Thursday, August 17, 2017

`Literary Tastes Peculiar to Myself'

The Library of America has just published the Diaries of John Quincy Adams in two volumes. I know Adams as a learned man, well-read and curious, and if his name turned up in a trivia game I could report that he was the first U.S. president to be photographed and that he believed the president could single-handedly abolish slavery using his war powers (as the union was in danger of dissolution over the issue). I also knew Adams, like many educated men and women of his time, judged Dr. Johnson a sage or moral authority.

You can gauge a reader’s true commitment to a writer less by the number of overt citations (which may be nothing but showing off) than by unsignaled allusions. In October 1812, during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, Adams was in St. Petersburg as the first U.S. minister to that country. Adams expresses confidence in Napoleon’s defeat and writes: “—Or rather Providence, (such is my belief) after using him for the purposes he is destined to answer, will exhibit him like another invader of Russia, `to point a moral or adorn a tale.” The tag is from “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” and was also a favorite of Stevie Smith’s. The Diaries are peppered with such casual references.

In March 1835, Adams tells us he walks to Capitol in the afternoon. This follows his term as president (1825-1829) and comes during his time as a Congressman from Massachusetts (1830-1848). He found two volumes of Swift’s work in the Capitol library, and looked for “the passage cited in Johnson’s Dictionary under the word Executive, but could not find it – I found however several references to Hobbes’s opinions, and examined the Folio Volume of Hobbes’s Works, till 3 O’Clock when I was obliged to leave the Library, which is closed at that hour . . .”

In March 1837, Adams pays another visit to the Capitol library, where he “took up the second Volume of Matthias’s Edition of [Thomas] Gray’s works, and wandered over it till the clock struck three and warned me to depart.” He finds in Gray an analysis of Plato (“which I had no time to examine”), moves on to the poet’s letters and considers Gray’s “Ode on the Spring.” Here he pauses to make a point that will puzzle some dedicated readers: “I have literary tastes peculiar to myself, and the correctness of which I distrust, because they differ from the general voice.” He assesses his fondness for Gray:

“There is no Lyric Poet of antient [sic] or modern times, who so deeply affects my feelings as Gray – Every one of his Odes, is to me an inestimable jewel, and nothing in all Dr. Johnson’s writings is so disgusting to me, as his criticisms upon themthe progress of Poesy and the Bard are the first and second Odes that were ever written—Dryden’s Alexander’s feast, Horace’s Carmen Seculare and Collins’s Passions pari passu come after—Pindar’s Pythics are admirable and Anacreon is charming as a songster—But the progress of Poesy, is the point of the Pyramid—the first of Odes—as the Church yard is the first of Elegies—Yet I have read scarcely any thing of Gray, except the very small collection of his Poems, and these two thick Quarto’s of his works are almost all news to me—Why is it that I must reproach myself for an hour given to them as wasted time?”

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