By People Staff
September 05, 1983 12:00 PM

by Paul C. Nagel

From 1774 when lawyer John Adams reluctantly left his beloved farm in Braintree, Mass. to go into national politics, the Adams family was caught between its sense of duty and a longing to retreat from public life. John’s son, John Quincy Adams, went from a distinguished diplomatic career to a troubled Presidency; his son, Charles Francis Adams, was minister to Great Britain and instrumental in keeping the British from supporting the Confederacy in the Civil War. Charles Francis had two distinguished offspring: Henry, whose autobiography is often called the greatest ever written by an American; and Brooks, a leading exponent of turn-of-the-century pessimism. These are the Adamses in the limelight, but in the wings stand family members whose lives were crippled by alcoholism, mental illness, irrational ambitions—and, it seems, by the burden of the family name. Nagel, director of the Virginia Historical Society, tracks the blaze of genius that streaked across four American generations and then sputtered into relative obscurity. Relying on letters, diaries and other writings by family members, he has produced a readable account that at times becomes a bit claustrophobic. It would be nice to hear more from outsiders who knew the family and to have a sharper sense of the changing America outside the Adams circle. Still, it would be hard to come up with a better cast of characters, and the Adams story—in Charles Francis’ words, “one of extraordinary brilliancy and deep corroding mortification”—is irresistible. (Oxford, $25)