Impressionist of Power

Henry Adams: The Major Phase

by Ernest Samuels
Harvard, 687 pp., $10.00

Henry Adams
Henry Adams; drawing by David Levine

This is the third and concluding volume of Ernest Samuels’ exemplary biography, which so far as any real information is concerned is the only biography we have of Henry Adams—all other books on him are commentary. Although Professor Samuels’ book is always penetrating and shrewd on Adams’s writings, his concern has been to show them emerging out of the drama of his life. Adams’s last twenty-eight years—the period of convulsive world travels after the suicide of his wife, the period of his greatest letters, of Mont St.-Michel and Chartres, The Education of Henry Adams, of his isolated and eccentric gestures at a “scientific” theory of history—are for the first time recounted in detail, with the odd result that one knows more about Henry Adams’s life than ever before—one at last knows something—and finds his mind more elusive than ever.

Professor Samuels is unlike the eagerly interpretative literary critics who have written on Adams as if they have been spellbound by his self-projecting and tendentious effort to wind history up, to bind all cultures up, to furnish a single image of “failure” or “entropy” or “degradation” that would package up Henry Adams for the credulous reader of literary criticism. Professor Samuels is first of all a biographer, and so detached, scholarly, patient, that his trilogy makes a fascinating contrast with Leon Edel’s three volumes on Henry James—which are full of psychoanalytical empathy with the subject and seek to reconstitute, with all loving art, James’s sensibility. Professor Samuels is always polite to Adams, but strikingly impersonal; he lets go a little, as who can help it, in writing about that most passionate of all Bostonians, when he engages the subtleties of Mont St.-Michel and Chartres. By contrast with those critics and interpreters of Adams who flock to him because they, too, believe that History has a single secret and that Adams may actually have known what it was, Professor Samuels has found his base in the family papers and has been quietly writing up the life, period by period, journey by journey, book by book. He will not “explain” Adams, for he is working in too close detail.

Consider how many pages of theory a less modest biographer might have made of the suicide of Adams’s wife, of the cult of woman in Adams’s most famous books, of his steady but apparently wistful intimacy with Elizabeth Cameron, the beautiful and accomplished young wife of the Pennsylvania senator and political boss; of his passion for his friends and his underhand malice toward them. The more one studies his life and works, the more deliberately complex his mind seems to us, and the more difficult it is to decide what the complexity is for. By contrast, Professor Samuels’ scrupulously factual narrative has the effect of breaking up the great spectrum of Adams’s historical imagination into separate chapters of his life. After all the brilliant grapplings with…

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