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American Gothic

The largest memorial to Henry Adams is located, of all places, on the upper West Side of New York, Amsterdam Avenue and 112th Street, just before the Hispanic barrio is replaced by Columbia University. The Cathedal of St. John the Divine, really two churches in one and eclipsed in size only by St. Peter’s in Rome, was on its present lines designed by Ralph Adams Cram, a fervent admirer of Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. The project for an American Episcopal cathedral had been suggested as early as 1828; the original design, Romanesque-Byzantine, went into the apse, choir, and crossing. Construction was remarkably slow, and in 1911, when the officiating bishop and the architects were dead, Cram, of the firm of Cram and Ferguson in Boston, was allowed to complete the church on Gothic principles.

Cram was passionate about Gothic style, long convinced that Gothic had been the perfect expression of Western Christendom for five centuries, and it had not died a natural death but been cut off by the classicism of the Renaissance and the Protestant revolution. The famous church-building firm of Cram and Goodhue was inspired by a combination of pre-Raphaelitism, William Morris socialism—which foreshadowed the sentimental medievalism of G.K. Chesterton and Eric Gill—Wagner’s Parsifal, and the Arts and Crafts movement, with its opposition to soulless technology. Cram himself was such a loving medievalist in the Idylls of the King style of the Victorians that he collaborated in a magazine called the Knight Errant, composed Excalibur: An Arthurian Drama, and kept an ideal vision of the Middle Ages that is reflected in The Gothic Quest (1907), where he asked whether America wanted churches, or just meetinghouses. His firm designed the Gothic buildings at West Point (1903), which gave impetus to the spread of collegiate Gothic in the United States. It was said of Cram after he was baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal church that he set his sights on an ideal but imaginary vision of pre-Reformation England as a guide not just to architecture but to the religious life.

Cram wrote the introduction to the 1913 edition of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, the first public edition of a book first privately printed for Adams in 1904. Cram had obtained the author’s permission to have the book published under the imprimatur of the American Institute of Architects. Cram praised the book not only for its intrinsic interest but for “the cause it would so admirably serve.” (This would not have excited the almost aggressively disenchanted author.) Cram proclaimed the book a revelation:

All at once all the theology, philosophy, and mysticism, the politics, sociology, and economics, the romance, literature, and art of that greatest epoch of Christian civilization became fused in the alembic of a unique insight and precipitated by the dynamic force of a personal and distinguished style.

With his customary mock modesty and disdain for the public—customary at least in old age—Adams gave “reluctant consent” to the general publication of the book, but, Cram added, Adams “expressly stipulated that he should have no part or parcel in carrying out so mad a venture of faith—as he estimated the project of giving his book to the public.” I don’t know whether Cram appreciated Adams’s typical irony in using the word “faith” about the public’s finally getting a chance to acquire so learned a book about the Middle Ages though written in a “personal style.” And it is a book originally subtitled “A Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity.” Unlike The Education of Henry Adams, the supposed companion piece to Mont-Saint-Michel as Adams’s “autobiography,” which was also first privately printed and then released for general publication after Adams’s death in 1918, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres never won the Pulitzer Prize or had a steady life of its own in one format or another. In speaking of the “cause it could serve,” Cram went beyond Adams’s cryptic and probably arrogant conception of the book’s relation to himself. “Seven centuries dissolve and vanish away, being as they were not,” Cram wrote in adoration of the book. “And it is well for us to have this experience.”

Apart from the desirable transformation it effects in preconceived and curiously erroneous superstitions as to one of the greatest eras in all history, it is vastly heartening and exhilarating.

If it gives new and not always flattering standards for the judgment of contemporary men and things, so does it establish new ideals, new goals for attainment. To live for one day in a world that built Chartres Cathedral, even if it makes the living in a world that creates the “Black Country” of England or an Iron City of America less a thing of joy and gladness than before, equally opens up the far prospect of another thirteenth century in the times that are to come and urges to ardent action towards its attainment.

