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History and Henry Adams: II

Yet Adams’s instinct for style, which reminds us of his extraordinary compulsion to style on every side of life—his elegantly oval handwriting was as exquisite and made as any script could ever be—is surely the real secret of Henry Adams, which could only be, in so tensely ordered a mind, his intellectual passion, the fixation of the born artist on the material in which he divines the final pattern that alone interests him.

The Education of Henry Adams is the story not of a man born out of his time, who lacked the science he needed to understand the nineteenth century; it is the story of an artist deprived of the sense of tradition around him that makes the art of history, and who then found himself unable to express the terms of his isolation and to believe that anyone, even this made-up “Henry Adams,” could say just what his interest in history was. This, I believe, was style: the style in which so many aspects of the past came to him, from the Virgin at Chartres to the dynamo at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Style was the look of the historical process as it was appropriated by the savant as connoisseur. Style was development, panorama, the emblems of change that constitute our sense of time. It was the perfect detachment, with “all history” for subject, that perhaps only an American could feel about all “their” history, that only a millionaire scholar, luxuriating voluptuously in inaction, could adopt as his portion: the almighty spectator.

Life [he wrote to his brother Brooks in 1899] becomes at last a mere piece of acting. One goes on by habit, playing more or less clumsily that one is alive. It is ludicrous and at times humiliating, but there is a certain style in it which youth has not. We become all, more or less, gentlemen; we are ancien régime; we learn to smile while gout racks us. One lives in constant company with diseased hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs; one shakes hands with certain death at closer embrace every day; one sees paralysis in every feature and feels it in every muscle; all one’s functions relax their action day by day; and, what is worse, one’s grasp on the interests of life relaxes with the physical relaxation; and, through it all, we improve…we should almost get to respect ourselves if we knew of anything human to respect; so we affect to respect the conventions, and ask only to be classed as a style….

This is Adams happily spreading himself to his most adoring audience, the younger brother who thought him the most powerful mind he knew; this was the bitterness of the surface, the mere look of things that a vindictive unhappy man could seize on. Life had become entirely a matter of “playacting” for the actor who no longer knew what he was hiding from others. The man who went around the world not talking to anyone saw everyone as appearance—slightly foolish. Yet Adams’s letters are profound in their observation as well as snobbish. The superb eye that saw “positively everything in Japan laughs,” began his great book on the middle ages: “The Archangel loved heights.”

Adams saw social forms as style, he saw power as style, he could even see American Presidents as the wrong style. This intense personal appropriation of the past as style could come only to the man who had the unity of history always on his mind, so that the government buildings that he saw at twelve, on his first visit to Washington, became in Chapter III of the Education “the white marble columns and fronts of the Post Office and Patent Office which faced each other in the distance, like white Greek temples in the abandoned gravel-pits of a deserted Syrian city.” To see history as style one must begin with the sense of command: apart from the troops, lost in the mud of actual living and fighting, who cannot so easily see “the whole picture.” But to see history as style also means to see history as a book that one is writing. Style divines the kinship between different sets of material (and who will challenge this creative urge?), knows what naturally belongs together in a book that makes that book, is rooted in some instinct for affinity.

Henry Adams commanded his knowledge so well that his intense, astonishing sense of perspective became a way of drawing in historical images. An historical episode became what an object in space is to a painter: it made a setting. “Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple….” “This passage from Gibbon’s Autobiography…led Adams more than once to sit at sunset on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli….” “Concord, in the dark days of 1856, glowed with pure light…a Gothic cathedral.” The Adamses, dropped off at a New York pier, return from England in 1868 as strange to the country as if they “had been Tyrian traders of the year B.C. 1000, landing from a galley fresh from Gibraltar….” “Society offered the profile of a long, straggling caravan, stretching loosely towards the prairies, its few score of leaders far in advance and its millions of immigrants, negroes and Indians far in the rear, somewhere in archaic time.”

For Adams these memories become images compressed by the intensity of his over-all view. In the ecstatic acceleration of Adams’s mind through time—time past, time recovered, time relived—the titles of great books, the thinkers of primary theories, the names of ancient cities in the Roman Empire evoked from the steps of Ara Coeli—Karnak, Ephesus, Delphi, Mycenae, Constantinople, Syracuse—the great place-names in Adams’s personal history—London in 1861, Washington in 1868, Chicago in 1893, Paris as the site of the dynamo in 1900—all become colors and sounds in the vibration of the historian’s consciousness. Without the search for the total design, such references would be frivolous. But in the Education these cities, churches, books, these sacred names of thinkers, represent the effort to make the whole force of the past live in a single line. Only The Waste Land among later works has this intention, and Eliot seeks it in virtually every line. But Adams, in his less concentrated prose, does not view the past as a mirage.

