• Email
  • Print

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


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.”

Meanwhile he contracted Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a statue for Marian Adams’s grave in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington. By 1893 it was in place, a large untitled bronze, a shrouded figure of indeterminate sex and portent. From 1899 to 1911 Adams spent some part of each year in Paris. In 1904 he arranged to have his study of medieval art and religion, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, privately printed: it amounted to a spiritual autobiography, in the sense that he placed himself among images and convictions he might have had if he had lived in the Chartres of the twelfth century. These were no longer available, but Adams had enough imagination and enough desire to recover them, impelled by the great churches of France. In 1907 he printed in the same private form his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, a book in which he recalls his professional and intellectual strivings and explains why they came to nothing but bewilderment and dread. The Education mentions many people, but not Marian Adams.

In his later years Adams continued to travel, meeting various historians and diplomats; mostly, he sent back sharp reports to his friends. Astringent in speech, he often took pleasure in being surly, rude to Bernard Berenson and others, nasty about Jews—“Of course I want free silver, but I am willing to take paper, or the Russian alliance, or anything except the Jews.” Like Gerontion in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Adams took to speaking of himself as if he were posthumous, especially after the death of his friend George Cabot Lodge on August 21, 1909. But he kept on writing letters of gossip, quirkiness, love, and melancholy till his death on March 27, 1918.


The Letters of Henry Adams, edited by J.C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels, Charles Vandersee, and Viola Hopkins Winner, was published by Harvard University Press in six volumes; three in 1982, three in 1988. That edition of 2,885 letters was a selection from the 4,655 available. In 1989 the Massachusetts Historical Society published the remainder in two volumes as Supplement to the Letters of Henry Adams, also edited by Levenson and his colleagues. Professor Samuels, Adams’s biographer, has now made a one-volume selection from the Harvard six. I am sure he regrets that it was necessary to exclude anything from such treasure.

Some of the absences are especially regrettable. I miss the letter to Henry Cabot Lodge on style and good writing, another one about Alexander Hamilton, and an early letter to the friend of his youth, Charles Milnes Gaskell, March 26, 1872, in which Adams spoke of the girl he was to marry. Samuels hasn’t included any letters from the Massachusetts Historical Society volumes. I assume there is a problem of copyright, for those letters seem to me just as good, as vigorous, and as telling as the Harvard ones. Most of the explanatory notes in the Selected Letters are repeated from the Harvard edition, with a few expansions and deletions. Readers are no longer told who Macaulay, Sainte-Beuve, and Matthew Arnold were. Generally, the annotation is helpful, but too often the editor has to be content to explain the names and references and leave the political issues to be deduced.

Some of the editorial decisions have a misleading effect. For instance: no letters from Adams to Mrs. Cameron are included for the period October 23, 1899, to August 3, 1901. This suggests that there was a breach between them or that Adams went into a huff. But in fact he wrote to her incessantly during those months, and she answered the letters fairly regularly except for six weeks in April and May 1901, when she was busy in Paris and Florence having an affair with the poet Trumbull Stickney. Readers who don’t know what was going on during those weeks are bound to wonder what Adams was irritated about, and why Mrs. Cameron kept him on edge.

The letters are of immense interest, first, as a record of Adams’s daily life and the life of the social and political world he saw from 1858 to 1918. No other witness to these events had Adams’s flair. Not that he was always right. In 1900 he thought that Britain was bankrupt and must fall. On December 4 he wrote to John Hay, who was then secretary of state after a stint as ambassador to Britain:

For, to anyone who has all his life studied history, it is obvious that the fall of England would be paralleled by only two great convulsions in human record; the fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century, and the fall of the Roman Church in the sixteenth. Big as the catastrophe was when Spain went down, and France, neither was anything like England; they were small in comparison. Spain has taken at least two hundred years and a score of wars to founder completely. France has convulsed our century in doing it. For God’s mercy, what will England do!

As necessary residuary legatees, you and Russia have got to administer the estate, with the Kaiser claiming the whole. He has always wanted to be king of England. By the sword of the Archangel Michael, I almost think he’ll succeed! England seems to me to have no longer the strength to stand alone.

