Henry Adams
Henry Adams; drawing by David Levine

This is the third and concluding volume of Ernest Samuels’ exemplary biography, which so far as any real information is concerned is the only biography we have of Henry Adams—all other books on him are commentary. Although Professor Samuels’ book is always penetrating and shrewd on Adams’s writings, his concern has been to show them emerging out of the drama of his life. Adams’s last twenty-eight years—the period of convulsive world travels after the suicide of his wife, the period of his greatest letters, of Mont St.-Michel and Chartres, The Education of Henry Adams, of his isolated and eccentric gestures at a “scientific” theory of history—are for the first time recounted in detail, with the odd result that one knows more about Henry Adams’s life than ever before—one at last knows something—and finds his mind more elusive than ever.

Professor Samuels is unlike the eagerly interpretative literary critics who have written on Adams as if they have been spellbound by his self-projecting and tendentious effort to wind history up, to bind all cultures up, to furnish a single image of “failure” or “entropy” or “degradation” that would package up Henry Adams for the credulous reader of literary criticism. Professor Samuels is first of all a biographer, and so detached, scholarly, patient, that his trilogy makes a fascinating contrast with Leon Edel’s three volumes on Henry James—which are full of psychoanalytical empathy with the subject and seek to reconstitute, with all loving art, James’s sensibility. Professor Samuels is always polite to Adams, but strikingly impersonal; he lets go a little, as who can help it, in writing about that most passionate of all Bostonians, when he engages the subtleties of Mont St.-Michel and Chartres. By contrast with those critics and interpreters of Adams who flock to him because they, too, believe that History has a single secret and that Adams may actually have known what it was, Professor Samuels has found his base in the family papers and has been quietly writing up the life, period by period, journey by journey, book by book. He will not “explain” Adams, for he is working in too close detail.

Consider how many pages of theory a less modest biographer might have made of the suicide of Adams’s wife, of the cult of woman in Adams’s most famous books, of his steady but apparently wistful intimacy with Elizabeth Cameron, the beautiful and accomplished young wife of the Pennsylvania senator and political boss; of his passion for his friends and his underhand malice toward them. The more one studies his life and works, the more deliberately complex his mind seems to us, and the more difficult it is to decide what the complexity is for. By contrast, Professor Samuels’ scrupulously factual narrative has the effect of breaking up the great spectrum of Adams’s historical imagination into separate chapters of his life. After all the brilliant grapplings with Adams’s thought written under the inspiration of Adams’s own grapplings with, literally, the universe-at-large, the fantastic inner world of this most gifted of modern American clercs becomes the data of a scholarly biography. And about time. Yet the student of Adams, the eager admirer who tends most often these days to be a literary man, who has so often been dazed but grateful to be with Adams in Samoa, Washington, Chartres, who has followed him from John Randolph of Virginia to Peter Abelard and forward again to Lord Kelvin, Langley, Willard Gibbs, and all prophecies of American-Soviet-Chinese hegemony, suddenly finds himself thinking that it is no wonder that Adams wrote so much history himself. In the perspective of history, the history of Henry Adams by other people, he certainly looks different from the highly arranged figure he presented to the world in his books. In Professor Samuels’ account, the “demon of unity” that possessed Adams is missing. Facts take over. The record takes over.

Yet if the effect of Professor Samuels’ three volumes is to break Adams up into his many interests, the curiosity behind these many interests is unmistakably about power. Adams wrote about himself as a “failure” because, as a natural claimant to the kind of power that had been exercised by his family, he had been overruled by self-made capitalists like Rockefeller, Hill, Carnegie, exactly his generation, who took economic control of American society starting with Grant’s administration. Although Justice Holmes, who properly appreciated Adams’s gifts but resented his poses, believed that Adams wanted office offered him on “a silver platter,” Adams knew that he was too possessed an intellectual to be able to manage power. And it is clear from Professor Samuels’ record that Adams was too comfortable on his annual private income of fifty to sixty thousand dollars, too “sensitive” and self-concerned, to be interested, even for political purposes, in the social grievances of people outside his own class. One reason Adams despised his old friend Theodore Roosevelt in the Presidency is that he could not abide Roosevelt’s responsiveness to public opinion.


The fact is that Adams was too much interested in power, from a theoretical and philosophical point of view, to seek and to hold power in the hugger-mugger of American politics. To that extent Adams’s fascination with power is of the armchair kind that prophetic and revolutionary intellectuals share and can recognize as the ultimate distinction in a figure like himself. With the increasing centralization of society, the social critics of the nineteenth century became, in their own books, its deal administrators. The more one takes in the extent and intensity of Adams’s learning, the more one realizes that in the shadow cabinet of his study, with his cronies the Secretary of State and the British Ambassador and on occasion even the President of the United States, whose opinions he valued less than those of the head of the Smithsonian Institution, this “stable-companion” to statesmen in Lafayette Square just across from the White House, this grandson of one president, great-grandson of another, son of and secretary to our Civil War minister to England, this most expert of historians on American history from the presidential point of view, was indefatigably concerned with the central issue of power.

