no! I did it again!!

    Somehow, I missed it when you guys settled upon reading Adams. And I was just in the library yesterday!

    Argh!!!

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  26. Trippler -- it was just Gintaras' suggestion that I jumped on since I had the book. I don't think it's "official." We're still looking.

    Any suggestions?

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  27. OK. Just one comment on Ch 1 re Columbus and his atrocities on Native Americans:

    I thought this line was especially pertinent given today's two on going wars thanks to that idiot in chief Bush:

    ''One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.''


    Indeed, for far too long we accepted the idea of Columbus as hero while overlooking his proto Nazism. Today we have done this to some extent by ignoring or side stepping reports of one million Iraqi deaths in a needless war as some praise Bush for being some kind of 'hero'.

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  28. As for suggested reading, how about Reynolds' Whitman:

    http://www.amazon.com/Walt-Whitmans-America-Cultural-Biography/dp/0679767096


    Reynolds' writings are always very profesorial but that's the approach I prefer to see.

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  29. I should have pointed out (above) that the point Zinn was making is that, indeed, history as it is taught in schools or by media is a weapon. A weapon used to 'justify' and to prolong needless wars, stereotypes, foreign intervention, exploitation of others, and victimization while others profit from these activities.

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  30. Whitman looks interesting. I have a stack of literary biographies I'd love to get to.

    One that I've been meaning to read for years is Emerson among the Eccentrics, particularly after reading a very poorly written book on the same subject (American Bloomsbury).

    I also have White Heat on Dickinson and Higgenson, and a Summer of Hummingbirds ... I know there are some others in the stack somewhere.

    Or, for something entirely different, there's American Lightning that I've been wanting to read:

    http://www.amazon.com/American-Lightning-Mystery-Hollywood-Century/dp/0307346943/

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  31. No more thoughts on Henry Adams?

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  32. I gave up on Wills. I found him impossible to read with any enjoyment (sort of like you must have felt about Brinkley). I'd rather read Adams directly.

    Adams has, by the way, written two interesting novels: Democracy and Esther.

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  33. We could always go with Ghost Wars....

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  34. Sorry to hear you lost interest in the book. But, as far as other suggestions, let's put them in the reading suggestions post linked on the sidebar.

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  35. Now, why did I make a comment on Zinn in this thread?

    LOL!

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