“Adams, you reason too much!” his friend John LaFarge the painter said to him. Mind, restlessly devouring, unsatisfiable mind, mind helplessly descending through the cosmos in search of itself, “the man-meteor,” was to become his obsession. To “reason” up and down the stream of time, and in his many travels the face of the globe, was to become Henry Adams’s assertion in the face of what he saw everywhere as “chaos”; “reason” was to become his style in life. But how should he not reason, and reason inextricably, like all those Protestant heroes of thought in the nineteenth century condemned in a faithless world to argue themselves into some historical certitude? How should he not reason when Lyell and Darwin, Marx and Comte, held out to his eager mind a law of development that always stopped short of his own experience, so that one had to reason beyond all the known confines of history? How should he not continue to reason from history and to make history seem reasonable even in its “chaos” when the compulsion to reason from sequence was in his pride as an Adams, in his training as an historian, in his cautions as a millionaire, in his physical timidities as an undersized man, in his loneliness and guilt as a husband?
What is characteristic is that all these urges and torments were invariably translated into history as law. Marian Adams died in 1885. For thirty years after, until he positively gloated in Wilson’s declaration of war as confirmation of all his predictions of a world made a single event,1 Adams sought the secret, the almost demonic unity of history that he was determined would not escape him who had so long tired of mere historical actors. History was moving too fast to reveal itself to its leaders, but would not refuse its subtleties to him. The law that he had sought in the money markets, in the materialistic physics so soon to dissolve after Adams’s death, made up the web in his tortured mind and unlimited sense of “acceleration,” from which he did not wish to flee. Nemesis would justify him.
No wonder that in this typically modern absence of objective certitude, riddled with desperate guesses which only his own science of history could confirm, haunted by the “absurdity” of his own speculations, Adams, writing the Education in his late sixties, made of the dilemmas of the historian the new content of history itself. But before he came openly to this point he had found, in the symbolic decline of his family and of his class, material for a presiding character, “Adams,” truly a third person, as if this narrative device could found literature on the dilemmas of the historian himself.
Never before had an American historian loomed so large in his own picture of history. Never before had an American historian been so much the subject of history. Adams portrays himself repeatedly returning to the steps of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli in Rome, next to the Capitol, where in October 1764 the idea of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire first occurred to Edward Gibbon. The historian has become a character in history. Henry James, in his 1884 essay on “The Art of Fiction,” had described the novelist as succeeding to the “sacred office” of the historian. But Adams felt that as an artist he was still in command of the old art, which was history.
In the United States intellectual authority was identified with the keeping of political tradition; the historian was the surrogate for the past. The great American historians had often enough been Boston aristocrats and men of wealth; they had typically represented the country as diplomats and had even, with George Bancroft, served in the Cabinet; they were part of the history they lived to write, men of the world—not the beggarly romancers and “isolatoes” that Poe and Melville had been. Even the new realistic novelists, like the Henry James whom his friend Henry Adams condescended to, seemed to Adams to be setting the scene and arranging their effect with the studied effort of people who had trained themselves to look at American society through the eyes of the great European novelists of manners.
In this generation of pioneer novelists of society—James, Howells, Mark Twain—Adams felt that he knew society better than any of them, had a more comprehensive intelligence, and in the tradition of American literature, was no less an artist. In a letter to John Hay, he once wrote that “Howells cannot deal with gentlemen or ladies; he always slips up. James knows almost nothing of women but the mere outside; he never had a wife.”
