My studies are indeed all directed to one point, which is pointed out to me by the station that I hold.
—John Quincy Adams
Diary, June 30, 1796
The Education of Henry Adams has long been for me one of the great chronicles of society in our literature. In a book which is devoted to society in the imagination of some key American writers between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, and which will therefore deal largely with social novels, I can begin with the autobiography of an historian because this remarkable but singular book illustrates the dilemma in this period of a literary artist who was not a novelist.
Adams was an unusually subtle writer; among the American historians who still regarded themselves as writers, history as a branch of literature, he stands out as the last and the best. Although he was to offer himself as the prophet of a “scientific” approach to history, it will be seen that he wrote “science,” as he had always written history, from a confident and even arrogant literary instinct. He was an extraordinarily accomplished writer, but by the time he came to write Mont-Saint-Michel at the beginning of the twentieth century and The Education of Henry Adams in 1905, he was to show himself to the friends for whom he privately printed these books, as he had already shown himself in his letters, to be an original one. Both his much-vaunted science of history and his sense of historical truth were to become casualties of his literary virtuosity.
Still, of all the interesting American historians, Adams had the largest intellectual ambition and the surest literary gift. So it is natural to think of him as a great historian—and not merely because we recognize him as an artist. What we mean by a “great historian” is not the most immediately influential writer of history, not the most painstaking specialist in history, but the writer who, within the discipline of scholarship, has more than any other created our image of history, who in fact shapes our idea of history.1 The great historians and their books are closest to what “history” means to us. Since “history,” as an intellectual order in the mind, is essentially the creation of the historian, it follows that it is the great historians who have made “history.”
Adams has more than any other American historian made us see the transition to the modern age in his terms. Yet not many Americans have read. Adams’s most important professional effort in history, his nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-1891)2 , or such historical specialities as his Chapters of Erie (1871), Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (1876), Documents Relating to New England Federalism (1878), The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), or John Randolph (1882). Most of Adams’s works, including his two novels, Democracy (1879) and Esther (1884) are unread by even the literary public, and this is true of Adams’s Life of George Cabot Lodge (1911) and the essays toward a science of history, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, collected by his brother Brooks and published in 1919, the year after Henry’s death. When one notes that most of his works are not in print, how limited their circulation has always been, how restrictive Adams was in publishing even his novels (Democracy was published anonymously and Esther under a feminine pseudonym), that his two best-known works, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and the Education were first printed privately, that his letters (the gayest, most brilliant private chronicle of politics and manners ever composed by an American) are still read largely by scholars, the claim of his influence may seem strange and certainly the nature of it needs some explaining.
No one who has read the History, who admires it as a fully achieved construction of history in the grand manner, studded with brilliantly memorable portraits, graphically documented episodes of life in the great worlds of diplomacy and war, would claim that Adams’s importance as an image-maker of history is due wholly to the literary skill and the architectural grandeur of this enormous work. “History” must be felt by many people, not just admired by individual connoisseurs. History exerts its power as literature not because a book has literary distinction, but because the magisterial pattern it weaves is felt to shape us, to change us, to embody our idea and image of collective experience History then becomes a memory of the race.
What turns history into literature is a literary power so great that we come to think of it as historical truth. Even the historical work most famous for its fine writing, its conscious sense of style, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, has prevailed because the grandeur of its conception and the unbroken confidence behind it make Gibbon’s picture of the late classical world the supreme image we have of that subject. Yet if Gibbon’s work did not, on the whole, still stand up as historical fact, it would seem as unreliable as Carlyle’s French Revolution, which is “literature” now because it is not history. Carlyle’s book lives as historical play, but there have been too many other books on the Revolution, and more committed ones, for us to take this play for reality. The historians who are read over and again, because their books are the history we have, are those whom we believe even if we don’t like the form their argument takes. Our image of history will not always be obtained directly from their books; it can be passed from mind to mind in the excited discovery that this is how history “works,” how it moves. It is only the version of certain historians that has made history believable, that has given us a belief in “history.” This alone makes them artists in their line. They convince us not by single new facts, but by the dramatic new order they give to fact.
