Brenda Wineapple

  • A Spouse Divided

    To the historian Henry Adams, his grandmother Louisa was an exotic creature of delicacy and charm decidedly out of place among the founding family of American Adamses. Her dour husband, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president of the United States; her peevish father-in-law, the second. Unlike them, Louisa Adams had been born in London, and rather than grim or frizzled, she looked as though she’d stepped out of a pretty painting by George Romney. Presiding over the breakfast table, among the teacups and the silver pot, Louisa Adams revealed nothing of her inner life, and for a very long time

  • Inherited Vice

    NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE CONSIDERED The House of the Seven Gables (1851) a cheery book, or at least a bit merrier than The Scarlet Letter, even though few readers would agree with him, then or now. His saga about the Pyncheon family was “an affliction,” the novelist Catharine Sedgwick declared. “It affects one like a passage through the wards of an insane asylum.” More recently, Jane Smiley said the structure of the book was unappealing, solemn, and, as far as novels go, unrealistic.

    That the novel is sober should come as no surprise. After all, it’s the story of an impacted family ravaged by an

  • Power Ballad

    “How may I tell you of him?” Maecenas asks the historian Livy. They’re speaking about Maecenas’s friend Gaius Octavius (63 BC– AD 14), hailed as “Augustus” in John Williams’s novel of the same name, and that’s the question Augustus brilliantly ponders: how to tell about the man who could autocratically rule Rome’s rapacious and expanding empire for more than forty years while bringing it unprecedented peace and prosperity, superintending its construction in marble, and siphoning off its bloodlust with games. Who was this Octavius the August, the man called, without irony, the father of his