Cram’s enormous and very stately Cathedral of St. John the Divine, still unfinished and in its medieval fashion perhaps unfinishable, has not exactly inspired another thirteenth century to appear on Amsterdam Avenue. The Episcopal Church of New York, once the largest landholder in Manhattan, is nowadays all too aware of the irony—a great medieval edifice in the midst of so much poverty, ignorance, and degradation. The cathedral is now as ecumenical as it is possible for an Episcopalian to be in torrentially multiracial New York. Jewish intellectuals have been invited to address the faithful; there is a memorial right off the main door to Indian victims in Central America. Late in 1987 memorial services for James Baldwin filled the mighty church. The tributes to Baldwin offered on that occasion by Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and other black artists were as bitter and “revolutionary” about American society as it is possible to be. In 1967 the then bishop of New York announced that the cathedral might never be completed but its staff would devote its energies to the poverty in the community surrounding it.

Perhaps Henry Adams would have relished the irony in all this, perhaps not. He had given up on American society except as a subject of inquiry and speculation. His own sense of social privilege was so pronounced that when he left Harvard for Washington in 1877, his friend Henry James made fun of him, in the story “Pandora,” as condescending even to presidents. Adams would not have seen the still colonial poverty of the Puerto Ricans surrounding St. John the Divine any more than he saw the poor, the diseased, the beggars surrounding Chartres in the thirteenth century, the Jews of Western Europe slaughtered to the glory of God by the Crusaders as they made their way to the Holy Land.

Adams, probably the richest private scholar in the United States, knew himself to possess absolutely first-class ability and resources. In his extraordinary freedom to travel and study just as he liked, to say nothing of his contempt for the masses and the political elites in his own country, he had become very grand indeed. But did he write Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres as the exercise in faith that the architect Cram found in his own hopeful reconstitution of Gothic to the twentieth century? Did Adams write even an inquiry into faith? To raise these questions is to involve us in consideration of Adams’s personal skepticism—something quite different from his extraordinary historical intelligence and insatiable curiosity, his narrative genius for absorbing himself in a period and bringing it to life.

In the “Boston” chapter of the Education, Adams, after noting ironically that “nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy,” added,

They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. Boston had solved the universe…. The problem was worked out.

Adams then made a definite statement about his own attitude to religion that helps to explain his cultural rather than spiritual rapture in turning to the Middle Ages:

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grownup man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most…. He went through all the forms; but neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real. Even the mild discipline of the Unitarian Church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment, and never afterwards entered a church…. That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future, and should have persuaded itself that all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time, were not worth discussing, seemed to him the most curious phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.

The Education, in one of its many guises, even presents itself as the story of innocent ancestral certainty replaced, thanks to Lyell and Darwin, by exciting intellectual uncertainty. But it is clear from the whole drift of his book that Adams found this historic shift from religion to science utterly congenial. And as the last chapters of the book show, he became such an idolater of nineteenth-century positivism that he proclaimed the intellectual quest of his life to be the founding of history as science. Although he knew science only from secondary sources, he presumed in no very modest way to suggest that his own book was an example of science.

As for the Middle Ages—Adams was not a pre-Raphaelite, not a seeker after lost paradises, not even an Anglo-Catholic like Cram. St. John’s Church in Washington, from which poor Marian Adams was buried, is right across the street from the Hay-Adams Hotel, the site of Adams’s house. I am not aware that he ever attended it himself. Adams’s professional interest in the medieval seems to have begun when as an assistant professor of history at Harvard he was asked to teach material intervening between the ancient and modern periods. Out of this experience came Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law, essays by his doctoral candidates that included his own “Anglo-Saxon Courts of Law.” Adams was to train such American medievalists as Henry Osborn Taylor and to inspire later ones like Frederick Bliss Luquiens and Albert Stansborough Cook.