Adams had grown up in one of the most distinguished of American families, if not positively the most distinguished; his grandfather and greatgrandfather had both been Presidents of the United States; before office, in office, and out of office both had been intellectual sages of the young republic; he had grown up in a family noted for its diplomats, its scholars, its literary distinction, its political firmness, its knowledge of Europe, and for the maddening but impressive tendency of Adamses to identify themselves with absolute political virtue. Henry Adams had grown up in the midst of the Free Soil Party in Massachusetts. He had been at Harvard when it was still a college, he had known Germany as a student, he had thoroughly studied England during the Civil War as secretary to his father the American minister; he had documented the rapacities of Wall Street in the Gilded Age; he had virtually founded the modern school of history at Harvard; he had written what was undoubtedly the most distinguished work of history by any living American. In Washington, where he lived right across from the White House in a magnificent house built by his classmate H. H. Richardson, he provided with his clever wife Marian the center of the most brilliant society in Washington, was the closest friend of the Secretary of State, and called himself a “stable companion to statesmen.” He was as rich as he was cultivated, he was as worldly and well-traveled, ripely urbane and polished, as he was intellectually independent.
If any writer in America knew “society” to its fingertips, knew it for its manners and vanities, knew it as a spectacle, knew it as so many American novelists merely hoped to know it, it was Henry Adams, who had been with Charles Sumner in anti-slavery meetings and Swinburne in English country houses, who had been at Stafford House in London when “Garibaldi, in his gray capote over his red shirt, received all London, and three duchesses literally worshipped at his feet,” and had watched his father, the American minister, stand up to arrogant British enemies of the Union cause like Gladstone and Lord John Russell.
More than any American social novelist of his generation or later, more than James, and even more than the rich and cosmopolitan Edith Wharton, Adams was intimate with the ripe and distinguished social world on both sides of the Atlantic that was close to the centers of power. He knew all these prime observation posts, from Mount Vernon Street in Boston to American embassies, from country houses in Yorkshire to the special enclaves of millionaire Senators. As only an American could, he enjoyed the friendship of figures in the English governing classes who couldn’t abide each other. Whatever the personal confidences he enjoyed, his special instinct for history as diplomatic intelligence—negotiations between the highest—he insinuated being in the know, the authority of the insider that molds every line in the Education. In style and manner it is more an English book than an American one. To anyone who has observed the place that intellectuals hold in the English Establishment, and how attentive they are to the grace that can come with power, the Education is a lasting reminder of how little the style of this elite has changed among itself.
Perhaps it is the English surface of the Education that explains why the book has, in America, received comparatively little notice as a literary account of society. The tone is altogether too casual (even if the prose is not), too easy in its mock diffidence, for us to recognize what a very large claim Adams is making to the knowledge of society. By writing in so allusive a tone, even when he is alluding to his own failure, writing to so restricted a circle as his selected hundred readers, he is subtly advancing his own importance. He disparages the intellectual leaders of New England as a type, Harvard as a place of learning, Washington as a capital. Above all he disparages himself. His lack of knowledge is much insisted on throughout—he was a conventional student and a “failure” as a professor; he failed to appreciate music, he failed to assimilate German civil law, he failed to master the mathematics necessary to an educated man in his generation. How gleefully Adams ticks off his failures. But the pride is unmistakable; no one else knew enough to recognize the insufficiency of his education. No one else was in a position to fail so grandly, to fail so much expectation, to fail in so many distinguished fields and important places.
Adams was, in fact, at the center of the ruling American elite. Even during the Gilded Age, when the Adamses lost so much influence even in their native Quincy that Henry’s oldest brother, John Quincy, ran for governor of Massachusetts as a Democrat, Henry was the protégé of Hayes’s Secretary of State, wrote a famous exposé of corrupt railroad financing, was a dominating figure at Harvard, and was soon to become an important figure behind the Washington scene, while his brother Charles Francis, the hearty elder brother who distinguished himself in the Civil War and later mastered the science of railroading, became head of the Union Pacific.