What is the city over the moun- tains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

The past is still real to an American’s “education.”

When Adams wants to describe the full grip on his imagination of The Origin of Species, he describes himself lying on the slope of Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, day-dreaming of the different items that form the mysterious stream of human development.

The triumph of all was to look south along the Edge to the abode of one’s earliest ancestor and nearest relative, the ganoid fish…. Life began and ended there. Behind that horizon lay only the Cambrian, without vertebrates or any organism except a few shellfish. On the further verge of the Cambrian rose the crystalline rocks from which every trace of organic existence had been erased.

That here, on the Wenlock Edge of time, a young American, seeking only frivolous amusement, should find a legitimate parentage as modern as though caught in the Severn below, astonished him as much as though he had found Darwin himself. In the scale of evolution, one vertebrate was as good as another.

In this typical play of Adams’s historical sense, the items are merely sounded, not explained. But no general idea in the nineteenth century meant so much to Adams and his friends as evolution, and Adams has only to sound Darwin, as at different times he sounds Ara Coeli, Washington, Byzantium, for the passion of the design to carry the theme along. History may not give meaning but, as history, it is meaning. This is its dependable interest. History is what we possess in common—this is its consolation as experience, and as literature, its ability to delight. Why should names alone, Wenlock Edge and the Severn, which I may never have seen and which Adams does not bother to describe, delight me? It is because names are traditions. Each of these names has been sounded repeatedly in the culture that I share with Adams, while “Severn” and “Wenlock Edge” are familiar to me from English poems that Adams does not have to mention for me to think of them. Without knowing exactly what that landscape over the Severn looks like, I possess the association as I might possess a character in a novel. The landscape put into depth for Henry Adams by Darwin, the reader can now possess as his intellectual landscape; Darwin and the ganoid fish and Henry Adams are his world, too.

Community of thought” is what Adams meant by society, and this he tried to create with the friends for whom the Education was privately printed. To enjoy the Education, later readers must feel that such a society exists, as literature, and that one belongs to it as one belongs to the society of Pride and Prejudice, The Golden Bowl, A la recherche du temps perdu. Not to enjoy the Education as a visit to that society is of course to undervalue Adams—he rather looked forward to that—and to misunderstand his book, which he expected and in a sense even desired, so that what did exist as community of thought would form more closely around him. Society for Henry Adams, as for all traditionalists who identify it with their real or ideal memories, is the union of those who share a culture—not always at the same time, perhaps, but who do share it so long as they recognize it in each other. We now see what happens to the “novel of society” in revolutionary times, when whole classes and races hitherto not regarded as fully human suddenly assert themselves, and the famous “community of thought” on which society has so long prided itself turns out to be the ideal of a tiny elite, one that it has possessed only in forms of ritual.

The community that Adams could not depend on in life he tried to create through the Education, which like all the classic autobiographies was written in order to help the author contend with his life. What Adams could not find in his own culture he found only in the imagination of time past and of society-as-friendship that he so brilliantly sustained by his autobiography and letters. So the form in which he tried to create his society was at least his very own. Exactly the subtly insinuating approval of what is acceptable, the extraordinary insolence toward what is not, explain the lasting qualities of the Education as a social chronicle.

At the expense of a civil war, Adams got a very great deal out of England. By adopting the casual knowingness of the English upper classes, the inability to be surprised—or to praise anything clearly—he forged the authority of the intelligent, the cultivated, the just. As in a novel of manners, the Education makes you identify with the author’s irony the standard of values by which to judge everybody else. This is always a triumph of style, whether in Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby. Civilization has a center at last, and you know where it is—with the author’s control.

It is this ability to persuade lesser breeds that values are told from Oxford or Cambridge as time is told from Greenwich that has been the charm of the English intellectual establishment. Anyone who has observed at high table a normally fluent Englishman sending the talk back with the port will recognize the style that Adams learned in English country houses. It is a style in which people expect familiarity with books the others haven’t read for the same reason that they take for granted a consideration that the others may never demonstrate. To gentlemen of this class, books and ideas are social facts, not the pedantries of solitary men. It is because Adams is writing in this style to his hundred ideal readers, his hundred perfect friends, that he pays the highest possible compliment to them by assuming what in the order of things they will assume.

