Friday, December 25, 2009


now finished: John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life by Paul C. Nagel

It is hard to sum up my feelings about my most recent presidential bio subject, John Quincy Adams, aka my new best friend. I wonder if this is why people read biographies? That eventually, if you read enough biographies, you are bound to come across your doppelganger and in reading an exhaustive account of his/her life, come to a greater understanding of yourself?

I seriously had to stop counting the ways I am similar to JQA -- it was distracting me from my reading. Professional dilemma, temperament, outlook. Let's see: JQA loved travelling internationally and was interested in being a diplomat, but when he got the job offer his first worry was whether the job would leave enough time for reading literature. (Hello.) He really just wanted to be a poet and read things and then think about them, but he was smart so he made it through law school, even though his heart was never, ever into being a lawyer. He kept a diary, narrating and reflecting on daily events for years. He was moody and held people, including himself, to really high standards.

"Resolved to be his own man, Adams went out of his way to demonstrate how individualistic he planned to be. From his first moments in the Senate, he behaved in a manner that sometimes amused his colleagues, frequently baffled them, and occasionally angered a number..." - p.144

He did not like the two political parties and insisted that all his actions in government came from a place of personal integrity, not blind loyalty to a party. He put off getting married and was averse to the dating scene during his college days. Of course: it was a waste of time when he could be reading! He was forever starting projects but not necessarily keeping up with them; he was just interested in so many things. Among these things were languages, of which he learned several.

He was actually quite good at his job, maybe better than his poetry, although he did write some. Oh yeah, and fashion! He took a lot of flak about his clothes, some of it from his mother, Abigail. He just didn't put that much effort into refining his dress, looking nice, or being stylish. This was a problem. When he was up for election to anything, he didn't like to talk about it or to campaign:

"The prospect of a seat in the House had such portent that Adams chose for the moment not to discuss it even in his diary. He kept mostly quiet on the matter until after he won the election." -p. 335

While quite young, he travelled by himself, happily. He came to love astronomy when he started learning about it. He sometimes suffered from melancholy. He quoted Voltaire.

Perhaps one of the greatest summings up was about some tree-planting he was doing against conventional wisdom at the family's Massachusetts house:

"It left him as a minority of one seeking to prove the universe wrong -- a position JQA found quite comfortable." - p. 350

Nagel writes the book drawing heavily on JQA's lifelong diary to structure the story. I think Nagel misses the point sometimes. He has researched the Adams family so widely that I think the breadth of his knowledge makes him miss some of JQA's depth. Nagel doesn't seem to understand that a diary is a place for reflection, reconsideration, rumination, and elaborate plans. It is a place where certain things will be discussed and others ignored, not necessarily in the same proportion that attention is given to them in the writer's daily life. Nagel goes so far as to say JQA was never content but I think he is wrong. I think Nagel just can't relate to JQA, doesn't really "get' him. So how could Nagel come to accurate conclusions?

It's not my favorite biography in terms of being a favorite work, but I loved the experience of reading it, and discovering my double in the form of the sixth president of the United States.

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