Henry Adams was such an artist, and the Education is a work of such high art, so accomplished, subtle and persuasive in its way, that it has taken under its wing, as it were, Adams’s other books; has gathered his life, his works, his celebrated family into a single document of the great transformation of American life after the Civil War which also offers itself as the single key to that transformation. Adams’s account of his “Education” has become the great table of the period. No other American historian has had such a triumph; few American intellectuals have left this much connection in our minds between a single personality and history Henry Adams, who despised the masses, despaired of progress, declared himself a failure and drew the last drop of bitterness from his experience, has turned out to be one of the ruling myth-makers of American history.
It was an extraordinary subtlety that set all this in motion, a prodigious ability to persuade—which is the way of the man behind the scenes, the courtier and wary observer who leaves court memoirs, inside stories of power. The Education of Henry Adams, though written as the history of a failure, of an “eighteenth-century” type born into the unfriendly and obscure world of modern American capitalism and technology, succeeds as a work of history because Adams can present the actors of history while turning his not being one of them into a philosopher’s disinterested virtue. Adams as a writer triumphed through his ability to suggest both the greatest possible intimacy with history and his own disdainful removal from it. His book, nominally written for his friends, is a patrician’s inside story of a dominant group, a leading class, an elite. Once you become aware of the book as a practiced monologue spoken to the few capable of understanding his nuances of feeling and references to fact of how crafty Adams is, in the driving spirit of his monologue, in editing the facts of his own life; of how much he leaves out, how much he glosses over, how archly, cynically, and self-hallucinatingly he retouches material reported very differently in his earlier accounts of the same material3—there is nothing strange in thinking of Adams as the master of his literary trade and the willing tool of his own imagination. In the full freedom of talk that no one can interrupt, he plays his life over, plays at facts, often arranges a whole period to a motif as if it were a piece of music—he seeks to create impressions, to prove a case by so thoroughly being one. Everything in the life of this man, his country, his ancestors, his generation, and his particular subject—the predicament of the human mind trying to calculate, but constantly being outdone by, the mighty new forces it has raised up—finally arranges itself as a pattern to produce a particular effect. Modern society is flying apart through its own madly self-multiplying energies. A world is going to hell in explanation of the worldly “failure” of this prophetic nature, Henry Adams.
Henry Adams had a literary imagination so insistent that it was to prove mystifying even to itself. But into whatever his mind moved, his purpose was always to write history. He was to create his most memorable effect in the Education by contrasting the Adamses as the fathers of American history with himself as the dilettante son, the spectator and speculator of history. But closeness to power is so fundamental to Adams’s self-confidence in writing history that he finally adopted intimacy with power as his literary strategy for writing anything. Of course he was less abashed by Washington than was Saint-Simon by Versailles; any American would have been. But Adams’s own literary mind so naturally sought unspoken authority from his own relationship to power that he was able to exploit this position as his best material.
Proust was to pay the highest compliment to a fellow artist by parodying the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Mémoires in his early work, and by turning this book into one of the “invisible presences” within A la recherche du temps perdu. Saint-Simon did not consciously see himself as an “artist”; he wrote in order to settle accounts, to satisfy some grudges, and above all to show that he knew what was going on. “Thus, apart from my other concerns, my curiosity was satisfied, and you must admit, whether you be somebody or nobody, that that is the only nourishment to be found at Courts, and that without it you would die of boredom.” Adams’s brilliantly gossipy letters show all these motives as his own (though he would not have admitted them, least of all in and for the Education, where his literary “doubles” are Augustine, Gibbon, and Rousseau).