But this Establishment is still the symbol of disinterested professional intelligence, scholarship, and tradition in a commercial society; it embodies a standard even if it does not rule as a power. Henry Adams could afford to look down on Presidents, on all the Presidents he had a chance to observe from Zachary Taylor to Theodore Roosevelt; in his family alone, as he felt, had the peculiar moral responsibility attached to the presidency been used as a form of intellectual power and as an expression of intellectual virtue. All other Presidents under his eye, he manages to suggest, were biological sports. Look attentively at their portraits in the Education, and you will see that under Adams’s always caustic eye and withering touch, each is shown in the White House as awkward, too small for the power that he directs and is unaccountably in charge of.2 Zachary Taylor he remembers receiving callers as simply as if he were “in the paddock”; Lincoln at his inaugural ball is “a long, awkward figure…evidently worried by kid gloves”; Grant is the unattractive, unpromising American of the “inarticulate” classes—so awkward that although his force as a general is admitted, this force is somehow mere automatic instinct, a fact in biology Even if we did not know from Adams’s letters that he regarded Theodore Roosevelt in office as a maniac, the stealthy references in the Education would be enough to tell us that he saw T. R. as de trop even at his own table in the White House.
By contrast, however, Charles Francis Adams, Henry’s father, was a man whose mind was “singularly in balance.” The besetting quality of the American male was a lack of fine consciousness, of virtually all intellectual consciousness—a type sodden with whiskey and work, “his two stimulants.” But so marked was the Adams quality that the Education confers it on the brothers-in-law of Charles Francis Adams, Edward Everett and Dr. Nathaniel Frothingham; on Charles Francis Adams’s associates in the Free Soil Party, Dr. John G. Palfrey, Richard Henry Dana, and Charles Sumner; on Henry’s cronies in England, Charles Milnes Gaskell and Francis Palgrave; on the particular Adams friends at home, John Hay and Clarence King; even on the right financier, like William C. Whitney, and the right editor, like Whitelaw Reid.
In his Preface to a new edition of the Education, Denis Brogan points out that Adams’s friend Richard Monckton Milnes, Lord Houghton, who is an important presence in the book, possessed the greatest pornographic library of modern times, and says that “it is impossible to believe that Adams knew nothing of this side of Lord Houghton or that it excited no curiosity in him.” But whether he knew of the collection that first introduced Swinburne to the Marquis de Sade, it is a point of Adams’s social chronicle that all his friends and associates are described as the friends of his ideas—lonely spars and relics of the intellectual Establishment in a world overrun by bankers and Jews.
It is not from the Education that you learn that his much-lamented friend Clarence King, the brilliant geologist, was married to a Negro woman; that as their friend, the British diplomat Cecil Spring-Rice, pointed out, neither Hay nor Adams, so deeply concerned with politics, bothered to retain his legal residence in a state to which he could go home to vote. King’s failure to exploit his discovery of valuable mining properties is laid entirely to his easy freedom in an age of grasping Yahoos; John Hay, Secretary of State to both McKinley and Roosevelt, is somehow too fine for his job. Adams, who typically scored Harvard College for not telling him about Das Kapital (published nine years after his graduation), managed even in this to suggest that Karl Marx was distinguished rather than dangerous. So he managed to make his classmate, the gifted architect H. H. Richardson, and his rather more conventional friend, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, equally interesting as members of the inner circle—Richardson designed his Washington house and Saint-Gaudens the memorial to his wife in Rock Creek Park.
Yet it is exactly this passion of friendship, this quality of intellectual sympathy and protection attached to his relatives, associates, and friends, this conscious vantage point from which the elect judge the world, that gives the Education is brilliance. As for the many he just as brilliantly ignores, it is no doubt in the American disposition—it was certainly in Adams’s—to judge the world so severely. Adams cannot forgive the great new bustling, vulgar American world for the loss of his “eighteenth-century” world. The subtle bitterness of the Education—there he puts everything more ironically than in the often histrionic rages of his personal letters—can be construed as another of those self-dramatizations by which Adams’s generation condemned history at large for the loss of its innocent hopefulness.
Despite the urbane and even silky surface of the Education, no social chronicle could be more obviously lacking in exactly that sense of human limitation which forms, and is, the charm of character in novels of manners. No one in the Education, least of all Henry Adams, is described for himself alone, as in a novel; each one is carried along by the historical process—of which Adams feels himself to be both the particular victim and the expert observer. We miss the element of play which is behind all invented situations, that delight in character and action as pure demonstration; we miss the inassimilable human fact; we miss that sense of comedy which is unpanicked by candid weakness and open vice.
