Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Biography: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

No one writes biography quite like Harlow Giles Unger. His last half dozen or so books have brought as many long dead presidents back to something like literary life.

I loved 2010’s Lion of Liberty, an action-packed portrait of Patrick “liberty or death” Henry. James Monroe, Lafayette, Noah Webster, John Hancock, George Washington and others all have been breathed to life for us with skill and vigor and Harlow Giles Unger’s well seasoned pen. The first few words of John Quincy Adams (Da Capo) illustrate Unger’s skill: in a very few words he tells us everything we really need to know about his subject, introduces the idea of why we should care and teases us to go on:
He served under Washington and with Lincoln; he lived with Ben Franklin, lunched with Lafayette, Jefferson, and Wellington; he waked with Russia’s czar and talked with Britain’s king; he dined with Dickens, taught at Harvard, and was an American minister to six European countries. He negotiated the peace that ended the war of 1812, free the African prisoners on the slave ship Amistad, served sixteen years in the House of Representatives, restored free speech in Congress, led the antislavery movement…… and …He was the sixth President of the United States.John Quincy Adams was all these things -- and more.
Interestingly, if one moves from this concise beginning to the first line of the first chapter, one gets a more dramatic reading:
“Mr. Adams!” the old lady shrieked. “You’re embarking under very threatening signs. The heavens frown, the clouds roll, the winds howl, the waves of the sea roll upon the beach.”
As the country rolls towards election, looking over our shoulder can be an interesting -- and sometimes even helpful -- exercise. And, as usual, Harlow Giles Unger delivers some of the best.

Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.

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