December 15, 1816 – February 2, 1817
At the age of 81, Adams is churning through the books. This week he says, “To help me on in my career of improvement I have now read four Volumes of La Harps Correspondence with Paul and a Russian Minister.”
Jefferson’s response reveals a difference not only in how the two men fill their time, but also, to be crude, in their degree of public popularity. TJ to JA: “Dear Sir, how I envy you! . . . From sun-rise to one or two aclock, and often from dinner to dark, I am drudging at the writing table. And all this to answer letters into which neither interest nor inclination on my part enters; and often for persons whose names I have never before heard. Yet, writing civilly, it is hard to refuse them civil answers. This is the burthen of my life, a very grievous one indeed, and one which I must get rid of. Delaplaine lately requested me to give him a line on the subject of his book; meaning, as I well knew, to publish it. This I constantly refuse; but in this instance yielded, that, in saying a word for him I might say two for myself. I expressed in it freely my sufferings from this source; hoping it would have the effect of an indirect appeal to the discretion of those, strangers and others, who in the most friendly dispositions, oppress me with their concerns, their pursuits, their projects, inventions and speculations, political, moral, religious mechanical mathematical, historical etc. etc. etc.”
Everyone wants a piece of TJ.
I don’t want to overstate this. It’s not as if Adams is a recluse, shut in his hobbit hole in Braintree smoking his pipe, a leather-bound tome on his lap beside a whispery fire. But it points to Jefferson’s legendary status that will surpass Adams’s. More than once, Mr. and Mrs. Adams have good-naturedly referred to Jefferson as the “phylosopher of Monticello” or something similar. And last time I visited, there was no Adams Memorial on the National Mall (not yet anyway).
Of course, Jefferson is reading plenty, too—some good sci-fi, perhaps? I had to stop and investigate when I read this line from TJ to Abigail Adams: “Mercier has given us a vision of the year 2440, but prophecy is one thing, history is another.”
Now, I’m not exactly looking for more science fiction to read, because, trust me, I already have a to-read list long enough to satisfy my own career of improvement, and I’m not a fast reader. I’ve managed a significant chunk of Frank Herbert—proud of myself, there—but I’m just wading into the likes of Orson Scott Card, Dan Simmons, Ray Bradbury, etc. etc. etc. Wait, did I get it wrong, is this career derailment?
But how can one resist an 18th-century futuristic novel? Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred, by Louis-Sébastien Mercier. Or, to be exact, L‘an deux mille quatre cent quarante: Rêve s’il en fût jamais, literally: “The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One,” which must have been deemed too complicated for English readers, because the translator rounded things up to the year 2500. Sci-fi idiots.
According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, it was “probably the first utopia to be published in the USA, in 1795, a reprint of the 1772 translation.” I’m sure it’s awful, but it’s going on my list.