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Thursday, May 31, 2007

John Adams and Burr

"There's a lot we should be able to learn from history. And yet, history proves that we never do. In fact, the main lesson of history is that we never learn the lessons of history. This makes us look so stupid that few people care to read it. They'd rather not be reminded. Any good history book is mainly just a long list of mistakes, complete with names and dates. It's very embarrassing." A Whitney Brown

Currently I'm reading John Adams by David McCullough, and at the same time I'm reading Burr by Gore Vidal While these two books cover the same historic period of time, they are totally different in perspective. McCullough has written a historical biography of John Adams that is complete with many of Adams' own words. Vidal has written a historical novel. I think Gore Vidal expresses this difference best himself in the Afterword to Burr:

"...the attraction of the historical novel is that one can be as meticulous (or as careless!) as the historian and yet reserve the right not only to rearrange events, but, most important, to attribute motive -- something the conscientious historian or biographer ought never do."

So far I've found Burr contains historical accuracy in every instance where I've done some fact checking. In fact Vidal points out in his Afterword where he's done some rearranging.

While McCullough's book about Adams does make for interesting reading, it takes some determination to keep going. Reading quotes from John Adams himself would indicate why the determination is needed. Even in his letters to his wife, the guy seems to believe all he says will be preserved for posterity. Sometimes I wish he'd just say what he means in as few words as possible. I believe he would be much more interesting that way.

Burr, however, is another matter completely. It too is full of historical fact, but [to me] it is far more entertaining than John Adams, and it's because of that addition of attributing motive to the behavior of the characters who make up The Founding Fathers of the United States.

For example, McCullough's John Adams is practically reverential to George Washington. This means whenever Washington is mentioned, it is because he has contributed something noteworthy, and Adams' writings or recollections reflect that. In Burr, however, George Washington is hardly treated with reverence. And given the facts about him that Vidal cites, that seems more consistent with the general thinking of the day than it is with John Adams' limited view. At the very least, the truth about Washington probably lies somewhere between these two characterizations. Although now that I've read Burr's description of Washington which includes the information that he has a rather large butt, I'm not sure I'll ever think of old George again without suppressing a giggle or two.

My interest in learning more US history increased while reading Hanging Captain Gordon by Ron Soodalter Captain Nathaniel Gordon is the only American ship's Captain to be arrested, tried, and executed for slave trading. But the issue of slavery was festering long before the period of time during which Captain Gordon was undergoing his trial. I wanted to know more about the attitudes of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in particular since these two men were credited with obtaining "liberty and justice for all" Americans while they themselves owned and profited from the labor of black slaves. Burr addresses this issue quite bluntly.

While I'm only half-way through Burr and about 1/4 of the way through John Adams so that my opinion at this point may be a bit premature, I would have to say that I'd recommend both these books for the factual content they reveal and the top notch writing exhibited in both books.

1 comment:

J. Kaye said...

I found you! :-D