McCullough pleased by his vivid 'John Adams'

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Book review: The amazing 'John Adams'

There's nothing like watching a 68-year-old man in a state of gleeful astonishment, especially when he's everybody's favorite television historian, David McCullough.

On his appearances as host of PBS' "American Experience," McCullough projects an avuncular cool. But last weekend in Seattle, the man could hardly contain himself. McCullough's new biography of our least-known Founding Father, "John Adams" (Simon & Schuster, $35), is levitating at Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, on The New York Times and Publisher's Weekly hardback nonfiction best-sellers list.

And so is the author. "I feel like I'm hallucinating," McCullough says - and he's enjoying every minute of it.

McCullough, who was in town for two book readings, described himself as a man in love with his subject: John Adams, son of a New England farmer, a blunt, plainspoken, moody and at times conceited fellow, who could nurse grudges for years but who never failed in his devotion to his country. Other than George Washington, "he had more to do with the establishment of our government than any other man," says McCullough - Adams was a "true-blue" leader of the American Revolution; ambassador to the French and (after the Revolutionary War) the British; U.S. vice president, president and in an old man's sweetest triumph, father of John Quincy Adams, the fourth U.S. president.

"Every time he's called to do something, he does it," McCullough says. "He never turns down any obligations." Adams himself put it succinctly: "Our obligations to our country cease only with our lives."

Letters of distinction

But it wasn't Adams' dutiful, bulldog nature that hooked McCullough - it was his way with words. The prose of Adams and his wife, Abigail, reached out over two centuries and grabbed McCullough by the collar. When he began to go over their correspondence with one another, their family and their friends, he found that both husband and wife were masters of a kind of razor-sharp, plainspoken speech that made researching and writing their lives a pure pleasure. "There's a very modern quality to it," he says. "Very direct and pungent."

"I felt I had wandered into a cave full of treasure. I have never worked with a greater abundance of marvelous material. The past six years have been the most marvelous of my writing life," McCullough says, white eyebrows beetling, fingertips tapping the table at a Madison Street deli as he made a point.

McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the biography "Truman," writes his books on a 1940s-era Royal manual typewriter at a home office in Martha's Vineyard. While his subject this time was 2½ centuries gone, he says he wrote a modern biography in the sense that he gave John and Abigail equal weight.

"I've tried to stress the importance of the marriage. There's politics and there's life. They're connected."

"It's a true love story. Maybe the best we have. She had opinions - she expressed them. She was a patriot, too."

Besides being an indelible character study of John and Abigail Adams, McCullough's book shows how life was lived then. Work schedules, even for the Founding Fathers, were dictated by the rhythms of the agricultural year. Yellow-fever epidemics chased lawmakers from Philadelphia for months on end. Foreign policy was debated without any real idea of what was going on in Europe - letters could take from a month to three months to arrive.

While John Adams wrote laws, Abigail Adams endured loneliness and smallpox epidemics, bartered needed goods for packets of needles Adams sent her - and delivered their children without the solace of her husband's company.

Life was dirty and dangerous. In one "John Adams" chapter, Adams and his young son, John Quincy, embark on Adams' first trans-Atlantic voyage on a bitterly cold day in February, Adams charged with enlisting France's help in the war.

Meals were detestible; sanitation nonexistent. Then a fierce storm hit - the ship "shuddered, darted from side to side, all hands were called, and with much difficulty the guns were all got in and secured," Adams wrote afterwards. "It was with the utmost difficulty that my little son and I could hold ourselves in bed with both our hands, and bracing ourselves against the boards, planks and timbers with our feet."

A bolt of lightning split the main mast - 20 seamen were injured, and one man, a hole burned on the top of his head, would die "raving mad," Adams wrote.

History that people will read

McCullough says he aims for this you-are-there quality in his writing. One reason for the success of "John Adams" is that its subject was such a vivid chronicler, dovetailing neatly with his biographer's goals as a writer.

McCullough says he puts historical analysis on the back burner, aiming instead to show what happened as the participants saw it. "I tell the story of what happened," he says. " I tell it inside the time. It unfolds for you as it unfolds for the participants.

"I don't just use the narrative form because I like to tell stories - it also has an intellectual honesty that's not possible in other ways. You're not looking down at them from a mountaintop, knowing things they don't know. One of the things they don't know is how it's going to turn out."

McCullough savors the fact that his biography is likely to bring John Adams long-overdue respect. "He's truthful, he's principled: he's not only faithful to his wife, he adores his wife," says McCullough.

"Yes, he's grumpy and evasive and tactless, but in many cases, it works to his advantage."

The historian wouldn't reveal the subject of his next book, other than to say that he plans to stay in the 18th century. It won't be a biography, he said, but it will be history that people will want to read.

"I want to say this in a way that doesn't sound pompous," McCullough says. "I'm trying to write literature that people will want to read because it is so well-written. If people don't read it (history), the past will die."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or