J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Notes from John Adams

And now a break from the important topic of hair and wigs for word about a couple of regional events.

I finally visited the “John Adams Unbound” exhibit at the Boston Public Library yesterday, having written about it on Boston 1775 back in September. It’s a terrific exhibit for both bibliophiles and history fans, and will remain open to the public (for free!) through March. Adams’s entire collection of books is on display, either in tall shelves or cabinets. The cabinets are organized around the reasons that Adams himself wrote out to justify spending so much money on books (as if that needs justifying): Fame, Clients, God, Country, &c.

Some steps to consider before you go:

  • You can download an audio tour of the exhibit and put it on an MP3 player before heading out. This tour complements rather than simply duplicates the exhibit’s labels. It’s more appropriate than what I had playing on my iPod: Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Twistin’ Goin’ On.”
  • The BPL has also given over smaller display rooms to other Adams-related exhibits: some of his letters, engravings of his contemporaries, and photographs of his prominent descendants. These are worth seeking out if you’re waiting for a book or friend, but not nearly as impressive as the main collection.
  • Not related to Adams but lots of fun and well worth the climb upstairs is an exhibit of popular books printed in London in the early 1700s, part of a donor’s collection of material related to Daniel Defoe. Tales of highwaymen, shipwrecked sailors, plagues, trips to the Moon, personal and political arguments, &c., &c.! Look for the signs pointing to “Crooks, Rogues, and Maids Less Than Virtuous.” Download a PDF brochure before going if you want ’cause I didn’t find any copies there. This exhibit runs through April.
Back to John Adams’s library. Many of the books in the display cases include his own comments on what he read. And most of those notes seem to be disagreements with the authors, sometimes vociferous (e.g., “Mad!”). In fact, I suspect that the best way to get Adams to say something was to state the opposite proposition and wait for him to argue. Among the authors he argued with most was Mary Wollstonecraft.

Some particularly notable items on display:
  • Paul Revere’s map of the Boston Massacre scene, probably prepared for the criminal trials of 1770. This overhead view of King Street shows the locations of the soldiers and most of the shooting victims, as well as local shops and homes. Seeing items like this on display makes me mutter, “Want it...Want it...Got it...” (The guards at the Gardner Museum love that.)
  • Adams had a copy of the Koran, too, in a translation published for Isaiah Thomas.
  • The earliest acquisition date of any book in Adams’s collection is an edition of Cicero he got in early 1750. Look here for an image of his signature on the title page. What this photo doesn't show is how Adams also wrote his name on the opposite page—twice. Once in BIG letters, and once as “John Adams His Book.” He was only fifteen at the time, and obviously really excited about owning this book.


Anonymous said...

Hi! I'm currently in Boston working on the Adams Library, and I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed it! We're in the process of digitizing the library, especially the most annotated and most rare, so that anyone can access both the texts and his commentary online, which I think is pretty great.

I'm always impacted by the breadth of his collection-- all the law and contemporary commentaries, but also a great deal of history and classics that he pulled all together.

John Wedgwood Pound said...

I wish I had known about the MP3 download before I went! I was in Boston the first day the exhibition was open - outstanding! I am an Adams scholar based in the UK, currently working on a PhD Thesis concerning his Presidency. I look forward to the fruits of the digitisation.