Like Henry Adams, R.P. Blackmur was largely a self-taught man of letters. Unlike Adams, Harvard class of 1858, Blackmur did not go to college. I mention this biographical detail only because it may have something to do with the reason why Blackmur’s study is so personal rather than conventionally academic. It testifies to an extraordinary affinity with Adams, also evident elsewhere in Blackmur’s criticism.

In Blackmur’s essays, especially those on modern poetry collected in The Expense of Greatness (1940), Language as Gesture (1952), and The Lion and the Honeycomb (1955), he updates Adams’s social themes. More significantly, he found in Adams reinforcement for his innate sense of the elusiveness of knowledge. To encompass meanings beyond meanings, he wrote in a style that often echoes his other mentor and major subject, Henry James. Blackmur’s well-known essay of 1936, “The Expense of Greatness: Three Emphases on Henry Adams,” reprinted here as a sort of prologue, indicates the challenge of the discipleship “Where your small man is a knoll to be smoothed away, Henry Adams is a mountain to be mined on all flanks for pure samples of human imagination without loss of size or value.”

Between 1931 and 1955, Blackmur published eleven articles on Adams: some chapters, others preliminary studies, they are samples of an effort to catch Adams’s mind and meaning in book form. When Blackmur died in 1965, the book unfinished, he left approximately seven hundred pages of manuscript. Out of this, the editor, Veronica A. Makowsky, chose for the core of this volume two manuscripts, “The Virgin and the Dynamo” and “King Richard’s Prison Song,” both of which incorporate previously published material. The first is a reading of the Education, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and the late historical treatises, and the second is on Adams’s last six years. Also included as a coda is a heretofore unpublished fragment, “At Rock Creek,” a “meditation” on the visits Adams made to the monument by Saint-Gaudens he commissioned for his wife’s grave after her suicide in 1885. Though many of the best parts of this book have already appeared in print (about a quarter of the text), the bringing together of scattered pieces in the order of Adams’s chronology allows us to see for the first time the contours of Blackmur’s thinking on Adams.

Blackmur’s central insight into Henry Adams appeared first in “The Failure of Henry Adams,” a six-page review of Adams’s letters (Hound and Horn, 1931) not included here. At a time when the Education was still looked upon as an expression of “sentimental nihilism,” as scientifically naïve, or as egotistically self-depreciatory, Blackmur made the fundamental distinction needed for its understanding. He drew the line between Adams’s controversial failure in life and his imaginative report on the failure of his education, his lifelong search for unity in multiplicity, order in chaos. In Blackmur’s view, Adams’s true career, which was intellectual and artistic, began at the turn of the century after his world had fallen apart, after the frustration of his political ambitions and the reform movement, the shattering death of his wife, and the collapse of faith in Victorian scientific progressivism and the Christian moral order.

Adams put his sense of political personal, and metaphysical abandonment into the late writings by which he is chiefly known: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. Each of these “accented, in a different way,” Blackmur writes, “the emotion of ignorance, the feeling of weakness, with which a man must be filled when he is confronted with the energy of history—either his own or that of the world…. Most of us cannot afford to contemplate such failure; we are not strong enough and we fancy the world as weak as ourselves. Failure for Adams was a necessary condition of life.”

Blackmur’s paradoxical observation that “for a man relentlessly honest, there is no failure like success” foretells the nature and direction of his subsequent preoccupation with Adams. Blackmur pushes to extremes an attitude toward the limits of the mind which in Adams is more relative and conditional. The “failure” Adams embraced, his relentless honesty, clearly applies to Adams the writer, not Adams the human being. For Blackmur, Adams seems to have existed chiefly as an intellectual figure—heroic, exemplary in his recognition of what he had failed to achieve.

Significantly, in his first essay, Blackmur finds the volume of Adams’s letters he is reviewing “more mystifying than revealing.” Neither the baffling complexity of the all-too-human author of the letters, as distinct from the persona of the Education, nor the work to which Adams gave the best energies of his middle life for over a decade—his nine-volume History of the United States, 1801-1817—seems to have deeply challenged Blackmur. Adams as the iconoclastic teacher on the side of the young, the affectionate friend and husband, or the superior Washington host does not make a vivid appearance in this collection. The History is the subject of one of four essays. “National Politics 1868-1885,” which Blackmur completed in 1942 but never published. The editor has omitted these and three other political essays which she says “have not worn so well as his more characteristic work.” The omission slants this volume further in the direction of the literary and late Adams than Blackmur may have intended in his projected book.