But in the Education he consciously turned himself into a character, not Henry Adams but “Adams,” “a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes.” “Adams” became even more elusive a character than the author could suggest in the Preface, inviting analogies with Rousseau, which was characteristically written to give the possibly bewildered reader a literary tradition into which to put the book. But Adams, who so easily dominated the narrative of his life, could not dominate the pressures of his own imagination. He became, inextricably and winningly, first a witness to history, then a symbol of history, finally the embodiment of history trying to understand itself. So The Education of Henry Adams draws always on history in order to portray Henry Adams as a type of the human species in the nineteenth century, of Harvard College and New England, of shy young secretaries to American ambassadors, of sensitive intellectuals too fine for politics, of savants trying to understand the acceleration of history, of all intellectual exhaustion in the fin de siècle, of the best people in America and their startling failure. A “type bourgeois-bostonien” he listed himself among other representative men in a letter of 1903 to Henry James on his William Wetmore Story and His Friends. That was his story to make his work of art.
The pleasure of reading the Education is the pleasure of reading a work of literature made up, literally, from the historical facts. In it history—the world of record—is recast as individual experience and speculation. It is the pleasure of seeing history come alive, of seeing it move, of seeing behind “History” to the actions and actors of history. It is the pleasure of seeing revealed the humanity so often concealed in history: the humanity, as we like to think, that explains history: the humanity that at least embodies history and often is all that can believably document history.
To achieve this pleasure the reader must have enough interest in the past to enable him to enter the one setting after another that underlies the Education. Place names become the name along Adams’s journey through memory—Quincy, Boston, Washington, Harvard, Germany, England during the Civil War, Washington after it, the West, Chicago in 1893, Paris in 1900, the White House under Roosevelt, the State Department under John Hay, the twin houses across from the White House built for Hay and Adams by Richardson, the Bois de Boulogne in that moment when the book ends, one warm evening in early July, 1905, when Adams learned as he “was strolling down to dine under the trees at Armenonville” that Hay was dead. But what is far less common even among those who are interested enough in the past to “know” it, the reader of the Education must believe that history can be written because it composes a moral order, a definite progression, a Journey to the Holy City or a Decline and Fall.
To write history is to create a design. The most famous chapter of the Education, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” is an iconography of history in its two most starkly contrasted periods, the age of “unity” versus the age of mechanical energy or dispersion. Adams says here that
Historians undertake to arrange sequences—called stories, or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions…have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike…. Historians…had never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about. Adams, for one, had toiled in vain to find out what he meant. 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…but he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could not reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new.
Obviously “sequence” was of fundamental creative interest to Adams. He said of the scheme that joined Mont-Saint-Michel to the Education as twin parts of “an autobiography” that he was interested in the century of Amiens Cathedral and the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas “as the unit from which he might measure motion down to his own time, without assuming anything as true or untrue, except relation.” Although his observations on the nature of historical causation often show the free-wheeling irony that is so much part of his manner in the Education, his feeling for “sequence” is fundamental. There is a good deal of his life that he omits and contracts to keep the pattern. That is how the reader, in spite of Adams’s aloofness, gets so close to his mind. The enjoyment of history lies in our ability fully to take in a particular historical design. To experience it can do more for us than to agree with the argument that supports it. As Adams says, the argument may not really be known to the historian himself.
Adams was an extraordinary historian because he naturally and constantly saw all life moving into history. What he created in his books was, for him, his writing on the face of time, his effort to “fix for a familiar moment a necessary sequence of human movement.” History was moving into the totally unfamiliar. The stranger it became, the more anxiety it caused in Adams’s mind, and the more maledictions he poured out on it. But “sequence” was history in its most concrete—and esthetic—manifestation; it was the satisfaction beyond all others that the mind could obtain from the dizzying impact of unlimited force; sequence was history as form, and form alone was meaning.
Before Adams—the first self-declared “scientific” historian of his own country—so prominent and influential an historian of the United States as George Bancroft had described the evolution of this country from the age of discovery as fulfilling the will of a beneficent Providence. Writing in his first volume of the Plymouth Company Council Charter, Bancroft noted in his easy and confident way that “the results, which grew out of the concession of this charter, form a new proof, if any were wanting, of that mysterious connection of events, by which Providence leads to ends, that human councils had not conceived.” Although Providence in its particular concern for the United States is missing from Adams’s History, the most striking literary characteristic of this book is also its easiness, its intellectual address, that magisterial command over the materials that is associated with the historian’s natural confidence in himself as a judge of history. Adams said that he wrote his History to show that the peaceful and orderly evolution of society under favorable conditions was a subject for scientific history. At the end of his long work, discussing this task in his pivotal chapter, “American Character,” he said that.