Adams gives us an autobiographical excursus into history, and this has the quality of anecdote: we are less conscious of the story than of the man telling it. Adams is the center, and more particularly it is his style, his way of staying at the center. Adams’s closest friends, here described to readers who thus become his other friends, are those other selves of Henry Adams who convey his discriminations and accomplishments. He says in the chapter “Twenty Years After” that with John Hay’s many-volumed Life of Lincoln and his own History “between them they had written nearly all the American history there was to write.” So there was nothing left to write, as in the slack of American history there was now nothing worth doing. Adams and Hay addressed each other in letters as “Dearly Beloved,” “Apple of Mine Eye,” “My Own & Only One—Très Cher”; in his book Adams makes one feel that in a society of idiotic Congressmen, bumbling Presidents, vicious bankers, and indescribable vulgarians, “Hay” and “Adams” had become the few points around which collected the honor that might be left in American life.
Of course the disproportions in Adams’s chronicle would be comic if he did not make us usually overlook them. So much caressing sympathy and understanding for poor John Hay, who as Secretary of State is shown wearing himself out in the service of this vulgar democracy—and so little regard for Grant, who as general helped to save the great democracy which alone had given this ambitious young climber out of the Ohio valley, John Hay, his chance to serve Presidents, to marry money, to rise in the newly powerful American world. The closest friends of Henry Adams—Clarence King died in 1901, Hay in 1905—are portrayed as the leading victims of a world that soon, in the last chapters of the Education, will be shown literally racing to chaos. Once Adams suggests with Chapter XXI, “Twenty Years After,” that his personal life has come to an end with the death of his wife, his book turns from a chronicle of history into a philosophy of history that will substantiate his “failure.”
Yet with all these examples of a constricting intellectual egotism, the Education is a unique social chronicle, a great history of an intellectual caste, precisely because it takes this “Establishment” as the center of value, strikes at every point that essential love and admiration for a particular group that makes the literature of “society” possible. This is the positive side of his book. No matter how slyly Adams may undermine his friends for lacking the historical intelligence on which he prided himself, this love of his own is the exuberant side of the book. He was always more positive than he meant to be. For he loves “society,” which means the leading group that furnishes the records of a society, as only the true novelists of manners, the true historians, courtiers, and gossips of power do. This was the greatest advantage he derived from being an Adams, an intimate of power.
He loved as social fact what his complicated mind could not accept as excellence. He never felt the romance of wealth and power in England as Henry James did, but he could suggest that political influence at work in English country houses, the blunt force of the Yorkshire personality, the charm of so many aristocratic intellectuals, as easily as he did the cynical bark of Lord Palmerston and Swinburne’s total recall of everything he had read. The Education is even richer in portraits of American “notables,” so many of whom were Adams’s friends that the book seems to be linked together by names. But though the book finally becomes the most brilliant suggestion of the hidden force moving American society, no connection is shown between these friends and the society which in fact they led. It is this failure to show the connection that explains why Adams, in spite of the facility with which he wrote his novels Democracy and Esther, never thought as a novelist does and could not have turned his memories into a novel.
Cecil Spring-Rice, the British ambassador and a member of the Hay-Adams circle, noted that rich Americans fled from the soil on which they had been raised and from their own people. Unlike the British, whose wealth was related to the land, the American rich were rootless and disoriented; Spring-Rice found “something rather melancholy about the talk of educated people here.” To Adams the American elite represents its memories. But for just this reason Adams’s grief over the powerlessness of his old idols in New England leads him to invoke, as the shape of his own youth, the “eighteenth-century” world—by which he means John Adams and John Quincy Adams. It is an astonishing historical creation. And though the account of his personal life breaks off in the middle, to suggest the impact of his wife’s death, he manages still, in the theory of history that makes up the rest of the book, to show his struggle with the society created by the Civil War. Still, his book is strangely two books—the first the history of a self, the other a philosophy of history.