This professional interest in the medieval accorded with a distinct trend in New England after the Civil War. Descendants of the rock-ribbed Puritans, impatient with the cultural limitations of their inheritance, were now passionate pilgrims to the Old World. As an inspiration for art and culture the Middle Ages beckoned to a country that owed its political faith to the Enlightenment. Medieval Europe, still on exhibition to those who had the means and the curiosity to visit it, gave relief, offered consolation to those exceptional Americans who felt themselves deprived of ancient cathedrals and medieval legendry.

The Enlightenment in America had led the rationalist Thomas Jefferson and even the ancestrally devout John Quincy Adams to deride “monkish” habits, ways, and superstition as things of the past. Harvard was now becoming soft on the Middle Ages. There the study of Dante was to become an institution, first under Longfellow and his successor Lowell, in our century becoming an academic fixture under Charles Grandgent and Charles Singleton. Dante was to have a marked effect on Harvard poets, especially T.S. Eliot. Earlier, Charles Eliot Norton helped to inaugurate a special interest in the Middle Ages with Historical Studies of Church-Building in the Middle Ages (1880). Norton was the son of the Unitarian divine Andrews Norton, among the first to attempt to prove the authenticity of the Bible from new critical sources. Charles Eliot Norton, who counseled Edith Wharton that “no great work of the imagination has ever been based on illicit passion,” set the tone of medieval studies at Harvard through his belief in a strictly conceived but non-religious ethos, “derived from contemplation of the highest qualities of human nature.”

The tone of Harvard’s Victorian medievalism was inevitably set by Cambridge’s distance, in every sense, from thirteenth-century Italy. Norton commemorated his translation of La Divina Commedia with a poem of the same title that forlornly sighs in the gentlest possible tones over how a world of religion and the fiercest passion was closed to an American professor who was so far away from it all—and whose deepest belief was the inevitability of progress.

Henry Adams, first spending every summer in France, then for longer periods hiring attractive young women expert in French like Aileen Tone to find the words for the medieval chansons he loved to hear them sing, was right there in the fin de siècle when young Proust made a cult of Ruskin’s medievalism and translated Ruskin’s The Bible of Amiens. There was a marked nostalgia just then for the Middle Ages in France; some of it became politically aggressive with the neo-Catholic revival directed against the leftist working class, the secularizing liberals, and the Jews during the Dreyfus affair. In England the aesthetic movement always suggested an imminent conversion to Rome, something Oscar Wilde, the young high priest of the “beautiful,” accomplished only when he died in Paris in the most degraded circumstances.

The more upper-class American “pilgrims” returned to Europe, the more they were attracted to the Church aesthetically. The most irascible among them, like Henry Adams’s eccentric brother Brooks, even began to dream in those increasingly strenuous times of a neo-medieval deliverance from what Henry Adams decried as “an economic civilization.” But Henry knew too much history to believe in churchly deliverance. The more he saw of medieval France in that golden time when Americans of his class were the happy few to enjoy Europe for its monuments, landscapes, food, and wine, the more his almost too supple imagination fastened on the thirteenth century as a drama of genius, taste, aspiration.

In his American histories he had shown himself the most demanding student of social and economic facts. There was nothing like these in his thirteenth century—he took no interest in how the Church spellbound and controlled the masses; there were no tiresome wars of tribute, no looting Crusaders, no murders in the cathedral or disease raging outside it. Nothing but the glorious achievers of Chartres, Rheims, Amiens, Coutances; Norman architecture giving way to Gothic “flinging its passion against the sky”; the arts of sculpture and glass; the Chanson de Roland; courts of love; the Summa Theologica of Aquinas; the devotion of a period that found its ultimate sanction in the Virgin. She was the apotheosis of the feminine ideal to the age of chivalry. She now became that to the widower maddened by the suicide of his wife. He was forever seeking companionship from his own nieces, from the young acolytes he made honorary “nieces,” from his adored but inaccessible Elizabeth Cameron, the estranged wife of an American senator. The Virgin as the ultimate, perhaps composite, woman fitted into the historical dexterity of Henry Adams.

