A Comparison of Reviews for David McCullough’s “John Adams”

October 10, 2018 |  Tagged | Comments Off on A Comparison of Reviews for David McCullough’s “John Adams”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Historical works frequently do not reach popular audiences the way other literary works do. Those who do face a wider variety of criticism. Not only do they face the criticism of scholarly academic reviews, they also face the criticism of popular book reviews. For this project I will compare two reviews written for popular audiences to two reviews written for scholarly audiences on David McCullough’s John Adams. McCullough’s biography on John Adams became a bestseller and winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography, later having a televised miniseries developed after his work.
Popular reviews of McCullough’s work generally gave him glowing reviews ignoring the more technical aspects that were associated with writing a historical biography. Pauline Maier’s review of John Adams highlights the authors appreciation, almost love of his subject. Maier does not focus on the historical aspect of the biography, ignoring blatant historical inaccuracies and lack of important historical content. Instead this review mostly highlights the style of the author and outlines the content of the book. Sean Wilentz wrote a similar review for John Adams in the publication, The New Republic. Like Meier, Wilentz also makes note of the appreciation that McCullough has for John Adams, and follows the similar model of Maiers review, mostly giving an outline of the book and congratulating the author on his extensive knowledge of John Adams personal life. Unlike Meier, Wilentz does acknowledge that McCullough focuses more on the fact that Adams was a “good man” and ignores a majority of his historical attributions.
Scholarly reviews of McCullough’s John Adams take a wider critical approach. Eric P. Olsen, writing for World & I, spends most of his review focusing on the writing style of the author and his attention to detail. While his popular review counterparts would take his style and detail at face value, Olsen takes a look at the details used and how his English degree reflects in his historical writing. Olsen describes McCullough’s work as a vivid portrait, well researched and a close up of John Adams himself. While popular review writers focused on the fact that McCullough had a love for John Adams and how his book was an extended glowing review of his life, Olsen contends that McCullough’s book is not a history of John Adams and his achievements, but a portrait of the subject as a human, not based on his achievements. Jean Edward Smith of the Political Science Quarterly (Academy of Political Science) did not write such a glowing response in her review. Here Smith describes the book as “chatty prose” not meaningful to the historical subject matter, but instead, “loving.” To Smith, McCullough included lengthy quotations with minimal explanation toward the end of the book, leading Smith to the conclusion that McCullough got bored of his topic towards the end. Another disagreement that Smith had with McCullough’s work was his inclusion of minimal life events such as a cross atlantic shipboard experience that John Adams had, and the exclusion of or glossing over of Adam’s actual involvement in important historical events such as the Treaty of Paris. With this Smith questions how well McCullough understands the founding of the United States and by default questions how he can write such a book on the history of its second president.
Typically the popular reviews of these books were intended to influence readers of popular magazines and other publications to read and purchase these books. It is understandable why the content of these reviews focuses more on subjects that are more relatable to the day to day reader, such as the social activities of John Adams opposite of his historical and political contributions, as well as the writing style of the author, and whether or not it is readable to the average person. Scholarly reviews, however tended to brush off the more relatable aspects of McCullough’s writing. Instead they admitted that his book was less a historical resource and more of a piece aimed at informing someone without a stake in historical research. This can be deferred by looking at what is criticized in these reviews. The comments about the lack of historical relevance in Smith’s review highlights this. In Olsen’s review, though glowing, the mention that the book is a portrait of the subject as a human and not for his achievements, is also reflective of how the book is aimed at the average reader. This also can explain why the popular reviews were so focused on the admiration used by the author and the future mini series inspired by the book, instead of a critique of the actual content.
It is important to note, that the authors of these reviews also have their own agendas. The popular authors focus mostly on how McCullough honored Adam’s personal life. They aimed to make this book appeal to the popular audience who may have more interest in someone’s life than their historical or political contributions. The scholarly critics also had their own goal in their reviews, where the goals of the popular writers were relatively uniform, the goals of the scholarly writers could vary based on what they valued in historical research. Olsen’s review of John Adams could have appealed to the authors focus in sociological history or a focus into how historical figures personal lives affected history as we know it today. On the other hand, Smith’s review could be based around the authors belief that Adams contributions to political history is just as important as his relationship with his wife.
No two historical criticism or review is going to be the same, even when separated into popular and scholarly. It is important to note that the background of the review author and the intent of the person writing the subject being reviewed can conflict. Reviews should be interpreted with an open mind and compared across popular and academic content. Readers should reflect on what they seek to achieve from the reviews before basing an opinion on a topic.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 References
Maier, Pauline. 2001. “Plain Speaking”. The New York Times, , 2001.
Olsen, Eric. 2002. “Yankee Patriot”. World & I. 17 (1): 241.
Smith, Jean Edward. 2018. “John Adams (Book)”. Political Science Quarterly (Academy Of Political Science). 117 (1): 130.
Wilentz, Sean. 2001. “America Made Easy”. The New Republic, , 2001.


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