Wrong or right, Adams’s letters kept ideas on the move and warned the few friends he had in power that he was watching them and taking notes. Some of the experiences described in the letters turn up again in Adams’s books, but the letters are far richer in detail and more dashing in style. For instance: in the Education Adams mentions that on April 27, 1863, he made friends with Charles Milnes Gaskell in London. They were together again five years later in Rome. Nothing more. But Adams’s letters to Gaskell are among the most personal: he tells him about his sister Louisa’s terrible death by tetanus, the job at Harvard, daily life there, his opinion of Gladstone, the boredom of coming back to Washington after a few months in the tropics, and many other topics not found as vividly recorded, if recorded at all, in the books. Writing to Gaskell, Adams thought himself free to be as nasty as he wanted. Referring to C. H. Pearson’s National Life and Character: A Forecast (1893) in a letter of April 28, 1894, he tells Gaskell:

Every time I come back to what we are pleased to call civilised life, it bores me more, and seems to me more hopelessly idiotic; and, as I do not care to imitate Carlyle and Ruskin and Emerson and all the rest of our protesting philosophers by trying to make a living by abusing the society of my time, nothing remains but to quit it, and seek another. I am satisfied that Pearson is right, and that the dark races are gaining on us, so that we may depend on their steadily shutting down on us, as they have already done in Haiti, and are doing throughout the West Indies and our southern States. In another fifty years, at the same rate of movement, the white races will have to reconquer the tropics by war and nomadic invasion, or be shut up, north of the fortieth parallel. I know that with our fatuous self-esteem, our newspapers admire themselves too much to admit their own possible inferiority to niggers without newspapers; but as I rather prefer niggers to whites, and much prefer oriential art to European, I incline to make the most of the tropics while the white is still tolerated there.

Adams had many other tones besides that one, but Gaskell brought out the beast in him and let him indulge himself in conceits of a world gone out of white control.

The letters are also valuable as informal accompaniment to the attitudes and positions Adams adopted in his books. They make clearer than ever that irony was his predestined tone. In The Concept of Irony Kierkegaard says that the aim of irony is to enable the mind to feel free. Confronted with “phenomena,” Kierkegaard said, most minds feel obliged not only to pay attention to them but to assume that they somehow represent the essence of their kind and are to be respected on that account. The first act of irony is to deny this relation and to assume that phenomena are merely phenomena, they have no claim to embody an essence. A mind may still feel that it has a purpose in life, but not one predicated on the phenomena at hand. This feeling, according to Kierkegaard, is the beginning of freedom; not to have a prescribed purpose. Adams was in that sense an ironist. He always wanted to feel that the issue under discussion had of course to be considered but that it exerted no claim upon him. He sought the perfection of standing aside. On October 23, 1899, when his friends were getting excited about the presidential election, he wrote to Elizabeth Cameron from Paris:

It is likely to be a scrimmage wanting in the commonest decency of manners. I dread going home to it all the more because there is not a vestige of principle involved, and I can only sit on the very uncomfortable fence, indulging in the luxury, which is long ago a faded joy, of entertaining the deepest contempt for you all. Balanced by the loss of relations, the gain on my part is small. As a convinced, conservative, Christian Anarchist, the turning out a set of cheap politicians in order to put in a cheaper, seems to me scavenger’s work, necessary but low, at least as compared with the bomb, which has some humor in it, and explodes all round, making an effectual protest against the whole thing.

Being an Adams, he probably dreamed of power, but he never went out of his way to secure it. He did not love the masses or offer to caress them. Being intelligent, he soon understood that no one intended to push him forward. In default of power, he wanted to be respected, thought about, considered; he felt he had as much right to this felicity as Hay or any other gifted friend. But no one deferred to him. Long before the end, he settled for the role of observer, witness, perpetual critic, occasional cynic. He ended up a malcontent. In The Education of Henry Adams he kept calling himself a failure—he had learned nothing of value, had never found readers—but the calling, the reiterated confession, set him free of enchantment and put him as an ironist beyond the reach of piety. His confession of failure turned into a silent claim that he was too intelligent to succeed in a stupid world.

