When she was a young girl, Stacy Schiff read like crazy, often devouring titles in the popular “Childhood of Famous Americans” series that featured luminaries like Clara Barton and Susan B. Anthony. “I was obsessed with those books as a child,” she remarked with a smile.
Perhaps buoyed by this early fascination, Ms. Schiff grew up to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer whose captivating volumes illuminate the lives of fascinating figures such as Cleopatra, Benjamin Franklin, Véra Nabokova and, most recently, Samuel Adams.
It was her 2022 biography, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams, that brought her to Chapin on January 24 to present the 2024 Gilder Lehrman Institute Lecture, the 17th installment of this notable lecture.
Chapin is pleased to enjoy a longstanding partnership with The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which promotes our understanding of U.S. history through an exciting roster of educational programs, including this annual lecture. This year, the “lecture” took the form of a conversation between Ms. Schiff and Director of Academic Program Ilana Pergam, who is also an Upper School History Teacher.
Following welcoming remarks from Head of School Suzanne Fogarty and Professor James Basker, the president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute, Ms. Pergam and Ms. Schiff settled into chairs on the Assembly Room stage and embarked on a wide-ranging dialogue that transfixed the audience of Middle and Upper School students (including all of Class 11), current and past parents, the professional community, alums, grandparents and friends.
“You’re an exquisite writer and scholar,” Ms. Pergam began, “I wonder whether you think of yourself as a public historian, someone who brings history to many more people than might normally access it?”
“I think of myself as a writer,” Ms. Schiff said. “The way the words hit the page, the way the words sound on the page and the way the story unfolds is to me paramount. There should be tremendous incentive to relax into the arms of the author, to feel the suppleness and the texture of the prose.”
Although John Adams’ lesser-known second cousin Samuel was briefly mentioned in Ms. Schiff’s Benjamin Franklin biography, it wasn’t until she stumbled upon his name when she was conducting research for a different project that Samuel Adams re-entered her mind. “Who was this elusive man of whom I knew so little? That led me back to read his papers.”
And the rest, as they say, is history as Ms. Schiff’s 325-page biography of Samuel Adams (1722-1803) began to slowly take shape. (She joked that it took her “117 years” to write; the actual number is closer to six.)
The process proved quite difficult, Ms. Schiff discovered. Despite the fact that Adams was one of Boston’s best-known revolutionary leaders, “he was a very modest man who felt more comfortable in the wings. He had no need to write himself into the center of the story like his cousin, John,” she noted, adding that she relied mostly on letters, diaries and “what his enemies wrote about him.”
When asked what we shouldn’t forget about Samuel Adams, Ms. Schiff was quick to respond: “He manages to give a vocabulary to the Revolution,” she emphasized. “People go from being very loyal to the Crown in the 1760s to contemplating a rupture with the mother country in the 1770s.”
Adams turned to Boston’s press to get his radical messages out to the people, Ms. Schiff said. Using no fewer than 32 pseudonyms, he wrote “ceaselessly and tenaciously” for The Boston Gazette, The Journal of Occurrences and other publications of the time. Boston’s high literacy rate and its widespread obsession with newspapers, the content of which was sensational and mostly fictitious, increased Adams’ readership.
Ms. Schiff and Ms. Pergam also discussed transformative events like the Boston Tea Party, an extremely violent, well-orchestrated “destruction of private property” that left confusion and mystery in its wake, before allowing time for audience questions (students representing the Upper School Humanities Council assisted by distributing microphones).
One student asked how Ms. Schiff handled the risk of bias when doing research.
“I try to keep as open a mind as possible,” said Ms. Schiff. “For example, Adams comes down to us as a hot-headed fanatic. He’s the firebrand of the American Revolution. But if you read what people in Boston actually say about him, he’s a man of great erudition, tremendous delicacy, steadfast integrity, he’s very patient and he’s very discreet. Setting preconceived notions aside and letting the material speak to you is crucial.”
Another audience member wondered how biography is different from other genres of historical non-fiction.
“Biography gives you as a reader a much more intimate, multi-layered grasp of how history plays itself out,” commented Ms. Schiff. “You’re set down much more immediately in a time and a place, and you see the kinds of decisions this person had to make. What was it about Samuel Adams and the ideas whirling around him and this question of American sovereignty? Why does that resonate with him so much and what does he do to propel the Massachusetts Bay Colony forward?”
With this year’s magnificent Gilder Lehrman Lecture nearing the end, Ilana Pergam had some closing words of praise for our generous speaker, Stacy Schiff. “The beautiful way you write is expressed so vividly in the way you shared your stories with us this evening,” she said. “We so loved how you gave us insight into the life of Samuel Adams and shared the work you do as a writer and a scholar.
“I thank you so much for joining us this evening,” added Ms. Pergam as the Assembly Room erupted in applause.