History and Henry Adams: II

“Adams, you reason too much!” his friend John LaFarge the painter said to him. Mind, restlessly devouring, unsatisfiable mind, mind helplessly descending through the cosmos in search of itself, “the man-meteor,” was to become his obsession. To “reason” up and down the stream of time, and in his many travels the face of the globe, was to become Henry Adams’s assertion in the face of what he saw everywhere as “chaos”; “reason” was to become his style in life. But how should he not reason, and reason inextricably, like all those Protestant heroes of thought in the nineteenth century condemned in a faithless world to argue themselves into some historical certitude? How should he not reason when Lyell and Darwin, Marx and Comte, held out to his eager mind a law of development that always stopped short of his own experience, so that one had to reason beyond all the known confines of history? How should he not continue to reason from history and to make history seem reasonable even in its “chaos” when the compulsion to reason from sequence was in his pride as an Adams, in his training as an historian, in his cautions as a millionaire, in his physical timidities as an undersized man, in his loneliness and guilt as a husband?

What is characteristic is that all these urges and torments were invariably translated into history as law. Marian Adams died in 1885. For thirty years after, until he positively gloated in Wilson’s declaration of war as confirmation of all his predictions of a world made a single event,1 Adams sought the secret, the almost demonic unity of history that he was determined would not escape him who had so long tired of mere historical actors. History was moving too fast to reveal itself to its leaders, but would not refuse its subtleties to him. The law that he had sought in the money markets, in the materialistic physics so soon to dissolve after Adams’s death, made up the web in his tortured mind and unlimited sense of “acceleration,” from which he did not wish to flee. Nemesis would justify him.

No wonder that in this typically modern absence of objective certitude, riddled with desperate guesses which only his own science of history could confirm, haunted by the “absurdity” of his own speculations, Adams, writing the Education in his late sixties, made of the dilemmas of the historian the new content of history itself. But before he came openly to this point he had found, in the symbolic decline of his family and of his class, material for a presiding character, “Adams,” truly a third person, as if this narrative device could found literature on the dilemmas of the historian himself.

Never before had an American historian loomed so large in his own picture of history. Never before had an American historian been so much the subject of history. Adams portrays himself repeatedly returning to the steps of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli in…

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