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The Heroism of Despair

Jacobson’s book is helpful on these matters, but she hasn’t pressed the evidence far enough. She hasn’t assessed Adams’s habit, in letters to Gaskell, of showing off his decadence. In a letter of January 13, 1870, Adams tells Gaskell of flirting with a girl “in safety as I firmly believe she is in a deep consumption and will die of it.” Not content with that indecency, Adams gives himself an encore:

I like peculiar amusements of all sorts, and there is certainly a delicious thrill of horror, much in the manner of Alfred de Musset, in thus pushing one’s amusements into the future world. Shudder! oh, my friend, why not! You may disbelieve it if you like, but I assure you it is true that every sentimental speech or touching quotation I make to her, derives its amusement from the belief that her eyes and ears will soon be inappreciative. Is not this delightfully morbid?

A joke; its being in bad taste is a nuance of the decadence on show. “Delicious thrill,” “shudder!” “amusement,” and “delightfully morbid” are part of the code. Gaskell is expected to appreciate the literary and theatrical styles alluded to, not only de Musset but Byron, Victorian melodrama, post-Baudelairean ennui. Adams is strutting as a society wit, and showing Gaskell that there is no style a brilliant American can’t learn. There is no reason to think he found a girl’s pending death amusing.

The letters that passed between Adams and Henry James, well edited now by George Monteiro, make informative chapters in their different and in some respects alien lives. James knew Marian Hooper before she married Adams. After the marriage, he met the Adamses in Rome and from time to time in London, Paris, and Washington. But they were never close friends. Marian thought James ought to leave England, go home, and become an American again; “go to Cheyenne & run a hog ranch.” When Oscar Wilde visited Washington in January 1882, she warned James not to bring him to meet her. She need not have bothered. James met Wilde and decided that he was “repulsive and fatuous.” What James most enjoyed in Marian was her caustic style. He appreciated her as a personality, a specimen of American life. But he was uneasy in her husband’s company. To Sir John Clark he wrote of Adams: “I like him, but suffer from his monotonous disappointed pessimism.”

After Marian’s death, James met Adams occasionally, sometimes with Mrs. Cameron and her husband. He admired Elizabeth, but thought she had “sucked the lifeblood” of Adams and made him “more ‘snappish’ than nature intended.” “It’s one of the longest and oddest American liaisons I’ve ever known,” he wrote to Henrietta Reubell in 1901: “Women have been hanged for less—and yet men have been too, I judge, rewarded with more.”

But in later years James came to know Mrs. Cameron better and to think her not at all hard or merely clever.

The main problem between Adams and James was that Adams liked to think the two of them were fossils and that there was no point in trying to revive their diminished lives. James agreed with the diagnosis, but he wasn’t willing to give up on the transforming power of his imagination. There was still hope. In 1903, when he published William Wetmore Story and His Friends, he received these damp reflections from Adams:

The painful truth is that all of my New England generation, counting the half-century, 1820–1870, were in actual fact only one mind and nature; the individual was a facet of Boston. We knew each other to the last nervous centre, and feared each other’s knowledge. We looked through each other like microscopes. There was absolutely nothing in us that we did not understand merely by looking in the eye. There was hardly a difference even in depth, for Harvard College and Unitarianism kept us all shallow. We knew nothing—no! but really nothing! of the world. One cannot exaggerate the profundity of ignorance of Story in becoming a sculptor, or Sumner in becoming a statesman, or Emerson in becoming a philosopher. Story and Sumner, Emerson and Alcott, Lowell and Longfellow, Hillard, Winthrop, Motley, Prescott, and all the rest, were the same mind,—and so, poor worm!—was I!

Type bourgeois-bostonien! A type quite as good as another, but more uniform.

James thought that the impression of a uniform, petty life lived by Story and his New England generation was probably accurate but that it seemed even worse than it was because of the nature of biography, an art that “is somehow practically thinning.” Adams thought the life itself dim, and that James’s attention to it didn’t make it even appear to glow. So much so, that when James published a volume of his autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother, in 1914, Adams told Elizabeth Cameron that reading the book had reduced him “to dreary pulp”:

Why did we live? Was that all? Why was I not born in central Africa and died young? Poor Henry James thinks it all real, I believe, and actually still lives in that dreamy, stuffy Newport and Cambridge, with papa James and Charles Norton—and me! Yet, why!

It is a terrible dream, but not so weird as this here which is quite loony!

Evidently Adams gave James the pleasure of similar dismalness—his letter hasn’t survived—but James replied with a spirited defense of the imagination:

Of course we are lone survivors, of course the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss—if the abyss has any bottom; of course too there’s no use talking unless one particularly wants to. But the purpose, almost, of my printed divagations was to show you that one can, strange to say, still want to—or at least can behave as if one did. Behold me therefore so behaving—& apparently capable of continuing to do so. I still find my consciousness interesting—under cultivation of the interest. Cultivate it with me, dear Henry—that’s what I hoped to make you do; to cultivate yours for all that it has in common with mine. Why mine yields an interest I don’t know that I can tell you, but I don’t challenge or quarrel with it—I encourage it with a ghastly grin. You see I still, in presence of life (or of what you deny to be such,) have reactions—as many as possible—& the book I sent you is a proof of them. It’s, I suppose, because I am that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions—appearances, memories, many things go on playing upon it with consequences that I note & “enjoy” (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing—& I do. I believe I shall do yet again—it is still an act of life.