William James said in his tribute to Mont-Saint-Michel that it was characterized by “frolic power.” No Catholic apologist would have allowed himself such an ascent into intellectual fantasy as the widower and would-be lover of a senator’s wife allowed himself in his portrait of the Virgin at Chartres. Abraham pictured about to sacrifice Isaac was to Adams “a compound horror of masculine stupidity and brutality.” But as for the Virgin,

She was still a woman, who loved grace, beauty, ornament—her toilette, robes, jewels;—who considered the arrangements of her palace with attention, and liked both light and color; who kept a keen eye on her Court, and exacted prompt and willing obedience from king and arch-bishops as from beggars and drunken priests. She protected her friends and punished her enemies. She required space, beyond what was known in the Courts of Kings, because she was liable at all times to have ten thousand people begging her for favors—mostly inconsistent with law—and deaf to refusal. She was extremely sensitive to neglect, to disagreeable impressions, to want of intelligence in her surroundings. She was the greatest artist, as she was the greatest philosopher and musician and theologist, that ever lived on earth, except her Son, Who, at Chartres, is still an Infant under her guardianship. Her taste was infallible; her sentence eternally final.

If this was plainly infatuation—with a symbol—the weight of so much symbolism was what Adams respected as culture. The Virgin by her authority enforced this culture into a unity forever dazzling later centuries. The demon of unity drove Adams in his two-volume “autobiography” to restore some wholeness to a life divided by Marian’s death and, equally, to a squalid “economic civilization.” The world was flying apart. Unity was what modern civilization, with his own country in the perilous lead, found itself gasping for as faith dissolved in every sphere. Faith as such was not the issue, and to Adams it was clearly not recoverable. Whatever he wrote of religion, Western and Oriental, shows that he approached it as an anthropologist, a comparative religionist. Nor did he believe, with Ruskin and Proust, that the pursuit of beauty alone could lead to intellectual salvation.

What fascinated this descendant of “Puritans and Patriots,” as he proudly styled himself, this heir of zealous Calvinists who had built first a new world for rebels against ecclesiastical orthodoxy, then had written for a new country a constitution established on philosophic principles—was mind, achievement, talent, genius, the flights of superior intellect, the victories of spirit. Adams the historian of minds in Mont-Saint-Michel is always representing, in everything he studied and observed, the beauty of intelligence, which alone rises above the fragmentation and dissolution of earthly experience. Adams was not one to bow to the Cross. He may never have read Nietzsche on the Death of God, but he was as cheerful on the subject as Nietzsche counseled modern man to be. But for him there was nothing like “mind,” which he liked to picture as a meteor flashing through space.

It is this, where Adams closes his book on the stupendous achievement of Saint Thomas Aquinas, that comes out in the triumph of Thomas’s mind over his system, over the Church his system helped to buttress. The mind naturally classifies and positions its thoughts, and so unites. The mind labors in a climate of unity whether it wants to or not. And calls that unity whatever it will. In the thirteenth century, “God”; in the age of entropy, chance, random occurrences, systematized meaninglessness, its name for Adams was “chaos.” But men are driven to seek unity, in letter, name, symbol, by the very nature of the mind. So what a tragedy for culture if the civilization surrounding mind is without form or plan or belief in anything except material advancement! This can lead thoughtful men back to the Middle Ages. To recover even the conscious wish for unity can drive a man to write about the thirteenth century at the beginning of the twentieth.

It is the grip of time, time recovered, that Adams shared with Proust when the great cathedrals became an image less of eternity than of human genius. Art had become the new religion for Proust, not for Adams. At the end of his book he was still pretending that all this was just what an American tourist could bring back from a heavenly summer in France:

About Saint Thomas’s theology we need not greatly disturb ourselves; it can matter now not much, whether he put more pantheism than the law allowed or more materialism than Duns Scotus approved—or less of either—into his universe, since the Church is still on the spot, responsible for its own doctrines; but his architecture is another matter.

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