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History and Henry Adams: II

By contrast, however, Charles Francis Adams, Henry’s father, was a man whose mind was “singularly in balance.” The besetting quality of the American male was a lack of fine consciousness, of virtually all intellectual consciousness—a type sodden with whiskey and work, “his two stimulants.” But so marked was the Adams quality that the Education confers it on the brothers-in-law of Charles Francis Adams, Edward Everett and Dr. Nathaniel Frothingham; on Charles Francis Adams’s associates in the Free Soil Party, Dr. John G. Palfrey, Richard Henry Dana, and Charles Sumner; on Henry’s cronies in England, Charles Milnes Gaskell and Francis Palgrave; on the particular Adams friends at home, John Hay and Clarence King; even on the right financier, like William C. Whitney, and the right editor, like Whitelaw Reid.

In his Preface to a new edition of the Education, Denis Brogan points out that Adams’s friend Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, who is an important presence in the book, possessed the greatest pornographic library of modern times, and says that “it is impossible to believe that Adams knew nothing of this side of Lord Houghton or that it excited no curiosity in him.” But whether he knew of the collection that first introduced Swinburne to the Marquis de Sade, it is a point of Adams’s social chronicle that all his friends and associates are described as the friends of his ideas—lonely spars and relics of the intellectual Establishment in a world overrun by bankers and Jews.

It is not from the Education that you learn that his much-lamented friend Clarence King, the brilliant geologist, was married to a Negro woman; that as their friend, the British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, pointed out, neither Hay nor Adams, so deeply concerned with politics, bothered to retain his legal residence in a state to which he could go home to vote. King’s failure to exploit his discovery of valuable mining properties is laid entirely to his easy freedom in an age of grasping Yahoos; John Hay, Secretary of State to both McKinley and Roosevelt, is somehow too fine for his job. Adams, who typically scored Harvard College for not telling him about Das Kapital (published nine years after his graduation), managed even in this to suggest that Karl Marx was distinguished rather than dangerous. So he managed to make his classmate, the gifted architect H. H. Richardson, and his rather more conventional friend, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, equally interesting as members of the inner circle—Richardson designed his Washington house and Saint-Gaudens the memorial to his wife in Rock Creek Park.

Yet it is exactly this passion of friendship, this quality of intellectual sympathy and protection attached to his relatives, associates, and friends, this conscious vantage point from which the elect judge the world, that gives the Education is brilliance. As for the many he just as brilliantly ignores, it is no doubt in the American disposition—it was certainly in Adams’s—to judge the world so severely. Adams cannot forgive the great new bustling, vulgar American world for the loss of his “eighteenth-century” world. The subtle bitterness of the Education—there he puts everything more ironically than in the often histrionic rages of his personal letters—can be construed as another of those self-dramatizations by which Adams’s generation condemned history at large for the loss of its innocent hopefulness.

Despite the urbane and even silky surface of the Education, no social chronicle could be more obviously lacking in exactly that sense of human limitation which forms, and is, the charm of character in novels of manners. No one in the Education, least of all Henry Adams, is described for himself alone, as in a novel; each one is carried along by the historical process—of which Adams feels himself to be both the particular victim and the expert observer. We miss the element of play which is behind all invented situations, that delight in character and action as pure demonstration; we miss the inassimilable human fact; we miss that sense of comedy which is unpanicked by candid weakness and open vice.

Adams gives us an autobiographical excursus into history, and this has the quality of anecdote: we are less conscious of the story than of the man telling it. Adams is the center, and more particularly it is his style, his way of staying at the center. Adams’s closest friends, here described to readers who thus become his other friends, are those other selves of Henry Adams who convey his discriminations and accomplishments. He says in the chapter “Twenty Years After” that with John Hay’s many-volumed Life of Lincoln and his own History “between them they had written nearly all the American history there was to write.” So there was nothing left to write, as in the slack of American history there was now nothing worth doing. Adams and Hay addressed each other in letters as “Dearly Beloved,” “Apple of Mine Eye,” “My Own & Only One—Très Cher”; in his book Adams makes one feel that in a society of idiotic Congressmen, bumbling Presidents, vicious bankers, and indescribable vulgarians, “Hay” and “Adams” had become the few points around which collected the honor that might be left in American life.