In “The Expense of Greatness” Blackmur develops the implications of the “failure the mind comes to ultimately and all along when it is compelled to measure its knowledge in terms of its ignorance.” Adams’s “greatness” lay in his scrupulous awareness that his search for the principles governing the movement of social forces must fail, but that “to think straight you must overshoot your mark.” Knowing that his “unifying conceptions” were merely “working principles,” Adams adopted them, according to Blackmur, because without them nothing could be achieved. What his effort means to us, in Blackmur’s view, is comparable to what the Gothic cathedral meant to Adams: “The delight of its aspirations is flung up to the sky. The pathos of its self-distrust and anguish of doubt is buried in the earth as its last secret.”

In the body of the work, Blackmur in effect presents Adams as a poet of the mind whose ideas are valid for their symbolic power rather than for their empirical truth, but he is not therefore to be taken as a socially isolated aesthete. In the first place, the problems of energy and human understanding posed by Adams are vitally relevant to the problems of a society in which technology has advanced so much further. In the second, to reinstate human dignity in the modern world, we need integrating “great symbols” to replace those once supplied by the Christian imagination. Adams’s symbol-making is an effort to “reconstitute the sense of unity in religion and science, philosophy and art,” in Blackmur’s words. His mode was aesthetic but the order he achieved in his art was not at the expense of moral realism: “The artist had precisely to put chaos in order, with what aids in form he could muster and with as few cheats in perception as possible.” To illustrate, Blackmur quotes from Adams in Mont-Saint-Michel on the negation of evil in St. Thomas’s system:

This philosophical apse would have closed the lines and finished the plan of his church-choir had the universe not shown some divergencies or discords needing to be explained. The student of the Latin Quarter was then harder to convince than now that God was Infinite Love and His world a perfect harmony, when perfect love and harmony showed them, even in the Latin Quarter, and still more in revealed truth, a picture of suffering, sorrow, and death; plague, pestilence, and famine; inundations, droughts, and frosts; catastrophes world-wide and accidents in corners; cruelty, perversity, stupidity, uncertainty, insanity; virtue begetting vice; vice working for good; happiness without sense, selfishness without gain, misery without cause, and horrors undefined.

Blackmur may exaggerate the hopefulness of Adams’s purpose in Mont-Saint-Michel and the Education, which he describes as being “to raise man, by past example confronted with present condition, to his highest intensity,” but as his reference to Adams on St. Thomas indicates, he knew that Adams’s exploration of the supreme achievements of the imagination was in defiance of his knowledge of man’s tragic limits.

Blackmur pursues the themes of the metaphorical use of ideas and of the responsibility of the artist to society in his analysis of the scientific theory of history in the concluding chapters of the Education. Adams’s theory, he argues, should not be taken as a profession of absolute truth, but rather as a provisional fiction drawn from twentieth-century thought. “All Adams wanted was what society always required, a means of giving an account, in its own terms, of what it actually was.” By treating human society as subject to the mechanical law of entropy, Adams was attesting to his commitment to society: “The predicament of the mind still capable of setting up the dynamic theory of its own extinction is difficult but not intolerable.” Despite the apocalyptic tenor, Adams left in these chapters and in the conclusion to Mont-Saint-Michel “a legacy of life and metaphysics by a gesture of poetry.”

In contrast Blackmur finds Adams’s two theoretical papers published after his death by his brother Brooks in The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma marked by a hardening of mind. The scientific metaphor becomes fact: “physics is all physics, and everything else is physics, tool there is no metaphysics, no poetry, and no gesture—only the murderous sweep of law reaching, aspect by aspect, into the life of man.” The deterministic argument is “circular” and “the circle narrows to nothing.” Blackmur did not complete his effort to demonstrate how Adams got away from his “speculative pessimism.” The manuscript of “The Virgin and the Dynamo” breaks off at this point.


Given the retrospective character of the book and Blackmur’s stature as a critic, it would be surprising if the general ideas as well as particular insights we find in these essays had not been assimilated by others who write about Adams. Were Blackmur writing now, when Adams is frequently treated as a literary artist, he might have modulated his insistence on the redemptive social value of Adams’s aestheticism. One need not, however, share his faith in the symbolic imagination as social salvation to respond to his interpretation here of Mont-Saint-Michel. Blackmur’s emphasis on this book as Adams’s spiritual autobiography does not deny that it is a work which comprehends many other facets of experience—historical, visual, and literary.