But Adams, we can assume, wasn’t inclined to buck up; he held to the motto he gave Elizabeth Cameron in a letter of October 23, 1899. Not the one ascribed to Valentina Visconti, duchesse d’Orleans, after the murder of her husband: “Rien ne m’est plus; plus ne m’est rien,” but simply “Nothing matters much.”

In daily life, so far as we can judge, Adams was formidable, never a bore, but rarely amiable. It speaks well for him that he retained so many diverse friendships. So it hardly matters that he has recently come in for abuse. In her Eleanor Roosevelt: Volume One, 1884–1933 (Viking, 1992) Blanche Wiesen Cook repeats an old charge that Marian Adams committed suicide “evidently when she heard of her husband’s affair with Elizabeth Cameron.” Professor Wiesen Cook also insinuates, without claiming it as fact, that Adams was Martha Cameron’s father. Now we have a novel, Refinements of Love, in which malice has the run of the show. The book is written, ostensibly, in Marian Adams’s voice. We are to imagine that on All Souls’ Night, October 31, 1885, five weeks before her death, Marian started writing to “Miss Posterity.” She tells this woman about her early life, her parents, her meeting with Adams, their courtship:

Suddenly I felt warm, very warm, like a taper lighting an oven or the heat when the door is opened on a glass furnace. I knew that he brought me warmth. He was my sun, and I would grow in his light and blossom and bear fruit.

On their honeymoon, according to Conroy’s Marian, Adams read German poems to her, took cocaine, and showed that he had “no desire [and] perhaps no ability for the customary marital practices.” Meanwhile we are introduced to domestic life at the Camerons. Elizabeth tells Marian how the Senator raped her on their wedding night “in his private railroad car”:

He stripped off my clothes, tearing them to shreds, and he beat me. He took off his belt and beat me. Then he slammed me down on the bed and took me by force.

Back at the Adams residence, Marian again entertains “the cat Cameron,” otherwise “the feline Cameron” and “the vampirish Cameron.” She decides that Adams has made Elizabeth pregnant. “Elizabeth Cameron will have a child. And I will not.” What else? Marian writes Democracy and Esther; flirts with Henry James and thinks he may be in love with her; has a tryst with her neighbor Truxton Beale; and dreams of a moonlit lover:

The pleasure flowed between us, to him, to me, from me to him, until our passion joined together into a force of such velocity, I, too, like my phantom, dispersed into a thousand flecks of moonlight.

Next we discover that Adams, John Hay, and Clarence King are lovers:

Now I could hear moans, squeaks, and scuffling. When I reached the door, I heard unmistakably Henry’s voice saying over and over, “Again, again, again.”

I put my hand on the knob, even though I presumed Henry had locked this one, as he did the hall door. To my surprise, it turned. I opened the door. The three—Clarence King, Henry, and John Hay—were together in Henry’s large bed, so intent on taking their mutual pleasures they paid no attention to me, the interloper.

At the end of this humbug, Adams murders his wife by substituting potassium cyanide for nose drops in her vial. But the book isn’t quite over yet. Conroy has added thirty-four pages of “Author’s Afterword” to report that the idea that Adams may have murdered his wife came to her “in a sudden shudder.” She doesn’t now think that Adams was Martha Cameron’s father—certainly the calendar, Elizabeth’s whereabouts, and Adams’s sufficiently refute the notion. That being so, Conroy might well have deleted the scenes of innuendo or set Marian the small problem in arithmetic that would have removed her suspicions about Adams. Adopting for the occasion Adams’s criterion: To what extent can Conroy’s novel be felt as force? Hardly at all. It seems to me a frigid exercise, a fanciful rigmarole of stereotypes. I can’t find a pulse in it.

Adams’s reputation is secure: philosopher of history, satirist, ironist, autobiographer, master of a plain style. The admiration expressed in Alfred Kazin’s An American Procession (1984) is widely felt and may be taken as a representative assessment. “Among the American historians who still regarded history as a branch of literature,” Kazin says, “he stands out as the last and the best.” Adams is now part of American literature, as the Library of America recognized some years ago in publishing a generous selection of his work. Of the major books, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres seems to me an even greater achievement than The Education of Henry Adams, if only because the feeling it yields to, its exultation in the invoked presence of the Virgin, floats free of Adams’s irony, which in the other books is repetitive. It is significant that to achieve this exultation he had to discover it across a gap of seven hundred years. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is the only book in which Adams is willing to risk enchantment. In the letters, mostly, he enforces his worldliness, as if he could only deal with tragedy by predicting it.

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