Did his life end so soon? Did Henry Adams also merge wholly into the “ocean” of History? Any European historian, brought up on society as tradition and revolution, would have seen in Adams’s polarities fresh proof of the innocent self-indulgence possible to rich Americans. A man who could have struggled on the highest level, in the open political arena, turned himself into a malicious and secretive recluse—and this just across Lafayette Square from the White House! What a Saint-Simon, what a Horace Walpole, what a Tocqueville or Mill or Comte this is! Where is society in this book after 1885? Where are the public issues and the real actors that correspond to the fight against slavery—to Sumner and Lincoln—to the years in Britain during the Civil War—to Palmerston and Russell? Where above all is Henry Adams as we see him in his letters, brilliantly describing to his adored friends the social texture of every country in the world he roamed so obsessively? It is easy to imagine his English friends in particular turning away from the book after “Twenty Years After,” and saying in justified irritation—what a sentimentalist and fraud! What pretensions to the intellectual secret of the universe when he cannot face the truths of his own heart!3
Henry’s brother Charles Francis laughed at him for invoking Rousseau at the beginning of the Education—“you Rousseau you!” No “autobiography,” we may readily admit, tries so hard to withhold the secret that the author would have liked to discover himself. The book is in style alone an inimitable case of what Adams called form—“the instinct of exclusion.” It is so brightly enameled, finished, sealed off, so wary in its irony, so entirely formal in its effect, that by its side the pompous rhythms of Gibbon’s autobiography seem spontaneous; Gibbon’s book is certainly more direct. But then, Gibbon wrote as a success, Adams as a “failure.”
Yet Adams’s instinct for style, which reminds us of his extraordinary compulsion to style on every side of life—his elegantly oval handwriting was as exquisite and made as any script could ever be—is surely the real secret of Henry Adams, which could only be, in so tensely ordered a mind, his intellectual passion, the fixation of the born artist on the material in which he divines the final pattern that alone interests him.
The Education of Henry Adams is the story not of a man born out of his time, who lacked the science he needed to understand the nineteenth century; it is the story of an artist deprived of the sense of tradition around him that makes the art of history, and who then found himself unable to express the terms of his isolation and to believe that anyone, even this made-up “Henry Adams,” could say just what his interest in history was. This, I believe, was style: the style in which so many aspects of the past came to him, from the Virgin at Chartres to the dynamo at the Paris Exposition of 1900. Style was the look of the historical process as it was appropriated by the savant as connoisseur. Style was development, panorama, the emblems of change that constitute our sense of time. It was the perfect detachment, with “all history” for subject, that perhaps only an American could feel about all “their” history, that only a millionaire scholar, luxuriating voluptuously in inaction, could adopt as his portion: the almighty spectator.
Life [he wrote to his brother Brooks in 1899] becomes at last a mere piece of acting. One goes on by habit, playing more or less clumsily that one is alive. It is ludicrous and at times humiliating, but there is a certain style in it which youth has not. We become all, more or less, gentlemen; we are ancien régime; we learn to smile while gout racks us. One lives in constant company with diseased hearts, livers, kidneys and lungs; one shakes hands with certain death at closer embrace every day; one sees paralysis in every feature and feels it in every muscle; all one’s functions relax their action day by day; and, what is worse, one’s grasp on the interests of life relaxes with the physical relaxation; and, through it all, we improve…we should almost get to respect ourselves if we knew of anything human to respect; so we affect to respect the conventions, and ask only to be classed as a style….
This is Adams happily spreading himself to his most adoring audience, the younger brother who thought him the most powerful mind he knew; this was the bitterness of the surface, the mere look of things that a vindictive unhappy man could seize on. Life had become entirely a matter of “playacting” for the actor who no longer knew what he was hiding from others. The man who went around the world not talking to anyone saw everyone as appearance—slightly foolish. Yet Adams’s letters are profound in their observation as well as snobbish. The superb eye that saw “positively everything in Japan laughs,” began his great book on the middle ages: “The Archangel loved heights.”
