;It's a great show-and-tell. David McCullough, who won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling biography of Harry Truman, is taking you through the house in Quincy, Mass., where John Adams, the second president of the United States and subject of McCullough's forthcoming biography, spent his last years. Here's Adams's study. Those tiny silver-rimmed eyeglasses, upside down on the desk? His. That red velvet settee? That's where one of the prime movers of American independence sat as Gilbert Stuart painted the last portrait of him. And on July 4, 1826--on the 50th anniversary of American independence, and on the same day as his old friend and rival Thomas Jefferson--John Adams died, right in this room. Yet on the other hand, it just doesn't seem real. God forgive you, you can't keep your eyes off these insanely beautiful Persian rugs (you've been shopping for a nice rug lately), nor suppress the insane idea of somehow rolling one up and sneaking it out of here.
That's the trouble with history and dead people: you can't get them close enough, and you can't keep yourself and your world out of the way. (The trouble? Hell, it's the very definition.) But nobody tries harder than David McCullough. God knows how much of the six years he worked on the book was spent in this house, pacing off rooms and soaking up impressions. And he chats familiarly with everybody who works here, from carpenters and groundskeepers to the National Park Service's site supervisor, and he'll punctuate an aria on the prose in Adams's diaries--"And how 'bout that description of the ice storm and the tree? Oh! Oh!"--with a pointed finger: "That's right out that window over there." He's also visited every place Adams lived in Europe, immersed himself in Adams's favorite authors (Pope, Johnson, Smollett, Richardson), handled Adams's actual letters and diaries as much as he could, eaten 18th-century food in Colonial Williamsburg and stood in freezing weather on the rocky shore where Adams and his 10-year-old son John Quincy (eventually to become the sixth president) embarked for Europe in February 1778. "It may seem peripheral and amateurish," McCullough says, "but I gotta go smell the place and see how the light comes into a room. It may come from having been trained in writing journalism. [McCullough's first job out of Yale was with the then brand-new Sports Illustrated.] It's what I have to do to get myself into their lives and their time."
McCullough's 736-page "John Adams," which will appear this month, is the latest and bulkiest manifestation of a revival of interest in America's Founding Fathers. Joseph J. Ellis's "Founding Brothers," the last half of which examines the oppositional, complementary relationship between Adams and Jefferson, won this year's Pulitzer Prize for history. And earlier this year E. M. Halliday's much-praised "Understanding Thomas Jefferson"--its very title a riposte to Ellis, whose earlier study "American Sphinx" emphasized Jefferson's unknowability--tried to make sense of Jefferson's contradictory attitudes about race and sexuality by examining both his personal experience and his literary tastes. It's probably silly to waste time figuring out why we're having a Founding Fathers moment just now. A longing for the days when giants walked the earth? (Not like-ly: since when have our leaders not been either gargoyles or pipsqueaks?) A backlash against the backlash against the Great Dead White Male theory of history? (More likely: but even if these guys have a lower profile in the textbooks, they're still all over the currency.) These are colorful characters with dramatic stories; if the Beatles, Shakespeare and Frida Kahlo keep getting trendy again every few years, why not them?
That the pudgy John Adams, the one-term wonder whose face appears only on--can you guess?--the $75 U.S. savings bond, was in fact the most colorful, most forceful and, arguably, most influential of all the Founders surprised even McCullough. He'd first planned to write a book on Adams and Jefferson, and fretted that Jefferson would steal the show. But McCullough soon discovered that Adams was "like a character in Dickens": effusive and energetic, temperamental yet generous and forgiving, self-important yet self-ironic, and with (no kidding) a sense of humor. One of the best moments in McCullough's book is Adams's own dryly comic account of having to share a bed with Benjamin Franklin in a crowded inn in New Jersey, and getting into a dispute about whether to leave the window open. "I answered that I was afraid of the evening air... Dr. Franklin replied, '... Come, open the window and come to bed and I will convince you. I believe you are not acquainted with my theory of colds'." Franklin began expounding "upon air and cold and respiration and perspiration, with which I was so much amused that I soon fell asleep."
McCullough, 67, is clearly in love with both Adams and Abigail ("that marvelous woman"), and sitting with him in a modern office at the homestead in Quincy, you finally do begin to sense Adams's presence. Of course it doesn't hurt that a white, life-size bust of Adams, with his sharp nose and sharper expression, is looking over both of you. "I love the fact that on that first voyage to Europe he gets into that fight, you know, with the captain who orders him below. And then when he grabs that young lieutenant and holds him while they're amputating his leg. That's no sunshine soldier. Or when he records the bawdy joke from the wedding party, you remember that? You'd never find that in Jefferson." He has equally intense feelings about some of the minor characters. When you mention Mercy Otis Warren, an old friend of Adams's who eventually mean-mouthed him in her 1806 history of the Revolution, McCullough's mouth drops open. "Oh, isn't she something? I tried not to let too much of my disdain for her show. Why she turned on him the way she did, I don't know. He didn't know. I think she might have been a bit of a pain in the ass."
But most of all, he's simply entranced by the whole era. "I'd never worked in the 18th century before," McCullough says. "I'd never set foot in it. Like a lot of people, I'd seen the portraits with the lace at the cuffs, the fancy buckles on the shoes, and thought of them as sort of fops. Probably sat on satin pillows most of their lives. But these were tough guys. I mean, boy, how about when Adams gets sick, I forget if it's Paris or Amsterdam, he goes out and walks 10 miles as a way of curing his cold. In his 80s he's out here--" he tosses his head at the window--"swinging a scythe cutting hay." The bust of Adams, with its craterlike pupils, leers over his shoulder. And although McCullough made his reputation writing on 20th-century subjects, his next book--he's superstitious about saying just what it is until he's signed the contract--will also be set in the 18th century. "I loved working on this book," he says, as if you didn't know. "Loved every part of it. And I ain't comin' back."