Henry Adams as Holy Fool

The first puzzle of Henry Adams’s poised and urbane book is its crackpot ending. After pages of erudite sidlings and ironic doublings back, Adams finally whips out a placard and joins the nutty parade that says The End Is Near.

Some have tried to make a virtue of this apparent breakdown, claiming that Adams foresaw the atomic bomb, or the Russian menace of the 1950s, or the technocratic imprisonment of 1984. But his end was nearer than those later troubles—“within thirty years” (of 1907), or even earlier in his other writings; suggesting that he responded more to internal alarm bells than to external evidence. Beside, his Russia would threaten by mere inertia, not by innovation; his atomic threat (essentially radium on a larger scale) was not more explosive than other forces shaking the world apart by mere acceleration; and his technocracy would dwarf man with looming dynamos, not invade his mind with microchips. The scientific equations and “laws” that Adams invented were bogus, as William Jordy demonstrates.1 Nothing sound could rise on such rotten foundations. His odd guess or two should not be taken as predictive science fiction. Adams was never a Jules Verne.

Others salvage what they can of the book by concentrating on its first part—on the fragrant memories of Quincy or the tense London mission during the Civil War, before the Virgin and the Dynamo mixed their auras to muddle Adams’s mind. Adams made this approach an easy one by breaking his work into two parts, leaving out the key decades of his life (1870–1890), giving the lie to any notion that this might be an autobiography. Adams did not mean to parade his disappointment at the reception of his great historical work (nine volumes on the Jefferson and Madison administrations), or to relive in print his wife’s suicide. We cannot read here how his life was broken in the middle, at what should have been its strongest point. We are left with the two separate pieces on either end of that silence, each given separate treatment in the Education. In the first twenty chapters, Adams is busy in many directions after an education that eludes him. In the last fifteen chapters he thinks he is finally on the trail of an education—though this is the greatest delusion of them all.

Yet the first part cannot really be read in isolation from the last. The book was written as a whole, in ironic salute to the new (so-called twentieth) century. Each part is redolent of the fin-de-siècle aestheticism and millennial fears that ushered out the century of Adams’s birth. The education Adams seeks at the outset is something a dandy can play with while entertaining hints of doom. And the itch for equations is already present. In the very first chapter Adams tells us how he was drawn to “running order through chaos, direction through space, discipline through freedom, unity through multiplicity.” We need to know, even so early, how literal, how fanatical, he could become on this quest if we are to see why it was baffled all through his youth.

Adams would not have quarreled with the charge that he is telling the story of a fanatic. He certainly calls himself every kind of worm and fool along the way. And this description takes seriously what he claimed to various friends, that the story was meant to be comic. He embarks, over and over, on journeys bound to miscarry. The story has an iterative, ritual air like the repeated upendings of Quixote. Such a “routine” (in the comedian’s sense) seemed tedious to Henry James, who complained of the harping on “education” as a windmill whose vanes keep turning back and striking the forlorn hero. But humor was never the Master’s strongest point, and unless we see a deliberate absurdity at the heart of the book we are probably right to toss it away in exasperation.

What, for instance, should we make of a passage like this?

To Adams, the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamo as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arms’-length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair’s-breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it.

Is Adams the only person who does not find his posture here ridiculous? Hardly. Though he keeps a straight face while others are laughing at his genuflection to the Dynamo (one housed at the Great Exposition in Paris of 1900), a straight face is the badge of a comedian. Adams cultivated, in his correspondence, the picture of himself as a harmless crank with some outlandish hobbies—Chartres and Radm, Mariolatry and Osmosis—that he combined in improbable ways. The third person used throughout the Education is not a precious affectation but a theatrical one. He has invented a comic persona which he can submit to endless indignities, lead out on exquisitely balanced sentences to meet the inevitable pratfall, give the most solemn facial expressions just before catching the intellectual pie in the face. He is less Jules Verne than Emmet Kelly, the sad clown in our literary pantheon. He drags himself repeatedly to the Ara Coeli steps in Rome, to contemplate the meaning of history with Gibbon—only to be spurned like a beggar from the steps, no wiser than he was before.