The scientific interest of American history centered in national character, and in the workings of a society destined to become vast, in which individuals were important chiefly as types…. Should history ever become a true science, it must expect to establish its laws, not from the complicated story of rival European nationalities, but from the economical evolution of a great democracy…. North America was the most favorable field on the globe for the spread of a society so large, uniform and isolated as to answer the purposes of science. There a single homogeneous society could easily attain proportions of three or four hundred million persons, under conditions of undisturbed growth.
Although Adams distinguished “scientific” history from old-fashioned nationalistic history, he was closer to Bancroft in his positiveness about the nature of history than he was to the cautious professional historians of the future. Adams called himself a “scientific” historian because he lived in the age of Comte and Darwin, Tocqueville and Mill, and so was much influenced by new concepts. But in a sense he had taken all history for his province before he embarked on his History; while within this book his conception of science was one that, far from restraining him, encouraged his tendency to speculation. He was not in any sense a scientist, but he was a free-wheeling intellectual fascinated by “science” as a force working on the mind of man. Adams thought that his History was so different, because it was without heroes, that it could be considered objective. But it was not objective, for Adams was just as much concerned with political leaders as his predecessors had been. His own subtle purpose was to show how they all—with Jefferson, the victim of his illusions, at their head—were swept by a force, national destiny, that they could not control. It was not “science” but force that was already, in Adams’s History, the great motif and interest of his work. And with that particular touch of apocalypse that was to fascinate him in his future excursions up and down all human history, he was to say that
in American history the scientific interest was greater than the human. Elsewhere the student could study under better conditions the evolution of the individual, but nowhere could he study so well the evolution of a race. The interest of such a subject exceeded that of any other branch of science, for it brought mankind within sight of its own end.
Comparing American history to the Rhine, which starting from its glacier in Switzerland flows first among medieval towns and feudal ruins, then becomes a highway for modern industry, and at last arrives at a permanent equilibrium in the ocean, Adams said that with historic glaciers and medieval feudalism it had little to do, “but from the moment it came within sight of the ocean it acquired interest almost painful.”
The pressure of this interest is felt all through the History, for Adams wrote it as a prophet of the national power which Jefferson fostered against his will but which John Quincy Adams had dreamed of as the destined opportunity for a philosopher-president to direct from Washington. Henry Adams wrote his book not as a self-limiting “scientific” analyst of his subject but in the proud spirit of the intellectual, like Tocqueville in his Recollections of the 1848 Revolution and Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution, who has been excluded from office. Adams himself never held office, but he was writing for his grandfather and great-grandfather, both of whom had been President of the United States, both of whom had been vehement in their devotion to principles, and both of whom had left the White House, after one term, as victims of what they considered the wickedness of popular opinion.
Henry Adams, who tacitly described himself in the great closing chapters of his History as a detached student of process, tracing the evolution of American history from a rivulet to the ocean, was no spectator. He satisfied his dominating instinct for form, his need to show himself in perfect control of his material, by retracing Jefferson’s helpless entanglement in Napoleon’s struggle with England from an administrative point of view, as only the privileged man behind the scenes could have done, with full access to the diplomatic files. The theme of Adams’s History is the submission of principle to power. In everything that Adams wrote, the underlying theme is in fact the ineluctability of power.4 He is first the student and then the prophet of power—the national power, the power of concentrated force, the power exerted by certain powerful minds or leading political personalities. Of course he believed, as every reader of the Education knows, that American politicians were too naïve to understand the power in their hands, that the scientists were too limited to know what they had wrought, that the masses were too far from the head of the procession to know what was going on. Only the historian, with the whole scale of history open to his mind, could do justice to the unmeasured, growing, gradually overwhelming concentration of power in modern times, above all in America, the “modern” country. Only the historian kept all the lines of history clear, could see the full dimensions of this historic development. In the full consciousness of so much growth and change, the historian alone was equal to history. The historian’s was the only instinct equal to man’s stupefying extensions of himself in each generation. On April 11, 1862, writing from London to his brother Charles Francis Adams in the field, Henry noted the end of England’s wooden Navy and said of the English—
To me, they seemed to be bewildered by all this. I don’t think as yet they have dared look their position in the face. People begin to talk vaguely about the end of war and eternal peace, just as though human nature was changed by the fact that Great Britain’s sea power is knocked in the head. But for my private part, I think I see a thing or two…our good country the United States is left to a career that is positively unlimited except by the powers of the imagination….
