Review of “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary” by Fred Kaplan

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Fred Kaplan’s 2014 “John Quincy Adams: American Visionary” is one of the most recent and comprehensive biographies of the sixth president. Kaplan is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Queens College in New York City and the author of nearly a dozen books including biographies of Henry James, Charles Dickens and 1984 Pulitzer Prize finalist “Thomas Carlyle: A Biography.”

The product of six years of research, Kaplan’s biography is the second longest of the half-dozen books on John Quincy Adams I’ve read. Its 570-page narrative is thorough, detailed and often quite astute. Its Introduction is brief but compelling and it ends with an excellent Bibliographical Essay which provides a wonderful roadmap for further study.

Kaplan’s rationale for the book is based upon his view that Adams’s personality and talents are not fully revealed by previous JQA biographies. Kaplan intends to “see Adams whole” with two points of special emphasis: Adams’s talent as a writer (and fondness for poetry, in particular) and his prescient prediction of a Civil War which would cleanse the American soul.

Not surprisingly, Kaplan is a fan of JQA and, as a result, the narrative occasionally feels a bit too friendly toward the sixth president (while vilifying his adversaries). But Adams’s cantankerous personality, prickly demeanor and personal foibles are well-exposed. In addition, much of of Adams’s early life is marvelously covered – Kaplan deeply explores the many challenges Adams faced growing up and his decision to enter politics.

The chapter reviewing his courtship of Louisa is quite good as is the book’s introduction to Andrew Jackson. Kaplan’s reviews and assessments of the political currents of the political campaigns of 1828 and 1836 prove incredibly insightful. And, as promised, Kaplan provides a much more extensive examination of John Quincy Adams’s penchant for poetry than I’ve ever seen.

But while the content of Kaplan’s biography is generally excellent, my problem with the book concerns its style. The narrative is often stiff and starchy rather than fluid and direct. If there is a straightforward way to describe a sequence of events, Kaplan often seems determined to avoid it. In addition, because the text is fact-dense and matter-of-fact, newcomers to Adams are likely to find it difficult to separate important moments from “background noise.”

More disconcerting, however, is the author’s propensity for hopscotching around the timeline. He seems to delight in forcing non-continuous chronology into the narrative and it is not uncommon for the story to suddenly jump ahead or leap backward by several years – sometimes multiple times in just a page or two. As a result, it can be extraordinarily difficult to piece together JQA’s life in a seamless way.

Curiously, after suggesting the book will refute the notion that Adams was a failed one-term president, there is just a single, thirty-eight page chapter focused on his presidency. Stranger still: the term “Corrupt Bargain” does not merit a mention in the book’s Index (and the phrase itself is not used until well after the event itself takes place in the narrative).

Overall, Fred Kaplan’s biography of John Quincy Adams is scholastically meritorious but stylistically and organizationally disappointing. As a second or third book for someone fascinated by Adams, the book may prove useful. But in the end, this proves a far better study of JQA than biography.

Overall Rating: 3½ stars