Adams saw social forms as style, he saw power as style, he could even see American Presidents as the wrong style. This intense personal appropriation of the past as style could come only to the man who had the unity of history always on his mind, so that the government buildings that he saw at twelve, on his first visit to Washington, became in Chapter III of the Education “the white marble columns and fronts of the Post Office and Patent Office which faced each other in the distance, like white Greek temples in the abandoned gravel-pits of a deserted Syrian city.” To see history as style one must begin with the sense of command: apart from the troops, lost in the mud of actual living and fighting, who cannot so easily see “the whole picture.” But to see history as style also means to see history as a book that one is writing. Style divines the kinship between different sets of material (and who will challenge this creative urge?), knows what naturally belongs together in a book that makes that book, is rooted in some instinct for affinity.
Henry Adams commanded his knowledge so well that his intense, astonishing sense of perspective became a way of drawing in historical images. An historical episode became what an object in space is to a painter: it made a setting. “Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple….” “This passage from Gibbon’s Autobiography…led Adams more than once to sit at sunset on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria di Ara Coeli….” “Concord, in the dark days of 1856, glowed with pure light…a Gothic cathedral.” The Adamses, dropped off at a New York pier, return from England in 1868 as strange to the country as if they “had been Tyrian traders of the year B.C. 1000, landing from a galley fresh from Gibraltar….” “Society offered the profile of a long, straggling caravan, stretching loosely towards the prairies, its few score of leaders far in advance and its millions of immigrants, negroes and Indians far in the rear, somewhere in archaic time.”
For Adams these memories become images compressed by the intensity of his over-all view. In the ecstatic acceleration of Adams’s mind through time—time past, time recovered, time relived—the titles of great books, the thinkers of primary theories, the names of ancient cities in the Roman Empire evoked from the steps of Ara Coeli—Karnak, Ephesus, Delphi, Mycenae, Constantinople, Syracuse—the great place-names in Adams’s personal history—London in 1861, Washington in 1868, Chicago in 1893, Paris as the site of the dynamo in 1900—all become colors and sounds in the vibration of the historian’s consciousness. Without the search for the total design, such references would be frivolous. But in the Education these cities, churches, books, these sacred names of thinkers, represent the effort to make the whole force of the past live in a single line. Only The Waste Land among later works has this intention, and Eliot seeks it in virtually every line. But Adams, in his less concentrated prose, does not view the past as a mirage.
What is the city over the moun- tains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
The past is still real to an American’s “education.”
When Adams wants to describe the full grip on his imagination of The Origin of Species, he describes himself lying on the slope of Wenlock Edge in Shropshire, day-dreaming of the different items that form the mysterious stream of human development.
The triumph of all was to look south along the Edge to the abode of one’s earliest ancestor and nearest relative, the ganoid fish…. Life began and ended there. Behind that horizon lay only the Cambrian, without vertebrates or any organism except a few shellfish. On the further verge of the Cambrian rose the crystalline rocks from which every trace of organic existence had been erased.
That here, on the Wenlock Edge of time, a young American, seeking only frivolous amusement, should find a legitimate parentage as modern as though caught in the Severn below, astonished him as much as though he had found Darwin himself. In the scale of evolution, one vertebrate was as good as another.
In this typical play of Adams’s historical sense, the items are merely sounded, not explained. But no general idea in the nineteenth century meant so much to Adams and his friends as evolution, and Adams has only to sound Darwin, as at different times he sounds Ara Coeli, Washington, Byzantium, for the passion of the design to carry the theme along. History may not give meaning but, as history, it is meaning. This is its dependable interest. History is what we possess in common—this is its consolation as experience, and as literature, its ability to delight. Why should names alone, Wenlock Edge and the Severn, which I may never have seen and which Adams does not bother to describe, delight me? It is because names are traditions. Each of these names has been sounded repeatedly in the culture that I share with Adams, while “Severn” and “Wenlock Edge” are familiar to me from English poems that Adams does not have to mention for me to think of them. Without knowing exactly what that landscape over the Severn looks like, I possess the association as I might possess a character in a novel. The landscape put into depth for Henry Adams by Darwin, the reader can now possess as his intellectual landscape; Darwin and the ganoid fish and Henry Adams are his world, too.
