Friday, June 30, 2000
David McCullough: Boston, June 2 Old South Meeting House
Surely the 200 or so of us in the pews of the Old South Meeting House would have been glad for whatever David McCullough chose to tell us. Still you can imagine our excitement when we realized it was his next book he would be sharing with us. "I've been marinating my head in the 18th centurypoetry, music, painting, writings," McCullough said, "to understand the protagonist I'm working withJohn Adams."
The National Park Service and a multitude of other organizations hosted a two-day symposium on "The Changing Meanings of Freedom." McCullough was the lead-off speaker. We sat in the same historic building where John Adams whipped up the crowd before they set off to the Boston Tea Party. We were primed to visualize this Revolutionary figure for ourselves, but of course McCullough did it beautifully for us.
Apparently his original plan for this book had been a narrative on Adams and Jefferson. During the research for his book Truman, McCullough had read how former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in his correspondence with Truman, had encouraged the ex-president to read the Adams-Jefferson correspondence. Now it was McCullough's turn to read the letters, and he was hooked. He spent a year in Jefferson research, then turned to the Adams side of the story. He was drawn into John and Abigail's story, intrigued by their New England lives and their remarkable ten-year correspondence which bridged the gap of his absence in support of the coming country.
In John Adams, "we have a founder who, unlike any of the others, poured out his innermost feelingsto his wife.," McCullough told us, and we have her responses. The writing quality was extraordinary. He was struck by how other publications of the day affected these writers; how the language of others appeared in their own writings, informed their thoughts, affecting their daily environment. He points out how Abigail's slightly incorrect quotations of poets and playwrights is evidence that she quoted from memory. Such recall comes from familiarity. We in the 21st century, McCullough said, would be surprised by how many familiar 18th century quotations come from popular plays or poems of the day and not the famous speakers to whom we credit them. Clearly I must catch up on my colonial-period reading.
Handling the original writings of Jefferson, as well as John and Abigail Adams, is McCullough's greatest reward for such demanding research. "The pure pleasure of reading those writersis so upliftingThey are breathtaking." He cherishes holding the letters, at the same arm's length, in the same manner, as did the authors and recipients involved in the exchanges.
He said a reader can easily tell Adams' mood: "He writes big and small, uphill and down...Jefferson is closed, cool, icy," always the same exacting letters. "Adams had a sense of humor which, alas, Mr. Jefferson did not. If he did, I haven't found it."
Then McCullough read for us the first few pages of his writings on Adams. William Fowler, director of the Massachusetts Historical Society, was correct when he said in his introduction to McCullough's talk, "The capacity to find language to equal these documents is rare." Few besides McCullough could be trusted with such writings. As with all his works, the writing was wonderful. I felt I was riding along on the cold wintry trip to Philadelphia as Adams made his long journey to further this business of Revolution. I was drawn into the debate as if I, like the protagonist, could not yet know its outcome.
We were sorry when McCullough stopped speaking, and thrilled when he asked "what do you think?" We must wait a year or a bit more for this book to reach our hands; the anticipation will make it all the better.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito