'The Revolutionary' review: Stacy Schiff's biography of Samuel Adams is superb Adams' historical importance is often overlooked because he didn't keep copies of his own letters. Stacy Schiff's superb new biography explores his crucial role in inciting the American Revolution.


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Author reminds Americans that Samuel Adams was a revolutionary before he was a beer

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This is FRESH AIR. The subjects of Stacy Schiff's histories and biographies have ranged from the Salem Witch trials to the lives of Cleopatra and Vera, the wife of Vladimir Nabokov, which won a Pulitzer Prize. The subject of Schiff's latest biography called "The Revolutionary" is Samuel Adams. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Maybe it's the company I keep. Over the past few weeks, when I've told friends and neighbors that I've been reading a superb, new biography of Samuel Adams, almost everyone has responded by saying something to the effect of, oh, the beer guy. Well, yes, Adams was a brewer, but he was also a patriot, maybe the most crucial patriot. That's the argument of Stacy Schiff's charged new biography of Samuel Adams called "The Revolutionary." Schiff illuminates how well in advance of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin or John Adams, his more prominent cousin, Samuel Adams strategized, wrote and wrangled the American Revolution into inevitability.

Schiff is in good company in thinking so. Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of the province of Massachusetts Bay, dammed Samuel Adams as the chief incendiary of the revolutionary passions that ignited in Boston. Thomas Jefferson called Adams the patriarch of liberty. Samuel Adams not only was the earliest advocate for independence from Great Britain, but he also argued against slavery and for universal free public education.

Schiff points out that while most of America's founders became giants after independence, Adams began to shrink, although she makes too short work of why that might be so. As it happens, Adams, the great advocate for the colonial rebellion, later urged the state of Massachusetts to crush the uprising of indebted farmers known as Shays' Rebellion. And unlike many of the other prominent members of the revolutionary generation, Adams opposed the ratification of the Constitution, believing that a stronger federal government would limit the rights of the people. Schiff stresses instead that Adams' diminished legacy derived from the fact that to protect his political associates, he kept no copies of his own letters nor did he leave a memoir behind.

As a biographer, though, Schiff is accustomed to uncovering trails that have grown cold. After all, one of her earlier books was a revelatory life of Cleopatra. "The Revolutionary" is not merely a dutiful exhumation of a poorly remembered Founding Father; it's a thrilling, timely account of how the American Revolution happened - how the colonists were radicalized and came to think of themselves not as Bostonians or Virginians, but as Americans, and how Samuel Adams, through countless meetings and in countless newspaper essays written under 30-some pseudonyms, played an essential role in that transformation.

"The Revolutionary" is informed on every page by scholarship. But Schiff, as Adams himself did, knows how to hold an audience. Since Adams was a late bloomer, not coming into his own until his early 40s, Schiff postpones her account of his youth and opens on one of the most cinematic moments in American history, namely Paul Revere's ride. Even those who remember the Longfellow poem may not recall that Revere galloped through an April night in 1775 to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock to flee their lodgings in Lexington, Mass. British troops were on the move to arrest, if not outright assassinate, them. Here's a snippet from Schiff's opening paragraph written in present tense.

(Reading) A glimmer, a gleam, the hurry of hoofs. A sturdy, square-jawed man speeds through the night with an urgent message on a borrowed horse. Within days, he will know he has participated in some kind of history though he is never to know that his own account will be obliterated - the adrenaline alone enduring - by verse, leaving him trapped in tetrameter, a mythic figure eternally jouncing his way toward Lexington.

Schiff brings that same sense of immediacy to other key moments in Adams' life - foremost among them, the first stirrings in 1772 of his history-altering suggestion that representatives from each colony should meet. In this time of common distress, Adams wrote under pseudonym in the Boston Gazette, it would be the wisdom of the colonists more frequently to correspond with and to be more attentive to the particular circumstances of each other. Adams was laying the groundwork for what would become the first Continental Congress in 1774.

Schiff tells us that in relentlessly drumming up enthusiasm for all those early town meetings that would ultimately culminate in the idea of American independence, Adams wrestled with intrigue on one side and apathy on another, a phrase which has all-too-grim contemporary resonance.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan reviewed "The Revolutionary" by Stacy Schiff. On tomorrow's show, we speak with writer Ramona Emerson. Her first novel, "Shutter," is about a police department photographer who, like Emerson, grew up in the Navajo Nation. In the story, the photographer is haunted by the ghosts of victims from crime scenes she's photographed. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.


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