“Community of thought” is what Adams meant by society, and this he tried to create with the friends for whom the Education was privately printed. To enjoy the Education, later readers must feel that such a society exists, as literature, and that one belongs to it as one belongs to the society of Pride and Prejudice, The Golden Bowl, A la recherche du temps perdu. Not to enjoy the Education as a visit to that society is of course to undervalue Adams—he rather looked forward to that—and to misunderstand his book, which he expected and in a sense even desired, so that what did exist as community of thought would form more closely around him. Society for Henry Adams, as for all traditionalists who identify it with their real or ideal memories, is the union of those who share a culture—not always at the same time, perhaps, but who do share it so long as they recognize it in each other. We now see what happens to the “novel of society” in revolutionary times, when whole classes and races hitherto not regarded as fully human suddenly assert themselves, and the famous “community of thought” on which society has so long prided itself turns out to be the ideal of a tiny elite, one that it has possessed only in forms of ritual.
The community that Adams could not depend on in life he tried to create through the Education, which like all the classic autobiographies was written in order to help the author contend with his life. What Adams could not find in his own culture he found only in the imagination of time past and of society-as-friendship that he so brilliantly sustained by his autobiography and letters. So the form in which he tried to create his society was at least his very own. Exactly the subtly insinuating approval of what is acceptable, the extraordinary insolence toward what is not, explain the lasting qualities of the Education as a social chronicle.
At the expense of a civil war, Adams got a very great deal out of England. By adopting the casual knowingness of the English upper classes, the inability to be surprised—or to praise anything clearly—he forged the authority of the intelligent, the cultivated, the just. As in a novel of manners, the Education makes you identify with the author’s irony the standard of values by which to judge everybody else. This is always a triumph of style, whether in Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby. Civilization has a center at last, and you know where it is—with the author’s control.
It is this ability to persuade lesser breeds that values are told from Oxford or Cambridge as time is told from Greenwich that has been the charm of the English intellectual establishment. Anyone who has observed at high table a normally fluent Englishman sending the talk back with the port will recognize the style that Adams learned in English country houses. It is a style in which people expect familiarity with books the others haven’t read for the same reason that they take for granted a consideration that the others may never demonstrate. To gentlemen of this class, books and ideas are social facts, not the pedantries of solitary men. It is because Adams is writing in this style to his hundred ideal readers, his hundred perfect friends, that he pays the highest possible compliment to them by assuming what in the order of things they will assume.
Style as a development from manners—a style of personal cultivation and conversation; a style of behavior; a style that embodies one’s deepest habits as a man—became Adams’s way of writing. In the chapters of the Education that recount the attempt of the British cabal in office—Palmerston, Russell, and Gladstone—to strengthen the Confederacy, Adams triumphantly manages to make the reader feel that Gladstone was a fool, Russell a villain, and that Palmerston, though prime minister, could be let off only for not knowing all that Russell was up to. The major issue, the survival of the American republic, is never once explicitly justified. The Civil War, seen from London, has come down to a controversy between rival British sets—Russell and Gladstone in one; John Bright and William E. Forster on the other. John Hay was put down in private by his friend Henry Adams. But who can credit this rather than the pity on which the Education closes, for his closest friend, the dying Secretary of State, whom Adams accompanied on his last trip to Europe? As he said, Adams was a “stable companion” to statesmen. This exercised his peculiar shiftiness as well as it did the power in the hands of his friends.
