Sunday, January 06, 2008

Poison pens

I turned in early last night after wrestling with the keyboard on my laptop that suddenly decided it needed to be cleaned. I pried a few keys off but it took a lot longer to get them back on again. Good thing I have so much patience or I'd have thrown in the towel, gritted my teeth and took it in to be serviced AGAIN. Not going to happen. I'm not afraid of taking things apart -- or putting them back together.

Instead, I went to bed with the founding fathers and found them infinitely amusing and thought provoking. In recent years, they have all come under fire for their various mistakes and foibles, basically, for their humanity, and being a middle-aged or aged white man was not a good thing. Christopher Columbus, it was decided, was a thief and a pirate who destroyed civilizations as if on a whim in order to get gold and find a western route to the Orient. All of Western civilization's men of vision and adventure were, in short, nothing more than evil men greedy for gold and fame, so I found the book I'm reading to review, Virtue, Valor, & Vanity a delightful surprise in so many ways. Yes, the founding fathers were human and all too human when their vanity and pride were -- they felt -- under siege, but they were also intelligent, interesting and visionary men.

John Adams

John Adams, Washington's vice president and eventually the second president of the U.S. under the new Constitution (Washington was not the first president, since there were a few before him under the Continental Congress and before the Constitution was ratified by all the colonies) was jealous of nearly all his colleagues, most especially with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, although he intensely disliked Alexander Hamilton, who Adams felt was a preening peacock bent on fame at any cost. Adams didn't like his politics either. Franklin was too lazy as far as Adams was concerned and altogether too interested in fame and vain to the highest degree. Adams served as Franklin's associate in France during and after the Revolutionary War when Franklin was Ambassador to France.

Franklin's rustic clothing, fur hat and easy manners made him the darling of the French people and he made friends and conquests wherever he went. The French, those weather vanes of fashion, gave up their gaudy show of fashion to copy Franklin's rustic style, even to the point of copying his fur hat. Women swooned and vied for Franklin's attention and the men were just as captivated. Adams saw Franklin as a know-it-all and exceedingly pretentious and envied him with a keen and bitter jealousy. Franklin, more than thirty years older than Adams, had done a great deal during his 70+ years for the colonists and in pursuit of knowledge. Adams, by comparison, was prissy and jealous of everyone, hiding his contempt and anger in his journals and in letters to friends.

Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been very close friends until they clashed over politics during Adams's tenure as VP when Jefferson was Secretary of State. He considered Jefferson a threat to his position and a political enemy since Jefferson was a Republican and Adams a Federalist. Adams envied Jefferson's abilities and fame and railed against him whenever and wherever he had a chance, even to the point of blackening Jefferson's professional reputation in fit after fit of pique. Jefferson considered Adams's jealousies not at all and left Adams to himself, but Adams would not let the enmity die, carrying his jealousy nearly to his grave. He finally gave in and sent Jefferson a note wishing him a happy New Year and Jefferson, delighted to have his friend back, responded effusively, carrying on a correspondence with Adams until Adams's death.

Adams even envied Washington his fame and his figure, as he envied Jefferson's, because he was a short man by comparison. Standing next to such elegance and composure, he was eclipsed and felt as though he lived always in their shadows.He felt everything he did was tainted by association. Despite his bitterness and jealousies, Adams had a good mind and did a great deal for the furtherance of the American cause.

Reading the private thoughts and correspondence of men like the founding fathers, put me in mind of other more literary enmities and jealousies, some of which have spawned very creative tales and books, like Nathaniel Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter that he wrote because of his enmity with Dr. Wesselhoeft, a disagreement that included Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. The annals of literary history are full of enmities of people who were once friends and more often than not came to literary blows based on jealousy, envy and betrayals, and then there are those who attacked their colleagues to protect their secrets, calling the ones who held their secrets liars and attempting to blacken their professional reputations in order not to be found out. Most often, their attacks were based on the feeling that because they were assisted by someone they perceived to be more talented or knowledgeable, they could not truly call their successes their own, that everything they did was tainted because they had not succeeded alone and could not enjoy their success. Their jealousy ate them alive until it poisoned nearly everything they did because they were not content to see things in a more realistic and honest light. The anger and desire to destroy their colleagues crept into everything they wrote. Some of these literary feuds remain as fascinating and humorous tales.

It is said there is none more dangerous than a woman scorned, but I think such a woman is far less dangerous than an intelligent and talented person full of spite, envy and jealousy in pursuit of fame.

That is all. Disperse.

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