Top critical review
on August 8, 2012
First off, I am an avid fan of David McCullough's work. I loved Truman, 1776, and Mornings On Horseback. It's funny, I don't like giving any negative criticism to McCullough, mainly because he is a fine author. However, I disliked this book immensely.
I found as I was reading it, I grew bored. It felt watered down and filtered. I sometimes had a difficult time following the chronology. I also found it lacked the "meat and potatoes" that I enjoy in historical biographies. The politics and events surrounding the revolution and Adams vice presidency and presidency seemed like a mere summary, likened to the entries you might find on Wikipedia, rather than the detailed naration I was expecting. I remember one line from the book, where McCullough referenced General Howe's comment regarding how quickly Washington fortified Dorechester Heights, and McCullough simply named him "the British commander". I thought to myself, yes, he has a name. Why don't you say it? I felt there was a general lack of depth in many areas I hoping to be more meaty, especially The Alien and Sedition Acts (I see this was mentioned by several other reviewers). Sometimes, I felt like I had missed key aspects of the narration altogether. One example is when Adams was chosen to represent Massachusetts at the Continental Congress. I had glossed over that point entirely, and found myself thinking, did he mention he was chosen to do this? I found myself flipping back on different paragraphs, only to find a mere mention of it, hidden in the fluff. This is was a recurring theme throughout the book.
One of the things I like about David McCullough is how he likes to break misconceptions regarding his topics. A really good example is Truman, who's presidency is oft treated as a mere afterthought. In Truman, McCullough, although favorable to Truman, showed both sides of the story, displaying warts and all. I felt this lacking in his work on Adams, and the scale tipped too far towards a favorable view of Adams.
I will say this; the book is an approachable book, and easy to read, like most of McCullough's books. McCullough writes like he is speaking to you, instead of hiding the facts in obtuse and overly technical text. But if you are looking for detail, and "meat and potatoes" rather than dessert, I believe you will be greatly disappointed.
In closing, I'll add I read this book immediately after reading Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. The contrast couldn't be greater between these two books. I found Chernow's work to be an excellent read, chock full of all the details I longed for, and the type of balance I was seeking in John Adams.