Adams practiced his irony by displacing every official structure of values. If people thought they enjoyed free will and that history was the action of great men, Adams derided these notions. On July 27, 1882, he wrote to William James about two of James’s essays, “Rationality, Activity, and Faith” and “Great Men, Great Thoughts, and the Environment”:

As I understand your Faith, your x, your reaction of the individual on the cosmos, it is the old question of Free Will over again. You choose to assume that the will is free. Good! Reason proves that the Will cannot be free. Equally good! Free or not, the mere fact that a doubt can exist, proves that x must be a very microscopic quantity. If the orthodox are grateful to you for such gifts, the world has indeed changed, and we have much to thank God for, if there is a God, that he should have left us unable to decide whether our thoughts, if we have thoughts, are our own or his’n.

Although your gift to the church seems to me a pretty darned mean one, I admire very much your manner of giving it, which magnifies the crumb into at least forty loaves and fishes…

With hero worship like Carlyle’s, I have little patience. In history heroes have neutralysed each other, and the result is no more than would have been reached without them. Indeed in military heroes I suspect that the ultimate result has been retardation. Nevertheless you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men. So far I am with you. A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred millions. What then? They drag us up the cork-screw stair of thought, but they can no more get their brains to run out of their especial convolutions than a railway train (with a free will of half an inch on three thousand miles) can run free up Mount Shasta. Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can’t prove even that we are.

Adams may have been having fun with James, but he was serious in rejecting will as an explanation of historical events. In The Education of Henry Adams he returned to the theme and spoke of “seeing lines of force all about him, where he had always seen lines of will.” In the chapter on “A Dynamic Theory of History” he made more of this:

A dynamic theory, like most theories, begins by begging the question: it defines Progress as the development and economy of Forces. Further, it defines force as anything that does, or helps to do work. Man is a force; so is the sun; so is a mathematical point, though without dimensions or known existence.

Man commonly begs the question again by taking for granted that he captures the forces. A dynamic theory, assigning attractive force to opposing bodies in proportion to the law of mass, takes for granted that the forces of nature capture man. The sum of force attracts; the feeble atom or molecule called man is attracted; he suffers education or growth; he is the sum of the forces that attract him; his body and his thought are alike their product; the movement of the forces controls the progress of his mind, since he can know nothing but the motions which impinge on his senses, whose sum makes education.

It follows, according to Adams, that “modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces.” Society could not be understood simply by concentrating on the men and women who made decisions or failed to make them. Abstract institutions—the state, technology, big business—were at every point autonomous, independent of the men and women whose lives they ostensibly served. The work of modern society was done “by masses of mechanical power—steam, electric, furnace, or other—which have to be controlled by a score or two of individuals who have shown capacity to manage it.” These managerial types, “who are socially as remote as heathen gods, alone worth knowing, but never known,” are as dumb as their dynamos. Adams wrote the History of the United States of America in the hope of understanding them and the history they apparently made. At that time he still thought he might explain things in narrative terms, find “a relation of sequence” between one fact and another:

He had even published a dozen volumes of American history for no other purpose than to satisfy himself whether, by the severest process of stating, with the least possible comment, such facts as seemed sure, in such order as seemed rigorously consequent, he could fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement. The result had satisfied him as little as at Harvard College. Where he saw sequence, other men saw something quite different, and no one saw the same unit of measure.

Adams gave up the effort. Instead, he tried to map and plot the forces that captured men. He set about thinking of the motives behind the events of the modern world as if they were lines of force, diagrams, parallelograms, and rhomboids. But he didn’t know what to do with these when he had given them over to geometry and mechanics. Still, he relished the freedom of not being intimidated by what mere men did. When other styles failed, irony offered him its grim success; by definition, it could not fail. To bring it into practice, he had only to remove himself from the phenomena before him and choose better things to think about.