You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world. Not only shall we be able to cruise in space, but I see no reason why some future generation shouldn’t walk off like a beetle with the world on its back, or give it another rotary motion so that every zone should receive in turn its due portion of heat and light….
Adams was never to worry too much over the social effects of what his intuition discerned. He described Mill and Tocqueville as his models, but unlike Mill he was not an intellectual reformer and he did not share Tocqueville’s profound sense of political responsibility for the future. He admired Marx (at least he liked to cite Marx to his friends, perhaps as a provocation to the many millionaires among them), but he had none of Marx’s passionate insistence on changing history, society, the individual, the “world.” What interested Adams was his own personal consciousness of history—and this consciousness was as elastic in its judgment of individuals, as undependable in its sympathy, as his extraordinary literary dexterity would make it.
But beyond this personal absorption in history, Adams did feel, and was sometimes overwhelmed by, an intellectual loyalty to the Adams family which was to be the strongest tradition in his life. This was rooted in the theme of the intellectual statesman as failure in office but eventual prophet of the whole political mission in America. He always remembered the eighteenth-century philosopher-president whose intellectual capacities brought him to office but whose disinterestedness, combined with the touchiness that was also a family trait, makes him fall to popular revolutions—John Adams in 1800 to Jefferson, John Quincy Adams in 1824 to Andrew Jackson. Everything that Henry wrote about John Quincy Adams shows a harshly critical view of the old man’s rigidity of character, of the Adams character in general, famous for its bleakness and its inability to meet other people half-way. Henry indeed combined a Puritan distrust of human nature in general with a specific mistrust of his own Adams character—this surely played some role in the tragedy of his marriage, if only in his exaggeration of his own responsibility.
Indeed, one can say of Henry that he felt himself to have the double defect of being both an Adams and an artist. Yet at the same time, like all the Adamses, Henry regarded the emotional limitations of the Adamses as the tragedy of leadership, a consequence of the specialization in political imagination that had lifted a humble cordwainer’s descendants, for four solid generations, to the highest national influence. Like all the Adamses, Henry fundamentally thought of politics as leadership; he identified himself with the governors, the minds at the center. It was from this central point that his books took their design; it was to this center that his fascination with power always returned.
But in his history of himself this instinct for design, for the different shapes that power can assume, begins on an ironic celebration of the Adams family tradition to which Henry felt himself inadequate. The most famous theme of the Education is that those who should lead by force of intellect, culture, and tradition are no longer in charge. But before he comes to this, Adams makes it clear that the exalted offices identified with the family were too much for him, a born artist in his response to color, architecture, and music, in his inordinate emotion—an undersized sensitif unable to compete in the coming race of the century.
Henry Adams’s famous sense of “failure” began not in 1868, when he sat in the Senate gallery and heard the moneyed names in Grant’s cabinet; it began in the fact that starting with John Quincy Adams, the Adamses had a strong sense of failure. They were so proud that they could never live up to their own legend, and they were such intellectuals as to be always frustrated and maddened by ordinary political reality. Henry’s youngest brother, Brooks, was to say of their grandfather that he was disappointed because he was not supernatural. Henry had no such hopes. Long before he came to feel himself an eighteenth-century man forced to contend with a twentieth-century world, he knew himself to be a lover of summer in a world of winter, a young man dominated by too many memorials to old men, a possible stray bent to the service and history of the Adamses. This was a family so conscious of itself that the self-mortification necessary to Puritan pride and the stiffness of a New England temperament that was pride strengthened Henry’s conviction that he could not live up to their name.
