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An Unfinished Man

Henry Adams

by R. P. Blackmur
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 354 pp., $19.95

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 Also included as a coda is a heretofore unpublished fragment, “At Rock Creek,” a “meditation” on the visits Adams made to the monument by Saint-Gaudens he commissioned for his wife’s grave after her suicide in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 the turn of the century after his world had fallen apart, after the frustration of his political ambitions and the reform movement, the shattering death of his wife, and the collapse of faith in Victorian scientific progressivism and the Christian moral order.

Adams put his sense of political personal, and metaphysical abandonment into the late writings by which he is chiefly known: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. Each of these “accented, in a different way,” Blackmur writes, “the emotion of ignorance, the feeling of weakness, with which a man must be filled when he is confronted with the energy of history—either his own or that of the world…. Most of us cannot afford to contemplate such failure; we are not strong enough and we fancy the world as weak as ourselves. Failure for Adams was a necessary condition of life.”

Blackmur’s paradoxical observation that “for a man relentlessly honest, there is no failure like success” foretells the nature and direction of his subsequent preoccupation with Adams. Blackmur pushes to extremes an attitude toward the limits of the mind which in Adams is more relative and conditional. The “failure” Adams embraced, his relentless honesty, clearly applies to Adams the writer, not Adams the human being. For Blackmur, Adams seems to have existed chiefly as an intellectual figure—heroic, exemplary in his recognition of what he had failed to achieve.

Significantly, in his first essay, Blackmur finds the volume of Adams’s letters he is reviewing “more mystifying than revealing.” Neither the baffling complexity of the all-too-human author of the letters, as distinct from the persona of the Education, nor the work to which Adams gave the best energies of his middle life for over a decade—his nine-volume History of the United States, 1801-1817—seems to have deeply challenged Blackmur. Adams as the iconoclastic teacher on the side of the young, the affectionate friend and husband, or the superior Washington host does not make a vivid appearance in this collection. The History is the subject of one of four essays. “National Politics 1868-1885,” which Blackmur completed in 1942 but never published. The editor has omitted these and three other political essays which she says “have not worn so well as his more characteristic work.” The omission slants this volume further in the direction of the literary and late Adams than Blackmur may have intended in his projected book.

In “The Expense of Greatness” Blackmur develops the implications of the “failure the mind comes to ultimately and all along when it is compelled to measure its knowledge in terms of its ignorance.” Adams’s “greatness” lay in his scrupulous awareness that his search for the principles governing the movement of social forces must fail, but that “to think straight you must overshoot your mark.” Knowing that his “unifying conceptions” were merely “working principles,” Adams adopted them, according to Blackmur, because without them nothing could be achieved. What his effort means to us, in Blackmur’s view, is comparable to what the Gothic cathedral meant to Adams: “The delight of its aspirations is flung up to the sky. The pathos of its self-distrust and anguish of doubt is buried in the earth as its last secret.”

In the body of the work, Blackmur in effect presents Adams as a poet of the mind whose ideas are valid for their symbolic power rather than for their empirical truth, but he is not therefore to be taken as a socially isolated aesthete. In the first place, the problems of energy and human understanding posed by Adams are vitally relevant to the problems of a society in which technology has advanced so much further. In the second, to reinstate human dignity in the modern world, we need integrating “great symbols” to replace those once supplied by the Christian imagination. Adams’s symbol-making is an effort to “reconstitute the sense of unity in religion and science, philosophy and art,” in Blackmur’s words. His mode was aesthetic but the order he achieved in his art was not at the expense of moral realism: “The artist had precisely to put chaos in order, with what aids in form he could muster and with as few cheats in perception as possible.” To illustrate, Blackmur quotes from Adams in Mont-Saint-Michel on the negation of evil in St. Thomas’s system:

This philosophical apse would have closed the lines and finished the plan of his church-choir had the universe not shown some divergencies or discords needing to be explained. The student of the Latin Quarter was then harder to convince than now that God was Infinite Love and His world a perfect harmony, when perfect love and harmony showed them, even in the Latin Quarter, and still more in revealed truth, a picture of suffering, sorrow, and death; plague, pestilence, and famine; inundations, droughts, and frosts; catastrophes world-wide and accidents in corners; cruelty, perversity, stupidity, uncertainty, insanity; virtue begetting vice; vice working for good; happiness without sense, selfishness without gain, misery without cause, and horrors undefined.

Blackmur may exaggerate the hopefulness of Adams’s purpose in Mont-Saint-Michel and the Education, which he describes as being “to raise man, by past example confronted with present condition, to his highest intensity,” but as his reference to Adams on St. Thomas indicates, he knew that Adams’s exploration of the supreme achievements of the imagination was in defiance of his knowledge of man’s tragic limits.

Blackmur pursues the themes of the metaphorical use of ideas and of the responsibility of the artist to society in his analysis of the scientific theory of history in the concluding chapters of the Education. Adams’s theory, he argues, should not be taken as a profession of absolute truth, but rather as a provisional fiction drawn from twentieth-century thought. “All Adams wanted was what society always required, a means of giving an account, in its own terms, of what it actually was.” By treating human society as subject to the mechanical law of entropy, Adams was attesting to his commitment to society: “The predicament of the mind still capable of setting up the dynamic theory of its own extinction is difficult but not intolerable.” Despite the apocalyptic tenor, Adams left in these chapters and in the conclusion to Mont-Saint-Michel “a legacy of life and metaphysics by a gesture of poetry.”

In contrast Blackmur finds Adams’s two theoretical papers published after his death by his brother Brooks in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma marked by a hardening of mind. The scientific metaphor becomes fact: “physics is all physics, and everything else is physics, tool there is no metaphysics, no poetry, and no gesture—only the murderous sweep of law reaching, aspect by aspect, into the life of man.” The deterministic argument is “circular” and “the circle narrows to nothing.” Blackmur did not complete his effort to demonstrate how Adams got away from his “speculative pessimism.” The manuscript of “The Virgin and the Dynamo” breaks off at this point.

Given the retrospective character of the book and Blackmur’s stature as a critic, it would be surprising if the general ideas as well as particular insights we find in these essays had not been assimilated by others who write about Adams. Were Blackmur writing now, when Adams is frequently treated as a literary artist, he might have modulated his insistence on the redemptive social value of Adams’s aestheticism. One need not, however, share his faith in the symbolic imagination as social salvation to respond to his interpretation here of Mont-Saint-Michel. Blackmur’s emphasis on this book as Adams’s spiritual autobiography does not deny that it is a work which comprehends many other facets of experience—historical, visual, and literary.

Blackmur’s approximately 150 pages on the Education are not equally successful. The reason seems to me related to why Blackmur did not complete his book. Blackmur’s mind worked best in the essay form, as Denis Donoghue notes in his foreword. The summary of Blackmur’s “Plans for Work” by the editor suggests vast ambition without an available form. Neither the work plans nor the comments in the text indicate a principle of compression. How “The Virgin and the Dynamo” was to be related to the rest of the book is puzzling.

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