". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Books Are the Best Distraction -- Diaries: John Quincy Adams

     . . . . John Quincy Adams's Diaries are so much fun to read. 

The diarist is a keen, retentive observer, who writes from an historically valuable unique point of view, that of a first hand witness. So much of what he writes he participated in and / or witnessed personally. Many of these are classic events the national past, starting with the Battle of Bunker Hill, which 12-year-old JQ watched with his mother, Abigail Adams. As profoundly informative these Diaries are (brilliantly edited, by David Walstreicher for The Library of America), they are too,  frequently witty, and often funny. 

El V and I laugh out loud frequently during sessions of reading the Journals, either to ourselves or aloud when reading to each other.

Who could resist JQ's bare presentations of Henry Clay, who comes through as a different fellow, though still Clay,  from those of his biographers, even those who may not necessarily approve of the man and politician. JQ initially spent a great of time struggling to get Clay to work -- and to think instead of bluster. During the 1815 Treaty of Ghent wranglings, for which the US had summoned Adams from the position as minister to Russia, there are many a mention of Clay arriving back to his room from a night of whores, cards and wine just as JQ was rising from his bed to work. 

No one who isn't old in study of US history, or at least in years, could even recognize what he's writing about much of the time, much less find this Massachusetts Puritan (but one who wished he could be a great poet), amusing, much less made to laugh appreciatively by the skill of something he's written.

JQ's passages of Paris in the day and hours prior to Napoleon's arrival in Paris, breaking his incarceration on St. Helena, to reign again as emperor are particularly interesting if one knows that at the same time he's expecting his wife and child to arrive from traveling across war torn, northern Europe alone, from St. Petersburg -- in winter. This journey took her an astonishing 40 days!  But not a word in his Diaries about this, other than, I was expecting the arrival of my wife. 

What JQ describes instead are the various orders of Parisians and their responses, as the reports of  the stages of Napoleon's arrival are accepted with the ho-hum shrugging of shoulders,  rolling of eyes, and pragmatic reactions such as turning the Bourbon flag arms sold as tourist souvenirs into Napoleon's insignia, turning Royal Bourbon cakes into Imperial  cakes and preferring to cheer or hiss their targets on stage at the theater.  It's all opera buffa (JQ was in the audience for many all around Europe) and profoundly interesting, while illuminating and funny.

Or, who could resist this, from when JQ was himself Secretary of State to James Monroe?  President Monroe proposed that Andrew Jackson (the most famous fellow in the US because of the Battle of New Orleans) be appointed Ambassador to Russia. Thomas Jefferson exploded, "Good God man, he'd have us at war in a month!" (Jefferson really disliked Jackson, one of the very few opinions Jefferson held with which I concur.) 

I do wish he'd included his wife, Louisa, and what she was doing and thinking in his Journals.  She's barely mentioned except for being 'unwell,' which meant anything from migraines to pregnancy to miscarriage to hysterics. Who wouldn't have gotten a case of hysterics occasionally, when constantly pregnant and losing the children and married to this fellow? I am enjoying his company very much, and I know he and Louisa did love each other very much, but sheesh!

What this means is that I'm officially old.

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