More on Wills

12 12 2006

Reader Will Keene does not buy what he sees as Garry Wills’ thesis that Adams’ History was “secretly” written to praise Jefferson.

My reading so far of Wills (I have not read the 9 volumes of Adams in question) says nothing of any “secret” writing, rather it states that the character of the histories is plain. In addition, Wills does not say that Adams is uncritical of Jefferson so much as he was very critical of the Federalists and judged the Jeffersonians a success, and his other writings seem to support this. Wills argues that what he sees as a misrepresentation of the histories is due to three factors:

Historian Richard Hofstadter, the most influential of the interpreters of the History, had only read the first six chapters of Volume I of the History and “accepted that as a description of the whole work”, and this interpetation is refuted by the final four chapters of the last volume;

Historians have accepted Hofstadter’s thesis that Adams was a defender of the legacy of his great grandfather John, while Adams’ writings in general do not defend the Federalists, nor the Adams family – “It is true that he criticizes some of Jefferson’s acts in the History; but he is never as scathing on them as he is on the Federalists, including his forbears. He thought the Jeffersonians’ presidencies highly successful (though in an unintended way) and the Adams presidencies a failure. Yet it is an article of faith in most who read the History that it is an expression of family animus”;

The pessimism of The Education of Henry Adams is thought to be characteristic of his whole life, while his earlier writings are clear that it is not. “Scholars have such a heavy investment in the pessimism of Henry Adams that, for them, an optimistic Adams cannot be the ‘real’ Adams”. “The theme of failure that runs through the Education bolsters an assumption that Adams is telling the story of a failure when he writes of the Jeffersonians. If the work itself says something else, people are unprepared to hear it. They know what Adams ought to be saying, and they make him say it.” But this is the quote that hit me hardest: “The principal work on Adams was written by…Ernest Samuels, whose three-volume biography traces a rising arc to the summit of a “Major Phase” in the final volume. All else is preparatory to that. All else is read backward from that [emphasis added]”.

Will has presented a divergent, if brief, view of the History. Not having read it myself, I’ll have to rely on the arguments of those who have. I invite anyone to comment.  Again, that’s what the comments feature is for.