Of course the disproportions in Adams’s chronicle would be comic if he did not make us usually overlook them. So much caressing sympathy and understanding for poor John Hay, who as Secretary of State is shown wearing himself out in the service of this vulgar democracy—and so little regard for Grant, who as general helped to save the great democracy which alone had given this ambitious young climber out of the Ohio valley, John Hay, his chance to serve Presidents, to marry money, to rise in the newly powerful American world. The closest friends of Henry Adams—Clarence King died in 1901, Hay in 1905—are portrayed as the leading victims of a world that soon, in the last chapters of the Education, will be shown literally racing to chaos. Once Adams suggests with Chapter XXI, “Twenty Years After,” that his personal life has come to an end with the death of his wife, his book turns from a chronicle of history into a philosophy of history that will substantiate his “failure.”

Yet with all these examples of a constricting intellectual egotism, the Education is a unique social chronicle, a great history of an intellectual caste, precisely because it takes this “Establishment” as the center of value, strikes at every point that essential love and admiration for a particular group that makes the literature of “society” possible. This is the positive side of his book. No matter how slyly Adams may undermine his friends for lacking the historical intelligence on which he prided himself, this love of his own is the exuberant side of the book. He was always more positive than he meant to be. For he loves “society,” which means the leading group that furnishes the records of a society, as only the true novelists of manners, the true historians, courtiers, and gossips of power do. This was the greatest advantage he derived from being an Adams, an intimate of power.

He loved as social fact what his complicated mind could not accept as excellence. He never felt the romance of wealth and power in England as Henry James did, but he could suggest that political influence at work in English country houses, the blunt force of the Yorkshire personality, the charm of so many aristocratic intellectuals, as easily as he did the cynical bark of Lord Palmerston and Swinburne’s total recall of everything he had read. The Education is even richer in portraits of American “notables,” so many of whom were Adams’s friends that the book seems to be linked together by names. But though the book finally becomes the most brilliant suggestion of the hidden force moving American society, no connection is shown between these friends and the society which in fact they led. It is this failure to show the connection that explains why Adams, in spite of the facility with which he wrote his novels Democracy and Esther, never thought as a novelist does and could not have turned his memories into a novel.

Cecil Spring-Rice, the British ambassador and a member of the Hay-Adams circle, noted that rich Americans fled from the soil on which they had been raised and from their own people. Unlike the British, whose wealth was related to the land, the American rich were rootless and disoriented; Spring-Rice found “something rather melancholy about the talk of educated people here.” To Adams the American elite represents its memories. But for just this reason Adams’s grief over the powerlessness of his old idols in New England leads him to invoke, as the shape of his own youth, the “eighteenth-century” world—by which he means John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It is an astonishing historical creation. And though the account of his personal life breaks off in the middle, to suggest the impact of his wife’s death, he manages still, in the theory of history that makes up the rest of the book, to show his struggle with the society created by the Civil War. Still, his book is strangely two books—the first the history of a self, the other a philosophy of history.

Did his life end so soon? Did Henry Adams also merge wholly into the “ocean” of History? Any European historian, brought up on society as tradition and revolution, would have seen in Adams’s polarities fresh proof of the innocent self-indulgence possible to rich Americans. A man who could have struggled on the highest level, in the open political arena, turned himself into a malicious and secretive recluse—and this just across Lafayette Square from the White House! What a Saint-Simon, what a Horace Walpole, what a Tocqueville or Mill or Comte this is! Where is society in this book after 1885? Where are the public issues and the real actors that correspond to the fight against slavery—to Sumner and Lincoln—to the years in Britain during the Civil War—to Palmerston and Russell? Where above all is Henry Adams as we see him in his letters, brilliantly describing to his adored friends the social texture of every country in the world he roamed so obsessively? It is easy to imagine his English friends in particular turning away from the book after “Twenty Years After,” and saying in justified irritation—what a sentimentalist and fraud! What pretensions to the intellectual secret of the universe when he cannot face the truths of his own heart!3

Henry’s brother Charles Francis laughed at him for invoking Rousseau at the beginning of the Education—“you Rousseau you!” No “autobiography,” we may readily admit, tries so hard to withhold the secret that the author would have liked to discover himself. The book is in style alone an inimitable case of what Adams called form—“the instinct of exclusion.” It is so brightly enameled, finished, sealed off, so wary in its irony, so entirely formal in its effect, that by its side the pompous rhythms of Gibbon’s autobiography seem spontaneous; Gibbon’s book is certainly more direct. But then, Gibbon wrote as a success, Adams as a “failure.”

  1. 3

    Adams’s English friend, Moreton Frewen, said of the Education that it was a very stone of Sisyphus which “defies all analysis.”

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