Boston's Alternative Source! image!

[Don't Quote Me]
Culture warrior (continued)

NONE OF this should detract from the high critical regard with which John Adams has been received in most quarters. Though McCullough is not an academic historian, he is serious, and his Adams book deserves the acclaim it has won, even from more scholarly types. In a generally favorable piece in the New York Review of Books, Brown University historian Gordon Wood offered a possible explanation for why McCullough, though a popularizer, has been treated more kindly by his peers than the late Barbara Tuchman, another non-academic. " McCullough actually attends historical conferences and sits patiently listening to long specialized papers, " Wood wrote. " Anyone who does that, and doesn’t have to, deserves respect. "

The real value of Wilentz and Rosenfeld’s comments is not that they’ve knocked down the edifice McCullough carefully constructed — they haven’t — but, rather, that they’ve provided the necessary political and social context that McCullough, in choosing to tell a personal story, left out. Rosenfeld, in particular, is at least as guilty of excess as McCullough: he blames Adams for John Quincy’s cold aloofness and for his other two sons’ alcoholism without even mentioning that the Revolution kept him from home during most of his children’s formative years. Read together, though, McCullough, Wilentz, and Rosenfeld paint a rounded picture of a deeply fascinating and deeply flawed man.

At some point, John Adams is likely to fade back into secondary status. Walter Isaacson, in Time, wrote that McCullough’s principal achievement is to present Adams the observer, the " quirky co-star " who provides us with a fresh look at figures greater than himself, such as Jefferson and Franklin. Adams, a sharp judge of character, sees these men in all their humanness, with all their flaws. They remain, nevertheless, more important and influential figures than he.

But Adams himself, for all his appeal, is a poor proxy for progressives in the culture war. Yes, he was anti-slavery, personally honest, and a partner in an admirable marriage. But it was the hypocrite Jefferson whose writings about liberty and egalitarianism ring down through the ages. Character matters. But ideas matter more.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]

page 1  page 2  page3

Issue Date: August 30 - September 6, 2001

home | feedback | about the phoenix | find the phoenix | advertising info | privacy policy

© 2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group