But, like other clowns, he uses his befuddled air as a stalking horse. He wants his book to tell dangerous truths about his friends, who were its first and most critical audience. He disarmed them by making the book’s publication a kind of family theatrics. A private edition was printed and circulated to those named in it. They were invited to take offense; but of course Adams had made that more difficult by treating himself as the gull and laughingstock of his own story. The self-deprecating ribber of others at a household skit can risk outrageous accuracies.

Just to make the game more interesting, Adams printed the private editions on beautiful paper, with large margins inviting comment; but he said the corrections must be returned to him in the book itself. So anyone taking offense would have to forfeit the edition, a treasure to the gossips of the time, as well as demonstrate by this sacrifice what a very thin skin he possessed. Only three people returned their copies, and they did not have the best right to take offense.

Two of Adams’s closest friends—or, at any rate, the husbands of his close friends—were senators, a class of people Adams thought the curse of the republic. I think he was dead wrong, but there is no question that he was dead serious; and passage after passage dealing with the Senate has the suppressed electricity of his hate for it. Yet Senators Cameron and Lodge took the gift volume without complaint, fondling the time bomb in their hands. (Mrs. Lodge knew what was going on, but could not stop it without letting her husband know how foolish he looked.) Then there was Adams’s neighbor, across Lafayette Square in the White House, Theodore Roosevelt. Adams said in coded ways, in the Education, what he argued seriously in his letters—that Roosevelt was a certifiable loony. But the President received his private edition of the book with the cordial effusiveness he brought to everything, even to brushing his teeth—and never suspected that his head had been sliced from his body while he was looking in the mirror.

Some of the shrewdest political satire is in the last, “scientific” part of the Education, where Adams defends John Hay from his boss, the President, and his bearbaiters, the Senate—as when he describes his old pupil Cabot Lodge this way:

Senators can never be approached with safety, but a Senator who has a very superior wife and several superior children who feel no deference for Senators as such, may be approached at times with relative impunity while they keep him under restraint.

Yet the mocker is himself a target of mockery to the end, confusing the incense of prayer with the stream of brute machines, offering himself as a sacrifice on the altar of the new gods he distrusts. Is all this irony, or is it masochism? Did he believe in his scientific tinkerings, or mean his professions of ignorance? The answer is: all of the above, among other things. Adams’s critics call him a snob and poseur. He was more like a guinea pig in his own aesthetic experiment, a performer whose role had implications he had not counted on when he assumed it. He uses the language of religious abasement, calling himself a worm, a mollusk, a grub, and the cousin to a sturgeon (the continually intruding Pteraspis). It was a terminology he had learned from one of his spiritual mentors, Blaise Pascal, and from Pascal’s master, St. Augustine. He marked in his Confessions of St. Augustine the passage where God reduces him to humility with a toothache, and he marked paragraph after paragraph in Pascal’s Pensées that could serve as a program for the Education. Among those passages, this:

Knowledge has two extremes that meet. The first is the pure ignorance man is born in. The second is attained by those of lofty spirit who, having traversed all that man can know, find that they know nothing and are back where they started. But theirs is a wise ignorance that recognizes itself for what it is. The people in between these two extremes have escaped the first ignorance without reaching the second. Under color of a useful knowledge they seem knowing—and they confuse the world by mistaking everything.2

It is useful, at times, to play God’s fool, even without God. Cervantes would have understood.

  1. 1

    William H. Jordy, Henry Adams, Scientific Historian (Yale University Press. 1952).

  2. 2

    This pensée, on page 249 of Adams’s undated Garnier edition (in the Massachusetts Historical Society), is Number 83 in the Louis Lafuma edition, Pensées sur la religion et sur quelques autres sujets (Editions du Luxembourg, 1951), p. 65.