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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 Rome, next to the Capitol, where in October 1764 the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire first occurred to Edward Gibbon. The historian has become a character in history. Henry James, in his 1884 essay on “The Art of Fiction,” had described the novelist as succeeding to the “sacred office” of the historian. But Adams felt that as an artist he was still in command of the old art, which was history.

In the United States intellectual authority was identified with the keeping of political tradition; the historian was the surrogate for the past. The great American historians had often enough been Boston aristocrats and men of wealth; they had typically represented the country as diplomats and had even, with George Bancroft, served in the Cabinet; they were part of the history they lived to write, men of the world—not the beggarly romancers and “isolatoes” that Poe and Melville had been. Even the new realistic novelists, like the Henry James whom his friend Henry Adams condescended to, seemed to Adams to be setting the scene and arranging their effect with the studied effort of people who had trained themselves to look at American society through the eyes of the great European novelists of manners.

In this generation of pioneer novelists of society—James, Howells, Mark Twain—Adams felt that he knew society better than any of them, had a more comprehensive intelligence, and in the tradition of American literature, was no less an artist. In a letter to John Hay, he once wrote that “Howells cannot deal with gentlemen or ladies; he always slips up. James knows almost nothing of women but the mere outside; he never had a wife.”

Adams had grown up in one of the most distinguished of American families, if not positively the most distinguished; his grandfather and greatgrandfather had both been Presidents of the United States; before office, in office, and out of office both had been intellectual sages of the young republic; he had grown up in a family noted for its diplomats, its scholars, its literary distinction, its political firmness, its knowledge of Europe, and for the maddening but impressive tendency of Adamses to identify themselves with absolute political virtue. Henry Adams had grown up in the midst of the Free Soil Party in Massachusetts. He had been at Harvard when it was still a college, he had known Germany as a student, he had thoroughly studied England during the Civil War as secretary to his father the American minister; he had documented the rapacities of Wall Street in the Gilded Age; he had virtually founded the modern school of history at Harvard; he had written what was undoubtedly the most distinguished work of history by any living American. In Washington, where he lived right across from the White House in a magnificent house built by his classmate H. H. Richardson, he provided with his clever wife Marian the center of the most brilliant society in Washington, was the closest friend of the Secretary of State, and called himself a “stable companion to statesmen.” He was as rich as he was cultivated, he was as worldly and well-traveled, ripely urbane and polished, as he was intellectually independent.

If any writer in America knew “society” to its fingertips, knew it for its manners and vanities, knew it as a spectacle, knew it as so many American novelists merely hoped to know it, it was Henry Adams, who had been with Charles Sumner in anti-slavery meetings and Swinburne in English country houses, who had been at Stafford House in London when “Garibaldi, in his gray capote over his red shirt, received all London, and three duchesses literally worshipped at his feet,” and had watched his father, the American minister, stand up to arrogant British enemies of the Union cause like Gladstone and Lord John Russell.

More than any American social novelist of his generation or later, more than James, and even more than the rich and cosmopolitan Edith Wharton, Adams was intimate with the ripe and distinguished social world on both sides of the Atlantic that was close to the centers of power. He knew all these prime observation posts, from Mount Vernon Street in Boston to American embassies, from country houses in Yorkshire to the special enclaves of millionaire Senators. As only an American could, he enjoyed the friendship of figures in the English governing classes who couldn’t abide each other. Whatever the personal confidences he enjoyed, his special instinct for history as diplomatic intelligence—negotiations between the highest—he insinuated being in the know, the authority of the insider that molds every line in the Education. In style and manner it is more an English book than an American one. To anyone who has observed the place that intellectuals hold in the English Establishment, and how attentive they are to the grace that can come with power, the Education is a lasting reminder of how little the style of this elite has changed among itself.

Perhaps it is the English surface of the Education that explains why the book has, in America, received comparatively little notice as a literary account of society. The tone is altogether too casual (even if the prose is not), too easy in its mock diffidence, for us to recognize what a very large claim Adams is making to the knowledge of society. By writing in so allusive a tone, even when he is alluding to his own failure, writing to so restricted a circle as his selected hundred readers, he is subtly advancing his own importance. He disparages the intellectual leaders of New England as a type, Harvard as a place of learning, Washington as a capital. Above all he disparages himself. His lack of knowledge is much insisted on throughout—he was a conventional student and a “failure” as a professor; he failed to appreciate music, he failed to assimilate German civil law, he failed to master the mathematics necessary to an educated man in his generation. How gleefully Adams ticks off his failures. But the pride is unmistakable; no one else knew enough to recognize the insufficiency of his education. No one else was in a position to fail so grandly, to fail so much expectation, to fail in so many distinguished fields and important places.

Adams was, in fact, at the center of the ruling American elite. Even during the Gilded Age, when the Adamses lost so much influence even in their native Quincy that Henry’s oldest brother, John Quincy, ran for governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat, Henry was the protégé of Hayes’s Secretary of State, wrote a famous exposé of corrupt railroad financing, was a dominating figure at Harvard, and was soon to become an important figure behind the Washington scene, while his brother Charles Francis, the hearty elder brother who distinguished himself in the Civil War and later mastered the science of railroading, became head of the Union Pacific.

But this Establishment is still the symbol of disinterested professional intelligence, scholarship, and tradition in a commercial society; it embodies a standard even if it does not rule as a power. Henry Adams could afford to look down on Presidents, on all the Presidents he had a chance to observe from Zachary Taylor to Theodore Roosevelt; in his family alone, as he felt, had the peculiar moral responsibility attached to the presidency been used as a form of intellectual power and as an expression of intellectual virtue. All other Presidents under his eye, he manages to suggest, were biological sports. Look attentively at their portraits in the Education, and you will see that under Adams’s always caustic eye and withering touch, each is shown in the White House as awkward, too small for the power that he directs and is unaccountably in charge of.2 Zachary Taylor he remembers receiving callers as simply as if he were “in the paddock”; Lincoln at his inaugural ball is “a long, awkward figure…evidently worried by kid gloves”; Grant is the unattractive, unpromising American of the “inarticulate” classes—so awkward that although his force as a general is admitted, this force is somehow mere automatic instinct, a fact in biology Even if we did not know from Adams’s letters that he regarded Theodore Roosevelt in office as a maniac, the stealthy references in the Education would be enough to tell us that he saw T. R. as de trop even at his own table in the White House.

  1. 1

    It is really a joy to fell what we have established one great idea even though we have pulled the stars out of their course to do it.” (Quoted in Ernest Samuels, III 575.)

  2. 2

    A White House reception in Democracy (1880): “Madeline found herself before two seemingly mechanical figures, which might be wood or wax, for any sign they showed of life. These two figures were the President and his wife; they stood stiff and awkward by the door, both their faces stripped of every sign of intelligence, while the right hands of both extended themselves to the column of visitors with the mechanical action of toy dolls…. To the President and his wife this was clearly no laughing matter. There they stood, automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them…. What a strange and solemn spectacle it was…. She felt a sudden conviction that this was to be the end of American society; its realization and its dream at once. She groaned in spirit.”

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