Like Henry Adams, R.P. Blackmur was largely a self-taught man of letters. Unlike Adams, Harvard class of 1858, Blackmur did not go to college. I mention this biographical detail only because it may have something to do with the reason why Blackmur’s study is so personal rather than conventionally academic. It testifies to an extraordinary affinity with Adams, also evident elsewhere in Blackmur’s criticism.
In Blackmur’s essays, especially those on modern poetry collected in The Expense of Greatness (1940), Language as Gesture (1952), and The Lion and the Honeycomb (1955), he updates Adams’s social themes. More significantly, he found in Adams reinforcement for his innate sense of the elusiveness of knowledge. To encompass meanings beyond meanings, he wrote in a style that often echoes his other mentor and major subject, Henry James. Blackmur’s well-known essay of 1936, “The Expense of Greatness: Three Emphases on Henry Adams,” reprinted here as a sort of prologue, indicates the challenge of the discipleship “Where your small man is a knoll to be smoothed away, Henry Adams is a mountain to be mined on all flanks for pure samples of human imagination without loss of size or value.”
Between 1931 and 1955, Blackmur published eleven articles on Adams: some chapters, others preliminary studies, they are samples of an effort to catch Adams’s mind and meaning in book form. When Blackmur died in 1965, the book unfinished, he left approximately seven hundred pages of manuscript. Out of this, the editor, Veronica A. Makowsky, chose for the core of this volume two manuscripts, “The Virgin and the Dynamo” and “King Richard’s Prison Song,” both of which incorporate previously published material. The first is a reading of the Education, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and the late historical treatises, and the second is on Adams’s last six years. Also included as a coda is a heretofore unpublished fragment, “At Rock Creek,” a “meditation” on the visits Adams made to the monument by Saint-Gaudens he commissioned for his wife’s grave after her suicide in 1885. Though many of the best parts of this book have already appeared in print (about a quarter of the text), the bringing together of scattered pieces in the order of Adams’s chronology allows us to see for the first time the contours of Blackmur’s thinking on Adams.
Blackmur’s central insight into Henry Adams appeared first in “The Failure of Henry Adams,” a six-page review of Adams’s letters (Hound and Horn, 1931) not included here. At a time when the Education was still looked upon as an expression of “sentimental nihilism,” as scientifically naïve, or as egotistically self-depreciatory, Blackmur made the fundamental distinction needed for its understanding. He drew the line between Adams’s controversial failure in life and his imaginative report on the failure of his education, his lifelong search for unity in multiplicity, order in chaos. In Blackmur’s view, Adams’s true career, which was intellectual and artistic, began at …