Style as a development from manners—a style of personal cultivation and conversation; a style of behavior; a style that embodies one’s deepest habits as a man—became Adams’s way of writing. In the chapters of the Education that recount the attempt of the British cabal in office—Palmerston, Russell, and Gladstone—to strengthen the Confederacy, Adams triumphantly manages to make the reader feel that Gladstone was a fool, Russell a villain, and that Palmerston, though prime minister, could be let off only for not knowing all that Russell was up to. The major issue, the survival of the American republic, is never once explicitly justified. The Civil War, seen from London, has come down to a controversy between rival British sets—Russell and Gladstone in one; John Bright and William E. Forster on the other. John Hay was put down in private by his friend Henry Adams. But who can credit this rather than the pity on which the Education closes, for his closest friend, the dying Secretary of State, whom Adams accompanied on his last trip to Europe? As he said, Adams was a “stable companion” to statesmen. This exercised his peculiar shiftiness as well as it did the power in the hands of his friends.

In the Education all friends are flattered by being put into the book; enemies, like the real personal conflicts, are just left out. Neither Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who found Adams’s acidulousness impossible to take after a hard day’s work, nor Owen Wister, who after an interview with Adams recorded the man’s baleful no to all things, has suggested much charity by Adams toward his friends. But within the charmed circle of the Education, everything past had style, and even one’s cronies fitted in—as style. This was the embittered historian’s one triumph. In a culture that could hardly share his concern with time past, that positively gloried in obliterating the past, Adams came to believe, as Proust would, that language was the mold into which the past would fit.

Of course he did not have the psychological curiosity that gave Proust courage to confront his disordered life. But then, as his greatest book shows, Adams was not a novelist. The subject of his autobiography—which he disclaimed as one—is not personality, not even his own. Characteristically, it is history. And history deals with public, not private worlds. That is why, unlike fiction, it often seems to write itself, to follow the pattern seemingly implicit in public records. History lets us off as private individuals, and in reading history we are let off. As Adams said in the last chapter of his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:

History had its scientific as well as its human side, and in American history the scientific interest was greater than the human. Elsewhere the student could study under better conditions the evolution of the individual, but nowhere could he study so well the evolution of a race. The interest of such a subject exceeded that of any other branch of science, for it brought mankind within sight of its own end.

He was a man much preoccupied with ends. No one can doubt the delight that “the sense of an ending” brought to him, for the total design it could suggest. Within the spacious and even cosmic vistas of history that now engrossed him, no need to speak of the tortured historian himself. He broke off in the middle of his book and assumed the airs of a scientist—though no one quite knew what the subject of inquiry was. He played with magnets at his dinner table. He liked to surprise ordinary scientists by asking unanswerable questions. The world was running down and he was going to show why—in prose that would have to do for mathematics, but would be as elegant. Science was the new language. Like his own History, his nuova scienza would show that necessity unrolls in set quantities, and therefore could be fixed in the rhythms of his own prose. Science was even more comfortably impersonal than History, and the catastrophes it might visit on the human race could be discussed as easily as we discuss The Bomb at our dinner tables. It was another example of History rushing to its end, with man “the meteor mind” (Adams’s great metaphor) falling with History through infinite space.

No physicist, since Adams made use of a docile government scientist or two in the Nineties, has claimed to know what he was talking about in the “scientific” chapters of the Education.4 Yet physicists feel that they have no business with Adams anyway. For the future was compellingly real to Adams because the past was. If you think history naturally falls into a design, then you must anticipate how the story may end.

For Adams history was not just the past; it was the rhythm of “order rigorously consequent.” He saw human thought in a cosmic setting of impersonal forces driving thought into a corner and threatening it with a subject too great for its powers. So large was the sweep of Adams’s historical imagination, he wanted to see the whole shape, history as one great form, stretching from the past to a possibly calculable future. He wanted to determine the whole story at once—to carry the rhythm of his studies out to its final term—to catch the last reverberations as the meteor fell through world space. This intention belongs not to science but to art. So forceful a sense of style needed the future to complete the past.

(This is the final installment of a twopart article).

  1. 4

    The most painstaking study of Adams’s effort to create a “science of history,” William H. Jordy’s Henry Adams, Scientific Historian (Yale, 1952), concludes that Adams indulged himself and was perhaps ultimately a tourist in these countries of thought.

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