THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Alex Beam

Historically accurate TV? A revolutionary idea.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / March 25, 2008

I find the older, post-canonization David McCullough a little hard to take. Doubtless, envy has poisoned my judgment. The guy has two Pulitzer Prizes, a honeyed writing style, and book sales that reliably register 6.0 and higher on the Grisham Scale.

But I don't trust the work anymore. McCullough specializes in feel-good history for the Masterpiece Theatre set, pensioners with time on their hands to read long, delicately woven myths about the majestic nobility of the Founding Fathers, or the sterling judgment of good ol' Harry Truman. I would never utter McCullough's name in the same breath as that of Robert Caro, who labors to re-create history as it actually was, not as we might wish it to have been.

After hearing a mesmerizing lecture by Brandeis's David Hackett Fischer a few years ago, I muttered to my companion, "He's the Last Historian Standing." David Herbert Donald and James McPherson had retired, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Joseph Ellis were tarnished by scandal, and McCullough had sold himself to the celebrity culture.

This windy preamble introduces the theme of historical accuracy - better, inaccuracy - in "John Adams," the $100 million, seven-part HBO miniseries based on McCullough's best-selling biography. The HBO publicity machine has been hyping the collusion of two American icons, McCullough and producer Tom Hanks, hoping viewers will tune in to a historical series that lacks the lubricity of the network's "Rome." Orgy-less, "John Adams" trades on its historical credibility. "I don't think any film has been done with such authenticity," according to McCullough.

Historical researcher John Bell is having none of this, and his wonderful website, Boston1775.blogspot.com, is the go-to locale for spotting solecisms, gaffes, and outright fabrications in HBO's series. Bell likes McCullough, while allowing for his "celebratory" style, and he likes the series OK. But he can't seem to stop posting fascinating tidbits that give the lie to HBO's claims of historical authenticity.

Cases in point: John Adams didn't witness the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, as depicted in episode one. Likewise, Adams didn't ride out to Concord immediately upon hearing of the "shot heard round the world," to hook up with his grave-robbing pal Dr. Joseph Warren, as shown in episode two. He met Warren in Cambridge a few days later, and then visited Lexington. How do we know? Because Adams wrote a detailed autobiography, which you can view online at the Massachusetts Historical Society website.

John Adams's defense of the Boston Massacre killers took place quite differently from HBO's version. Check out Bell's site for the details. Bell likewise points out that the dramatic smallpox inoculation scene at the Adams's Braintree farm was even more dramatic, because in real life Abigail dragged a retinue of 17 people into Boston for the procedures.

Over at the History News Network website, hnn.us, doctoral candidate Jeremy Stern argues persuasively that "John Adams" gets one of its principal characters - Sam Adams - all wrong. "Samuel may be the most misunderstood figure of the Revolutionary generation, still generally regarded as a disingenuous, scheming, unprincipled and Machiavellian rabble-rouser, manipulating the mobs and fomenting disorder for sinister purposes - the very image of the corrupt urban politician," Stern writes.

Both Bell and Stern view Samuel Adams as a level-headed opposition leader, not the "Revolutionary firebrand" marketed by Jim Koch's Boston Beer Company, among others. Stern points out that MIT historian Pauline Maier recast Samuel Adams's image in an important 1980 book, but apparently no one was paying attention.

In the end, so what? Isn't good enough history good enough? "That's a good question," Bell says. "It's good if it prompts someone to go to the Historical Society website to find out what John Adams actually did on a given day, whether he actually saw the victims of the Boston Massacre or not." I mentioned to Stern that HBO has already leafleted 10,000 teachers with "John Adams" agitprop. "If students watch the show, they'll understand the period better than if they didn't watch it," Stern notes. "But they will also pick up a lot of inaccurate ideas. I don't like the idea of students being exposed to misinformation."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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