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The Heroism of Despair

Selected Letters

by Henry Adams, edited by Ernest Samuels
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 587 pp., $29.95

Refinements of Love: A Novel about Clover and Henry Adams

by Sarah Booth Conroy
Pantheon/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 301 pp., $22.00

1.

Henry Brooks Adams was born in Boston on February 16, 1838, to the burdensome privilege of being an Adams. His great-grandfather John Adams (1735–1826) was the second president of the United States. His grandfather John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) was the sixth president. “Had he been born in Jerusalem,” Adams wrote of himself in The Education of Henry Adams,

under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in the races of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer; but, on the other hand, the ordinary traveller, who does not enter the field of racing, finds advantage in being, so to speak, ticketed through life, with the safeguards of an old, established traffic.

Adams’s father, Charles Francis Adams, was elected to Congress but he did not reach the White House. In 1861 President Lincoln appointed him minister to Great Britain. In London the minister’s finest achievement was to warn Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell of the risks entailed by their infringing neutrality in the Civil War and giving devious support to the Confederacy. But Minister Adams never exercised power in his own land. Nor did Henry Adams, who suffered from the disability of having two older and equally ambitious brothers waiting for preferment.

Adams’s first steps toward a career were the standard ones for a young Bostonian of good family and sufficient means: Harvard, the Grand Tour, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Sicily. He had in mind studying civil law in Berlin and Dresden, but he was more assiduous in establishing himself as a political journalist, writing articles on topics of the day for the Boston Daily Courier, than in laboring through German textbooks. In October 1860 he went to work as his father’s secretary in Washington, and in May 1861 joined him in London. There he combined the duties of son and secretary with the pleasure, in the evenings, of observing high society.

When the Civil War was over, Adams resumed his journalism and published several essays in the North American Review. The reviews were mostly of new books in history, fiction, and travel by Bancroft, Parkman, Howells, Clarence King, Tennyson, and Palgrave. Some of the essays were topical, some historically weighty: “The Bank of England Restriction,” “British Finance in 1816,” “Captain John Smith,” and a review of Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Adams wasn’t what is now called an “investigative journalist.” His essays put into stern ethical perspective the evidence available in pamphlets and newspapers. He wrote in a severely scrutinizing critical spirit. The essay on Captain Smith was typical. Adams was not the only historian to question Smith’s story about his rescue from execution by the intervention of Pocahontas, but the discrepancies he cited between Smith’s A True Relation of Virginia (1608) and his General History (1624) undermined the romance. He said of the story that “the readiness with which it was received is scarcely so remarkable as the credulity which has left it unquestioned almost to the present day.”

In 1870 Adams accepted an appointment as assistant professor of medieval history at Harvard and editor of the North American Review. In the same year he published “The Session, 1869–1870,” a survey of President Grant’s character and administration:

Grant’s mind rarely acts from any habit of wide generalization. As a rule, the ideas executed with so much energy appear to come to him one by one, without close logical sequence; and as a person may see and calculate the effect of a drop of acid on an organic substance, so one may sometimes almost seem to see the mechanical process by which a new idea eats its way into Grant’s unconscious mind,—where its action begins, and where its force is exhausted.

Also in 1870 Adams published one of his most famous essays, “The New York Gold Conspiracy,” an account of Jay Gould’s conspiracy with James Fisk and Abel Corbin (President Grant’s brother-in-law) in September 1869 to corner the market in gold.

On June 27, 1872, Adams married Marian “Clover” Hooper, daughter of a Boston physician. She was highly intelligent, sharp of eye and tongue. In a few years she became a gifted photographer. So far as we know, Marian and Henry were a congenial couple with a shared interest in social and public life. In 1877 Adams decided that he was tired of Harvard and teaching. He resigned to take up a career as man of letters, biographer, historian, secret novelist, and gossip. Washington became his scene. The Adams residence there soon established itself as a salon for distinguished friends and visitors, notably John Hay and his wife, Clara, Clarence King, Senator James Donald Cameron and his wife, Elizabeth, Henry Cabot Lodge, John La Farge, and occasionally Henry James. James wrote a story, “Pandora” (1884), based on the Adams milieu: the talk, he said, was mostly of social and political matters and went “revolving about the subject in widening and narrowing circles, perching successively on its many branches, considering it from every point of view.” In 1879 Adams published a biography of Albert Gallatin, in 1880 (anonymously) a novel, Democracy, about power and corruption in Washington, in 1882 a biography of John Randolph, and in 1884 a novel about science and religion, Esther, under the pseudonym Frances Snow Compton. Adams was willing to be anything but quiet.

