From Publishers Weekly
Wills nimbly dusts off the nine volumes of Henry Adams's little-studied history of the United States from 1800 to 1817 and proclaims it to be both "a prose masterpiece" and a model for how to research and write history. Adams, he insists, helped to revolutionize the study of history by conducting actual archival research, not just in U.S. repositories but abroad, in London, Paris and Madrid. And at a time when provincial history was the norm, Adams adopted a broad international scope, placing the fledgling nation on the broad canvas of the Napoleonic Wars. Wills has little time for scholars who have dismissed the History
as pessimistic or defensive of Adams's ancestors ("Can these people not read?" Wills cries). In contrast, Wills finds Adams's work to be optimistic about the much-needed nationalization that occurred in this period, even though it took the ill-conceived and disastrous War of 1812 to get there. He also notes that Adams could be harshly critical of his own presidential ancestors, particularly John Quincy, in favor of the bold accomplishments of Jefferson and, to a lesser extent, Madison. In all, Adams's history traces "how a nation stagnating at the end of Federalist rule shook itself awake and struck off boldly in new directions." With its revisionist stance, felicitous prose and compelling argument, Wills's book charts new directions as well. (Sept. 14)
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According to Wills, the fact that no one these days has much regard for Henry Adams's histories of the Jefferson and Madison Presidencies is "one of the true scandals of American historiography." Wills argues that the work-nine daunting volumes of it-is a masterpiece that has been almost criminally misread by academics swayed by the "cheap pessimism" and "blatant distortions" of "The Education of Henry Adams." Attempting redress, Wills sets Adams's life story and his historical writings against each other, "stereoscopically"-thus producing what might be called the reeducation of Henry Adams. Unfortunately, after a few striking chapters portraying Adams's disdain for his Presidential forebears (he wished he could be "less Adamsy"), the book becomes a volume-by-volume gloss that is no great advertisement either for the history's readability or for the distinctiveness of its argument about the emergence of an American national identity.
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