In the Education all friends are flattered by being put into the book; enemies, like the real personal conflicts, are just left out. Neither Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who found Adams’s acidulousness impossible to take after a hard day’s work, nor Owen Wister, who after an interview with Adams recorded the man’s baleful no to all things, has suggested much charity by Adams toward his friends. But within the charmed circle of the Education, everything past had style, and even one’s cronies fitted in—as style. This was the embittered historian’s one triumph. In a culture that could hardly share his concern with time past, that positively gloried in obliterating the past, Adams came to believe, as Proust would, that language was the mold into which the past would fit.
Of course he did not have the psychological curiosity that gave Proust courage to confront his disordered life. But then, as his greatest book shows, Adams was not a novelist. The subject of his autobiography—which he disclaimed as one—is not personality, not even his own. Characteristically, it is history. And history deals with public, not private worlds. That is why, unlike fiction, it often seems to write itself, to follow the pattern seemingly implicit in public records. History lets us off as private individuals, and in reading history we are let off. As Adams said in the last chapter of his History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:
History had its scientific as well as its human side, and 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.
He was a man much preoccupied with ends. No one can doubt the delight that “the sense of an ending” brought to him, for the total design it could suggest. Within the spacious and even cosmic vistas of history that now engrossed him, no need to speak of the tortured historian himself. He broke off in the middle of his book and assumed the airs of a scientist—though no one quite knew what the subject of inquiry was. He played with magnets at his dinner table. He liked to surprise ordinary scientists by asking unanswerable questions. The world was running down and he was going to show why—in prose that would have to do for mathematics, but would be as elegant. Science was the new language. Like his own History, his nuova scienza would show that necessity unrolls in set quantities, and therefore could be fixed in the rhythms of his own prose. Science was even more comfortably impersonal than History, and the catastrophes it might visit on the human race could be discussed as easily as we discuss The Bomb at our dinner tables. It was another example of History rushing to its end, with man “the meteor mind” (Adams’s great metaphor) falling with History through infinite space.
No physicist, since Adams made use of a docile government scientist or two in the Nineties, has claimed to know what he was talking about in the “scientific” chapters of the Education.4 Yet physicists feel that they have no business with Adams anyway. For the future was compellingly real to Adams because the past was. If you think history naturally falls into a design, then you must anticipate how the story may end.
For Adams history was not just the past; it was the rhythm of “order rigorously consequent.” He saw human thought in a cosmic setting of impersonal forces driving thought into a corner and threatening it with a subject too great for its powers. So large was the sweep of Adams’s historical imagination, he wanted to see the whole shape, history as one great form, stretching from the past to a possibly calculable future. He wanted to determine the whole story at once—to carry the rhythm of his studies out to its final term—to catch the last reverberations as the meteor fell through world space. This intention belongs not to science but to art. So forceful a sense of style needed the future to complete the past.
(This is the final installment of a twopart article).
November 6, 1969
“It is really a joy to fell what we have established one great idea even though we have pulled the stars out of their course to do it.” (Quoted in Ernest Samuels, III 575.) ↩
A White House reception in Democracy (1880): “Madeline found herself before two seemingly mechanical figures, which might be wood or wax, for any sign they showed of life. These two figures were the President and his wife; they stood stiff and awkward by the door, both their faces stripped of every sign of intelligence, while the right hands of both extended themselves to the column of visitors with the mechanical action of toy dolls . To the President and his wife this was clearly no laughing matter. There they stood, automata, representatives of the society which streamed past them . What a strange and solemn spectacle it was . She felt a sudden conviction that this was to be the end of American society; its realization and its dream at once. She groaned in spirit.” ↩
Adams’s English friend, Moreton Frewen, said of the Education that it was a very stone of Sisyphus which “defies all analysis.” ↩
The most painstaking study of Adams’s effort to create a “science of history,” William H. Jordy’s Henry Adams, Scientific Historian (Yale, 1952), concludes that Adams indulged himself and was perhaps ultimately a tourist in these countries of thought. ↩