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. 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 …

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