Henry Adams suffered, as it were, only on the heights, in grand style, in the grandest possible rooms, from his great library in Washington to his white and gold living room at the Continentale in Paris. But we cannot doubt that he suffered the penalties of what he felt to be the family grandeur. The legend of impossibly high beginnings is in the famous opening of the Education—“Had he been born in Jerusalem 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….”
This is the myth of the ruling elite, the intellectual priesthood, which is so essential to the Education. Great expectations are associated with a son of the New England Temple. From the moment we open the book and take in those wryly boastful first lines, we are expected to understand that a new baby boy in the Adams family stood out like a prince. We have been brought inside the web of history as the history of its leaders; we have been introduced to one of the great intellectual families that have been the aristocracy of this country.5 Even the “Editor’s Preface” for the first public edition in 1918, artfully written by Adams himself to be signed by his ex-student and halberd bearer, Henry Cabot Lodge, prepares us for the grand geste associated with a book first privately printed in 1907 to the number of one hundred copies, “and sent to the persons interested, for their assent, correction, or suggestion.” Under the signature of Henry Cabot Lodge, Adams speaks to us from a preface dated six months after Adams’s death—so great is the hold he wants to keep on the reader, so calculated is the effect he prepares. Historical fatality is one effect he wants—a decline and fall, a twilight of the gods—and he prepares for it like a storyteller watching the faces of his listeners. Only in the relaxed dogmatism of private conversation would so carefully trained a mind say: “Any schoolboy would see that man as a force must be measured by motion from a fixed point,” then swing from one century to another—from one millennium to another!—“without assuming anything as true or untrue, except relation.”
But this concern for effect on a few immediate listeners is the psychological driving power of the Education. During his life Henry Adams did not have a large audience and could not have wanted one. But he turned this lack—even the fact that he paid Scribner’s to publish his great History—into a way of imposing himself on his own distinguished circle, dominating this “inside ring”6 by the speculative freedom of his talk as he did the adoring young ladies he called his “nieces.”
Adams liked to work behind the scenes, from the wings, to make his effect, often devastatingly personal, with the greatest possible show of indirection and impersonality. Surely he valued history, as he did the anonymous documentary article in a magazine, for all the opportunities it gave him to express his complication of intellectual and personal passions with the authority of scholarly objectivity. He always knew how to retain his “position,” his special social edge, his aura of learning. His first novel, Democracy (1880) he published anonymously; his second, Esther (1884), under a feminine pseudonym in order to mislead the public as much as possible (he even encouraged rumors that Esther had been written by John Hay or Clarence King). Both are full of thinly disguised portraits of his friends and other notables of the day. Adams probably valued the effect of these novels on his own group more than he did creating the slightest stir as a novelist. Neither as a writer nor as a political thinker was Adams ever concerned with the public; he liked being anonymous and to refuse all honors for the power refusal gave him. But in everything that Adams wrote—history, biography, fiction, autobiography, letters—he showed an extraordinary intuition for the effect that a particular form can produce.
In that sense all his writings are “political”—they are meant to influence. But nowhere else in his writings is his writing to an immediate audience so plain as it is in the Education. He exploited the slipperiness of autobiography to the full. But it was also, for him, a way of making history by writing it. Probably one of the greatest motives behind the Education is the need to confess, but when Adams got down to it he had less to say about his dead wife than he did about history as vertiginous change. He fulfilled this personal passion and so imposed his images of history on the next generation.