In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres the ironist kept himself free of nineteenth-century multiplicity by thinking of twelfth- and thirteenth-century unity. In medieval France, forces of attraction had names, Bernard of Clairvaux, Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and the greatest force was the Virgin. The church at Chartres was her presence:

If you are to get the full enjoyment of Chartres, you must, for the time, believe in Mary as Bernard and Adam did, and feel her presence as the architects did, in every stone they placed, and every touch they chiselled…. 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.

Thinking of Aquinas, Adams brought him to bear upon the claims of modern science:

Rid of man and his mind, the universe of Thomas Aquinas seemed rather more scientific than that of Haeckel or Ernst Mach. Contradiction for contradiction, Attraction for attraction, Energy for energy, St. Thomas’s idea of God had merits. Modern science offered not a vestige of proof, or a theory of connection between its forces, or any scheme of reconciliation between thought and mechanics; while St. Thomas at least linked together the joints of his machine. As far as a superficial student could follow, the thirteenth century supposed mind to be a mode of force directly derived from the intelligent prime motor, and the cause of all form and sequence in the universe—therefore the only proof of unity. Without thought in the unit, there could be no unity; without unity no orderly sequence or ordered society. Thought alone was Form. Mind and Unity flourished or perished together…. Modern science guaranteed no unity.

In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres Adams defines energy as “the inherent effort of every multiplicity to become unity.” The attempt to bridge the chasm between them is, he says, “the oldest problem of philosophy, religion, and science.” But, he continues, “the flimsiest bridge of all is the human concept, unless somewhere, within or beyond it, an energy not individual is hidden; and in that case the old question instantly reappears: What is that energy?”

That was Adams’s question and, so far as he was a historian, his quest: How to understand an energy not individual? His methods were irregular. An ironist at heart if not by conviction, he ran to hyperbole, keeping himself free by asserting differences between one value and another, the one likely to be official and axiomatic, the other likely to be occult. Marveling at the intelligence of the medieval architects, he brooded on knowledge and ignorance:

True ignorance approaches the infinite more nearly than any amount of knowledge can do, and, in our case, ignorance is fortified by a certain element of nineteenth-century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand; a violent reaction from the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.

The Education of Henry Adams is accurately named. Adams’s main concern was to acquire an education adequate to the new conditions—largely the consequence of science and technology—he thought he had to meet. Starting with diplomacy, he went on to law, science, religion, history, mechanics, only to end bewildered and tired. He needed to be assured of “unity in a universe,” but he found himself baffled by Roentgen rays, the Curies’ radium, and a world “not a unity but a multiple.” He thought of himself as a man of the eighteenth century, brother to Horace Walpole and Gibbon and still mindful of Pascal. Now he was set down in the nineteenth century without any hope of understanding its interests or coping with its multiplicity. He insisted on taking as “the fixed element of the equation” the unity of culture he divined at Chartres, but he was faced with a world in which force was exemplified not by the Virgin but by the dynamo he saw at the Paris Exposition of 1900. He was willing to construe the dynamo as “a symbol of infinity” and to adore its occult energy, but he demanded to know what its force was, and had to confess that he could discover no more relation between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. He could see “only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith.” In the end, he accepted anything, whether or not he understood it, so long as he felt it as force. As soon as he issued the Education he interpreted it as showing that education consisted in “following the intuitions of instinct.” A mother likes to nurse her own child, he cited as evidence.

These issues turn up again in the letters when Adams thinks he can share them with an amenable correspondent. Joanne Jacobson’s study of the letters starts from that emphasis; the correspondents, and how they impelled Adams to different themes and tones. The most important recipients of Adams’s letters were his brothers Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and Brooks Adams, and beyond these Gaskell, John Hay, Elizabeth Cameron and her daughter Martha, and Henry James. In Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams Jacobson shows that Adams used the letters to Charles to claim authority as a writer and “to negotiate parity” with his better established brother. In letters to Gaskell, Adams displayed mastery of “an elite rhetorical tradition,” which is presumably Jacobson’s phrase for upper-class nastiness. In his letters to Hay and James, Jacobson comments, “Adams made intimacy subversive,” using his style to erect a barrier against the world, behind which a few embattled spirits made a desperate little world of their own.

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.

  • Email
  • Print