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Love and John Quincy Adams

In response to:

The Passions of John Quincy Adams from the May 21, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

Jefferson Morley’s news [NYR, Letters, May 21] that John Quincy Adams was a passionate man is news only because Morley has discovered that exclusively on the basis of the poem to Anna Thornton that he cites. Adams wrote hundreds of such poems, some of them flowery and courteously romantic, many lightly flirtatious; many were short, inscribed with his signature, and written into keepsake books for ladies of his acquaintance and even sometimes for semi-strangers. A large number of his non–keepsake book poems, most of which are full-length lyric poems of the sort Morley cites, are warm testimonies to friendship and to the intersection between human and divine love.

Adams and Anna and William Thornton were neighbors and good friends; Anna and John Quincy’s wife, Louisa Catherine, were intimate friends. Adams’s poem to Anna Thornton is to a “dearest friend.” It is not a love poem. It is not an expression of sexual or romantic passion, but it is passionate about friendship. Adams did write numbers of sexy poems, some of them comic, some of them serious. All of the serious love poems are to his wife, about whom he was indeed passionate.

The Adams papers on microfilm and at the Massachusetts Historical Society are the obvious source for almost all of Adams’s poetry. My biography quotes many of them, some at length. Given what is now widely known about Adams and the readily available manuscript evidence in poems and in letters, that Jefferson Morley seems to think he has news for us puzzles me.

Fred Kaplan
Distinguished Professor Emeritus
Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
New York City