The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Memoirs of an Adams Transcriber

For three years I worked as a transcriber for the Adams Papers. Future editors, responsible for checking and publishing my transcriptions of the Adams family’s letters, will rue this fact—as my colleagues at the time must have, I’m sure. Oh, those carefree days poring over priceless manuscripts!

One of the best parts of being a transcriber is coming across surprising passages. Novel turns of phrase, hilarious absurdities, powerful expressions of grief—that kind of thing. Occasionally I would find something so weird I needed to share it with the rest of the Adams Papers editors in a group email. Here is one such email—published in full for the first time!—about a poetic outburst I found in a John Adams letterbook.

Subject: JA, existentialist

This John Adams fragment from a 9 April 1813 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse is like a freight train barreling over the epistolary countryside bearing a cargo of bad attitude.

“Since there is Nothing in human Life but Brimborions, that is magnificent Nothings, pompous Bubbles, Sounding Brass tinkling Cymballs, phantastic Non Entities, airy Gossamours, idle dreams delirious Visions &c &c &c...”

About the subject line: I realize now that the sentiment Adams expresses is as much in line with any number of religions as it is with existentialism—maybe more so. Never mind that, though.


Brimborion, of French origin and meaning “a thing of no value,” is a word I had never seen until that day and that I haven’t seen since unless I’ve Googled it. Its printed use in English dates back to at least the 1650s. The word, in its look, sound, and sense, sets the stage for the torrent that follows it. From the energy and raucousness of the passage you might get the sense that John Adams was the original Allen Ginsberg. I wouldn’t be so bold as to make an assertion one way or the other.

You, too, can engage with the writings of the Adamses, and you can start by visiting the Society’s landing page for all things Adams.

permalink | Published: Friday, 7 March, 2014, 8:00 AM