The pious journals kept by Adams’s Puritan ancestors were account books of the soul rendered up to an all-seeing God. Even the great diary of grandfather John Quincy Adams, which was kept for over sixty-five years and is probably the longest public record ever kept by a single man, was written for the eye of God and of posterity as a vindication of self. The old man has many faults to complain of in himself, but his conscience is the only courtroom that can impress him, and this conscience is his proof that God lives and is daily preoccupied with the virtues and faults of John Quincy Adams. So one of the most famous political personalities in the Western world, who knew all the rest, who could describe in his daily record the most complex negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent, the conversations with Alexander I as they paced along the Neva, who was in Russia when Napoleon invaded, who was a minister to many European countries, a United States Senator, Secretary of State, President of the United States, and finally a Congressman fighting the attempt of Southerners to gag all discussion of slavery in the House—this man reported to an Invisible Court, as it were.
It is the appeal to some secret authority or tribunal that gives such a mysterious imperative to the great diaries, confessions, autobiographies of one’s education sentimentale (and even Henry Adams pronounced no education more significant than that). But now the inner group to whom Henry Adams is reciting all that he is willing to tell of his education has replaced the good opinion of the public, which Adams never solicited, and of his grandfather’s God, who has entirely lost personality and no longer addresses the creation in human words. Adams’s book reveals in the self-checking balance of his sentences his need to polish up every experience—to be always in control, amused and detached, to make a history which would smooth out all the silent disorder of one’s real life.
This powerful compulsion is not merely to show order in one’s life but to show one’s life as order. In the setting of Adams’s larger compulsion to show American history as the decline and fall of his class, the patricians made so by their intellectual dedication, we can see why, by the time we get to the exciting but pretentious latter chapters of the book on the future of history, Adams had to put this complicated drama of the self and history into the smoothly impersonal rhetoric of an all-encompassing determinism. The historian’s compulsion “to arrange sequences, called stories or histories”—his tendency to “assume in silence a relation of cause and effect” has become the servant of the most concentrated historical imagination this country has produced. The subject was literally overwhelming—history rushing to its end as the historian wearily descends to his. The egotism of this is monumental, historic, creative. Only an American could have felt it. Unlike Oswald Spengler and similar catastrophists, Adams could identify himself with what was noblest and grandest in his national history. It was the proprietary attitude he took to American history (with some reason) that made his vision so intense and his ideas so pertinent. To the great European writers “history” began so far back that any intervention in it was a matter of stepping right into the middle of things. In the nineteenth century any American writer with a comprehensive imagination, but especially an Adams, could show where history began and who made it. A European could naturally be more diffident about asking: “Was Europe A Success?” A European was likely to see the tragedy of history not as violated idealism, but as the cycle of aimless recurrence that is typified by so many human sacrifices—a subject that does not often break through Henry Adams’s Brahmin chill. Adams was so bitterly conscious of what the political will in America had aimed at, where it had failed, that he silently buttressed his vision by his personal tragedy. “Woman” finally stood for “force”—but so, finally, did everything else. Without the Puritan God but all too conscious of his own mistrustful character. Adams had somehow come back to the belief—for him irrational—that a man’s private character is somehow betrayed by his good or bad fortune in life. Everything for him had become part of history and showed its significance.
(This is the first part of a two-part essay.)
October 23, 1969
In his biography of Henry James, Leon Edel notes that after some English readers complained of James’s criticizing the European nobility, James “had the sense at last of his own power, of the writer whose image of society becomes the mirror in which society looks at itself.” ↩
The complete work was last reprinted in 1930. ↩
As in his letters about the Civil War. ↩
Marian Adams’s death by her own hand was to become the supreme instance in his life of the power that can be exerted by a personal compulsion. She bowed under this yoke and he bowed to the force of her necessity. For Adams sex was indeed to become “the sacred fount,” the mysterious source of energy. Adams was to write about Marian as the heroine of Esther, as the all-disposing Virgin in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, but above all as “Woman,” which may be why the mysterious hooded figure he had Saint-Gaudens design over Marian’s tomb (it was also to be his), inscrutably presiding over death, is so much more a female figure than a male one. ↩
Francis Galton was to cite the Adamses as a prime example in his Hereditary Genius (1869). ↩
Adams as a professor at Harvard had a favored position as one of the “inside ring,” as he called it. Harold Cater, ed., Henry Adams and His Friends (1947, lxvii). ↩