The novels are worth reading, but mainly because Adams wrote them and they document his mind. There is nothing amiss with their theme, an intelligent woman’s response to the practice of democracy, in the first, and to a version of Christianity in the second. But Adams had little power of invention, he had to observe a situation in practice before he could think of any further qualities it might have in fiction. He could plan a sentiment and give it a typical setting, but he could not imagine a blow of contingency that would make the plan tremble and give the characters lives he couldn’t have divined for them in advance. So in the novels he was forced to rely upon the qualities of his essays; observation, irony, frustration, and in the end a desire to be rid of the whole public charade.

Of the novel as an expressive form, he knew nothing beyond the simple lessons he learned from melodrama. “Mr. Ratcliffe, I am not to be bought,” the heroine of Democracy says: “No rank, no dignity, no consideration, no conceivable expedient would induce me to change my mind. Let us have no more of this!” At the end, she says to her sister, “I want to go to Egypt … democracy has shaken my nerves to pieces. Oh, what rest it would be to live in the Great Pyramid and look out for ever at the polar star!” In Esther the heroine, largely based on Marian Adams, rounds on her lover, Rev. Mr. Hazard, “Why must the church always appeal to my weakness and never to my strength! I ask for spiritual life and you send me back to my flesh and blood as though I were a tigress you were sending back to her cubs.”

On December 6, 1885, Marian Adams committed suicide by drinking potassium cyanide, a substance she had at hand for her photographic work. She had long suffered from bouts of depression, and had spent several melancholy weeks in the spring attending upon her father, who died on April 13. After the funeral, Marian went into a decline from which she never recovered. It is hard to know how deeply Adams was affected by her death. The letters suggest that for a while he was numb with grief. But he was not of a temper to stay stricken for long. He resumed his life, moved into the new house at 1603 H Street that H.H. Richardson had designed for him, and took up work on his History of the United States. The following June, he set out with John La Farge on an extended trip to Japan. Over many years he spent much time and money in Cuba, Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, Australia, Ceylon, Mexico, Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Russia, Sweden, and Norway. But he also managed to do his work. Between 1889 and 1891 he published in nine volumes the History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison and a tenth volume, Historical Essays.

The History is a remarkable achievement. Adams believed that by 1815 Americans had “ceased to doubt the path they were to follow.” Not only was the unity of the nation established in terms that withstood the Civil War, “but its probable divergence from older societies was also well defined.” The sentiment on which this definition was based was simple: “War counted for little, the hero for less; on the people alone the eye could permanently rest.” The whole story of the United States during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison is recited to lead to Adams’s account, in the last chapter, of American character and destiny. The most vivid chapters tell of political and diplomatic events in which men not necessarily great but good enough for the occasion contrived decent ends: Gallatin and John Quincy Adams, for instance, in the negotiations in 1814 that led to the Treaty of Ghent and honorably stopped the war between the US and Britain:

Thus the treaty became simply a cessation of hostilities, leaving every claim on either side open for future settlement. The formality of signature was completed December 24, and closed an era of American history. In substance, the treaty sacrificed much on both sides for peace. The Americans lost their claims for British spoliations, and were obliged to admit question of their right to Eastport and their fisheries in British waters; the British failed to establish their principles of impressment and blockade, and admitted question of their right to navigate the Mississippi and trade with the Indians. Perhaps at the moment the Americans were the chief losers; but they gained their greatest triumph in referring all their disputes to be settled by time, the final negotiator, whose decision they could safely trust.

From 1891 Adams’s travels had a further purpose. He and his wife had been enchanted with Elizabeth Cameron. After Marian’s death, Adams came more and more to depend on the senator’s wife for companionship. Her marriage was a loveless arrangement, tolerable only because she spent much of her time in Europe and removed herself from her husband’s company whenever she could. He was mainly devoted to drink and money-making. Elizabeth saw him only when he summoned her. But she was not willing to commit her affections, strong as they apparently were, to Adams, although he thought himself in love with her and wanted, I think, to be her lover. She was not willing to respond in kind. In October 1891 she told him that they should mostly stay away from each other. Evidently he was supposed to subdue his passion in letters from afar. “I am not old enough to be a tame cat,” Adams complained to her on November 5, and “you are too old to accept me in any other character.”

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