Power, it is clear, more from the point of a view of a Balzacian “secretary of society” than from that of a Thiers, more in the spirit of a Comte scientifically calculating the resources of society than in that of a Marx seeking to inflame the working class into seizing power—but power nevertheless it was that fascinated Henry Adams, power as it appears to the intellect, if not to the intellectual will interested in taking power. How else is one to understand this man who took instant and expert scholarly inventory of every situation he came into? He was the historian of dynastic rivalries in Tahiti, a physical anthropologist patiently measuring the natives in Samoa, an expert on stocks and bonds who had documented the Wall Street raids in the Seventies and who saved the Adams family investments in the panic of 1893, a knowledgeable critic of Lyell and Darwin, a pioneer in the scientific study of medieval law, an extraordinarily sensitive connoisseur of Gothic architecture, a supporter of Henri Hubert’s pioneer studies of Cro-Magnon cave drawings in the Dordogne region, a born geopolitician with an enormous prophetic instinct about the future relations of Germany with Europe and of Russia with America and China and in his last years, though often pretionary theorists, from the encyclopediasts to Marx and Trotsky. With all such as the last chapters of the Education, “The Rule of Phase Applied to History,” A Letter to American Teachers of History, nevertheless, a staggering guesser at the possibilities of technical power in the single field that it has become in our generation. Typically, in Mont St.-Michel and Chartres he emphasized the Virgin as a figure and giver of power.

Such a range of interests used history as a single world interest, makes history an object to be recreated by the intellect, is of the kind we identify not with the savant but with the revolutionary theorists, from the encyclopediasts to Marx and Trotsky. With all such restless and speculative intellectuals, their reach is more important to them than their grasp, for it is the tendentious interest behind their guesswork and eager theorizing that frees them from the normal responsibilities of scholarship. They seek to describe the nature of “History” as if it could have only the single interest that it possesses for the prophetic intellect. Adams’s knowledge of history contrasts very sharply with his indifference to the victims of history; he always writes from the point of view of the president, the administrator, the intelligence that advises power even if it cannot hold it.

This dominating sense of itself in power was an Adams family trait—it can be seen at its clearest in the legal mind of John Adams, at its most exalted and self-dramatizing in John Quincy Adams, and is painfully evident in the often hysterical mind of Henry’s brother Brooks, who screamed “Kill Wilson!” in 1917 because the President was not using his war power despotically enough. But it has to be said that despite his obsession with the power he associated with his family, with the medieval church, with the adoration of the Virgin, with the new explosive forces in technology, with the writing of history itself—Henry Adams lacked some prime sense of himself as a power. After his wife’s suicide in 1885, he certainly tended to think of power too apocalyptically and catastrophically to be serious about more immediate examples of power. Just as the esthetic mind in our time seems to oscillate between psychological self-pumpings of “creativity” and visions of cosmic disaster that render it curiously frivolous, the mere spectator of the historical tragedy impelled by hateful science and technical progress, so in Henry Adams the manifold possibilities of power emerged finally as data to his sensibility. The fact is that Adams imagined his own relation to power only as a beholder, as an ironist of the human comedy and as a “stable-companion” to his powerful friends. Although he knew a very great deal about history, “History” itself became his private plaything, an esthetic object. His friends wielded such immense power that it made him feel “dazed and at times almost hysterical,” but he himself said of the whole power structure: “I incline to let the machine smash…” Even as conversation, this was pointless; Adams’s last letters and some of his “scientific” obiter dicta are inconsequent in the same way, but the point about them, surely, is that they were written as brilliant chatter and were meant to show Adams himself. History had become an old cynic’s conversation, not something he hoped in the slightest to act on. Although he was the intimate friend of the Secretary of State in the key period of conscious American grandeur after the Spanish-American war, and seems to have considered himself John Hay’s brain trust it is impossible to make out any coherent policy from Adams’s patronizing thoughts to Hay on foreign policy. Endlessly writing letters—and these were magnificent, his most spontaneous and freest literary works—endlessly describing people in detail and summing up the administrative scene in his grand literary-political-historical style, he was satisfied to enjoy as a courtier of genius, a writer in the great tradition of Saint-Simon, Madame de Sévigné, Horace Walpole, what another man might have turned to political use. But Adams did not want to help run the machine, he wanted to describe it, to “calculate” its future on his innocent graphs; he wanted to contemplate power, to possess it esthetically in the full-thronging sensibility of his mind. In one of his greatest metaphors, man’s mind like a meteor rushed out in farthest space; and in his study in Lafayette Square, little Henry Adams, disillusioned, poisonous, yet visionary Henry Adams, dreamed of its trajectory in words that no one in our day has duplicated for the cosmic space we now inhabit.


The impressionist of power, like the impressionist in art, is easy enough to locate as a personality, as a single figure relating himself to the work of art. But the work of the impressionist, though it may excite us by its boundless suggestiveness, is ultimately baffling because it has been created only to satisfy some personal whim of imagination. If one could ever assemble from Adams’s letters and pronouncements on what he took to be the age of catastrophe some coherent philosophy even on world affairs, he would seem less elusive and wilful; for all his impeccable instinct as a writer, he is, as an artist, a most baffling figure, and obviously meant to be one. From the broken spectrum created by Professor Samuels’ record-in-detail, Adams emerges as a man having as many unconnected thoughts about history as the most brilliant art critic would have about painting if he spent all his days looking at pictures and never painted one. Is it possible that the clue to Adams is that sketchiness of mind which we find in Emerson and so many New England writers who trusted to the absolute without having a name or even much meaning for it, so that they were always making marginal comments on the great faiths of the past? What William James, with his usual insight, most admired in Mont St.-Michel and Chartres—“a frolic power unusual to historic literature,” may be Adams’s final claim to greatness. He posed as a metaphysician to the future, a Jonathan Edwards tracing out the effects of determinism in the nuclear age. But he is read, he will probably survive, as an impressionist and critic of genius, important to us not because he occasionally guessed the future, but because he wrote with such free-ranging wit about all the forms of the past.

This Issue

January 14, 1965