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Telling History through Story – John Adams and Johnny Tremain

Having written a number of historical dramas, I am well aware of the conflicts that can arise between the known facts of an historical event and the demands of dramatizing that same event. Things tend to get more complicated in the portrayal of the persons involved in those events. Add to that the demands of popular culture, the presentation of actual human beings as heroic or demonic characters, and the issue of critical tastes and current fashions, and you have a pretty heady stew.

This point came home recently as we watched a scene in the HBO series on the life of John Adams. The aged founder of the Republic was reacting to Trumbull’s famous painting of the presentation of the second draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Second Continental Congress. Seeking Adams’ appreciation of his work, poor Trumbull receives instead a critical diatribe cataloguing all of the historical inaccuracies in the painting!

The scene is itself a contradiction of the facts since it takes as a given the common mistake that this painting depicts the signing of the Declaration, which it does not. Even so, it provides the occasion for the fictional John Adams to describe the chaotic conditions actually surrounding the signing of our most critical first document – the fact that there was no formal ceremony and that the delegates who did sign it were in a hurry to get out of Philadelphia to avoid 1.) the British and 2.) the annual summer visitation of the Yellow Fever. Through Adams’ outburst, we are brought intimately close to the chaotic truth of the first days of our national invention.

Is it possible to turn history into art without creating fiction or can there be such a thing as an artful historical account that is still truthful? If any one has answered these questions, it would surely be David McCullough who approaches the historian’s craft most artfully. He puts it this way:  “To me history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.” [Emphasis mine.]

That attitude has brought McCullough two Pulitzer Prizes – one in 1993 for his biography of Harry S. Truman (Truman, 1992) and the second for his biography of John Adams in 2002 (John Adams, 2001). Both books have seen highly successful serial dramatizations on HBO. In fact, in documentaries about himself and about the making of the HBO series, McCullough describes history as a kind of story telling and along with the Truman series before it, the John Adams series is some of the finest historical story telling we have ever seen.

At first glance, one wondered about the casting of Paul Giamatti in the role of John Adams. The fact that he disappears to soar in the role is clear from his first appearance on horseback riding through a Boston snow storm towards Braintree. Just so, the other casting – David Morse (George Washington), Stephan Dillane (Thomas Jefferson), Tom Wilkinson (Ben Franklin), to name only a few – are all precisely right, all superb, but the jewel performance, it must be said, is Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. She is so clear, so steady, so right and true. And indeed, this is the first achievement of the series – that these characters come alive in their time; they lead us to remember that our founders were all making it up as they went along, that they were at once traitors and rebels, and that their lives and families were at stake in this mad act of standing up to the great power of the age.

We see the first sub-plot of the American Revolution – the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Companions from the writing of the Declaration of Independence forward, they embodied the two sides of the American personality. In Adams we discover the side of social responsibility moving always forward to greater social consciousness, to greater inclusiveness, to more perfect union. In Jefferson, we see the great individualist, continually inventing himself and reshaping his country to his own image. Coming together, veering apart, and coming together again, even to die on the same Fourth of July 50 years later in 1826 – these are the lives we continue to recall unto this very day.

The story of the relationship between John and Abigail Adams and the saga of the Adams family is an iconic sub-plot of our American experience. Our nation was not only born out of war but also out of the steady work, endurance, and sheer stubborn energy of the American family. Indeed, the actual conditions and endurance of John and Abigail and their children, their success and their failures, all equally described in this series, also describes the basic building unit of our social history. The Adams experience is the prototype of every immigrant family as we moved ever westward; the struggle to keep the home, to hold the family together, to maintain the land and hearth, and the strong women like Abigail who fought like furies to do all of that shaped the very hope and myth of this new land. That she and her husband were such friends in this process is one of the best celebrations of the series.

We often return to the period of the Revolution in our fiction and in another case it occurs in one the most successful books for young readers:  Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (1943). Unlike that dreadful Walt Disney version, the actual book is a serious piece of story telling. In the arc of the tale, Johnny Tremain, a selfish, arrogant young orphan boy of fourteen is transformed through pain, loneliness, betrayal, challenge and loss into a serious young man of sixteen. Along the way he learns that liberty is about sacrifice; that it is a way of living and being that must be earned again and again in a myriad of ways.

As Forbes was writing during the Second World War, one can understand how these thoughts of war and the cost of freedom would occupy her creativity. But out of her thoughts a deep redemption blooms. Remembering how the brilliant apprentice, whose talent for casting silver was expressed through his hands until he lost the use of his right hand through a cruel trick played on him by another apprentice; and remembering how this loss sent him into a downward spiral until he was given shelter by one of the Sons of Liberty only to discover how his true self and his certain spirit could rise again from within; and remembering how such rising could be sustained by the courage and determination to make “his hand good and free once more,” we hear again the echo of our actual experience as lived through the Crucible of Independence.

This seeming dichotomy – that we are at once responsible for ourselves and for each other as well – is the true synthesis of the American miracle. Surely, that bonding is a story worth telling over and over again, especially as we celebrate this Fourth of July.