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Book Forum: Biography   |    
John Adams
DAN G. BLAZER, M.D., Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:2125-2126. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.12.2125
View Author and Article Information
Durham, N.C.

By David McCullough. New York, Simon & Schuster, 2001, 751 pp., $35.00; $18.95 (paper).

Psychiatrists and psychologists have been intrigued with biography (usually psychobiography) since at least the early 20th century. In addition to explorations of Moses (1), Freud was intrigued (and probably infuriated) with Woodrow Wilson (2, 3). Erik Erikson explored the religious piety and fervor of Martin Luther (4) as well as the militant nonviolence of Gandhi (5). John Mack delved into the complex psyche of Lawrence of Arabia (6). More recently, Fritz Redlich has attempted to diagnose the thoughts and behavior of Adolf Hitler (7). So what is a good psychiatrist to make of David McCullough’s recent biography of John Adams? Psychobiography it is not. Fun to read it is. Rather than placing Adams on the couch, McCullough "goes fishing" with him, listening carefully (specifically, reading Adams’s extensive correspondence) and recording faithfully. McCullough tells a story and brings Adams alive to us within the context of the early days of the Republic. He does not dissect. He projects (not as a defense mechanism but, rather, as a good projector brings to life on the screen the digitalized data encoded on a CD). I suspect it is for this reason that McCullough is today the most popular of the popularizing historians and John Adams is almost uniformly praised.

McCullough’s subject lends himself to projection. Unlike the brooding, cold, calculating Thomas Jefferson (the antagonist in the biography), Adams is full of life, open, and hearty in his interactions (8). I was especially drawn to the experiences and thoughts revealed regarding the latter years of Adams (and he lived to a good old age). Born in 1735, he died in 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence and 25 years after he relinquished the presidency to Jefferson. As the ravages of time attacked his body (arthritic pains, decreased hearing, overweight, severe back pains that prevented horseback riding) and personal losses pained his soul (the death of his wife and a son as well as problems with other children), he could still insist, "I am not weary of life. I still enjoy it" (p. 637). Denial? Perhaps, yet one senses when reading this life that Adams meant what he said. Not one to harbor anger, he renewed his correspondence with Jefferson in later life despite the fact that Jefferson both launched a most bitter campaign against him in 1800 and disengaged in correspondence with him for many years thereafter.

Visitors frequented Adams’s home during his later years, and he enjoyed them thoroughly (though he undoubtedly was wearied at times). Ralph Waldo Emerson called on him near the end of Adams’s life and recounts, "He talks very distinctly for so old a man—enters bravely into long sentences which are interrupted by want of breath but carries them invariably to a conclusion without ever correcting a word" (p. 640).

He did not neglect his responsibilities to others. "My debts, which I hope will not be large, and my funeral charges, which I hope will be very small, must be paid by my executors" (p. 641). He maintained his sense of humor and perhaps vitality for the opposite sex as well. Upon the visit of an old flame, Hannah Quincy Lincoln Storer, Adams exclaimed, "What! Madam…shall we not go walk in Cupid’s Grove together?" (p. 641). Yes, among his last words were, "Thomas Jefferson survives me," yet they probably were not uttered in bitterness. Upon learning that the fourth of July had arrived in 1826 (both Adams and Jefferson died that day), he exclaimed, "It is a great day. It is a good day" (p. 646). In summary, Adams appears to be the epitome of what we euphemistically label "successful aging" today. He was alert, he was relatively healthy, he maintained extensive social contacts (scored high on social support scales), he exhibited wisdom, and he optimized the abilities he possessed (9).

I have written an uncritical review of a relatively uncritical biography of a man who was rarely critical of other men and women. Adams could be forceful in pressing his beliefs and most critical of the ideas of others, yet he never ceased to enjoy people. Some suggest that because McCullough takes Adams’s point of view, he too often takes Adams at his word (8). In other words, he was perhaps not as critical as he might have been. Yet I would recommend this book for the sheer enjoyment of reading about a man who lived life, loved life, and devoted much of his life to his cause. Given the extensive material available, perhaps some psychiatrist or other mental health professional will undertake the task of unearthing and developing a psychobiography of John Adams, removing the glint and warmth portrayed by McCullough. Personally, I hope not.

Freud S: Moses and monotheism: three essays (1939 [1937-1939]), in Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 23. London, Hogarth Press, 1964, pp 3-137
 
Freud S, Bullitt WC: Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study. New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1999
 
Gay P: Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York, Doubleday, 1988
 
Erikson E: Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York, WW Norton, 1958
 
Erikson E: Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York, WW Norton, 1969
 
Mack J: A Prince of Disorder: The Life of TE Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1976
 
Redlich F: Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000
 
Wood GS: In the American grain. New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001
 
Rowe J, Kahn R: Successful Aging. New York, Pantheon Books, 1998
 
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References

Freud S: Moses and monotheism: three essays (1939 [1937-1939]), in Complete Psychological Works, standard ed, vol 23. London, Hogarth Press, 1964, pp 3-137
 
Freud S, Bullitt WC: Woodrow Wilson: A Psychological Study. New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction Publishers, 1999
 
Gay P: Freud: A Life for Our Time. New York, Doubleday, 1988
 
Erikson E: Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York, WW Norton, 1958
 
Erikson E: Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York, WW Norton, 1969
 
Mack J: A Prince of Disorder: The Life of TE Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press, 1976
 
Redlich F: Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet. New York, Oxford University Press, 2000
 
Wood GS: In the American grain. New York Review of Books, June 21, 2001
 
Rowe J, Kahn R: Successful Aging. New York, Pantheon Books, 1998
 
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