The Unread Masterpiece

In a recent discussion of American literary classics in these pages, none of the writings of Henry Adams was mentioned. Probably no one missed them, or if anyone did, there might have been some sort of homage to The Education of Henry Adams. The guardians of the canon have often granted it a place. But they have seldom included the nine volumes with the awkward titles: History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (four volumes) and History of the United States of America During the Administrations of James Madison (five volumes). These might qualify as classics in the sense that they are more often praised than read. Garry Wills, however, bestows on them the accolade of “the nonfiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America.”

Those who have actually read the volumes, and I’m afraid we are a small group, may not challenge this judgment. What could be the rivals? Well, Thoreau’s Walden, of course. It is not likely to be displaced, but what else is there? I would add the Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, and Francis Parkman’s Half-Century of Conflict. Parkman is the most appropriate comparison. But for anyone with an ear for style, for words and ways of using them, Adams is unmatched. To the modern ear Parkman’s prose is so florid as to be embarrassing. The rolling periods and wordy pen-pictures that entranced his contemporaries no longer seem like high style, particularly in comparison with Adams. Adams’s wit, insight, and economy give his writing a resonance that reaches us as freshly today as when the words were written. He can capture a mood, a character, an idea, a confrontation, more effectively in a few phrases than most of us could do in volumes.

Wills invites anyone who doubts this to open a page anywhere and read it through. Here, for example, is a portion of Adams’s initial characterization of Thomas Jefferson, the flawed hero of both works:

His instincts led him to widen rather than to narrow the bounds of every intellectual exercise; and if vested with political authority, he could no more resist the temptation to stretch his powers than he could abstain from using his mind on any subject merely because he might be drawn upon ground supposed to be dangerous. He was a deist, believing that men could manage their own salvation without the help of a state church. Prone to innovation, he sometimes generalized without careful analysis. He was a theorist, prepared to risk the fate of mankind on the chance of reasoning far from certain in its details. His temperament was sunny and sanguine, and the atrabilious philosophy of New England was intolerable to him. He was curiously vulnerable, for he seldom wrote a page without exposing himself to attack. He was superficial in his knowledge, and a martyr to the disease of omniscience. Ridicule of his opinions and …

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Letters

Henry Adams’s Theme December 15, 2005