Blackmur’s approximately 150 pages on the Education are not equally successful. The reason seems to me related to why Blackmur did not complete his book. Blackmur’s mind worked best in the essay form, as Denis Donoghue notes in his foreword. The summary of Blackmur’s “Plans for Work” by the editor suggests vast ambition without an available form. Neither the work plans nor the comments in the text indicate a principle of compression. How “The Virgin and the Dynamo” was to be related to the rest of the book is puzzling.

Explaining his purpose in the introductory chapter, “The Problem Laid Out,” Blackmur wrote that Adams’s “later books…must raise in the reader a kind of vital, continuing, uncertifiable, not quite formulable response—as to an actual situation unfolding—precisely because the emotion and the meaning go on, in symbols, after the words have stopped.” This description, if I understand it, might be applied to any major work of art, but Blackmur is specifically dedicated to awakening in the reader a nonverbal experience by an analysis of the symbolic elements. “With what was merely ‘said’ in the Education we have already dealt: the biography, the anecdote as illustrative, the history as narrative; here the job is deliberately to detach and rehearse the symbolic elements in the effort to catch the echo.” An editorial note states without giving details that Blackmur was referring to “published articles and planned chapters.” Apparently, he would be covering the same ground twice. The difficulties in organization for the book as a whole which this passage portends has its parallel in his writing on the Education.

Blackmur’s reference to what was “merely ‘said”‘ implies a division between autobiographical, historical prose and a mythic, poetic structure of ideas. Of Mont-Saint-Michel, a “conversation with nieces” and the Education, a “memoir,” Blackmur remarked, “The waywardness of form and lightness of tone reflected doubt of his audience—doubt of the possibility of any bridge between the audience and himself—but of the validity of the symbols toward which he worked he had no doubt at all.” One can possibly imagine Mont-Saint-Michel without the nieces; but what would the Education be without Adams’s memories of Quincy, Boston, Harvard, London, and Washington?

“Waywardness,” as used by Blackmur, hardly seems an adequate response to the complexity of the Education, which baffled readers from its first appearance. “The boyhood part is really superlative. It and the London part should become classic historic documents,” William James wrote to Adams, but, as for the rest, it was “a hodge-podge of world-fact, private fact, philosophy, irony (with the word ‘education’ stirred in too much for my appreciation!)…. A great deal of the later diplomatic history is dealt with so much by hint and implication, that to an ignoramus like W.J. it reads obscurely.” The Education was probably begun as an extension and complement to Mont-Saint-Michel. According to Adams, “the last three chapters of the Education being Q.E.D. of the last three chapters” of the earlier work. But he also described it as a literary experiment modeled after St. Augustine’s Confessions.

Writing to Henry James, he emphasized its autobiographical side, with typical self-depreciation: “The volume is a mere shield of protection in the grave. I advise you to take your own life in the same way, in order to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs.” Most likely Adams himself did not quite know what he intended except by hindsight, as we may gather from his own account of the act of writing:

The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modelling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best…. The result of a year’s work depends more on what is struck out than on what is left in; on the sequence of the main lines of thought, than on their play or variety.

On the one hand, the daemon, directing the hand that builds better than the mind knows; on the other, the conscious mind judging, pruning, shaping. That Adams did not always control the tendency of his pen to run “into sidepaths and shapelessness, [to lose] its relations…” may be said about the Education. And that he imperfectly fused the narrative with the exposition of ideas is a justifiable charge which he brought against it himself, though William James’s “hodge-podge” it certainly is not. But to see the autobiographical form and its “lightness of tone” (an aspect to which I shall return) as somehow external and formed merely by necessity, as Blackmur did, badly foreshortens its import and artistic value.

This attitude, adopted by Blackmur perhaps only as a critical strategy, helps to explain why his writing on the Education here is such hard going. As Henry Adams said of an eleven-hour saddle trip on a Mexican trail, “One does not get over the ground with the rapidity of thought.” Sometimes the effort of working through the tortuousness of Blackmur’s style proves worthwhile.

We feel the incandescence in the human values and aspirations that were fused by it, from time to time, in persuasive form; and the cumulus of his life and works makes a focus, different as differently felt, whereby the particular values actually rendered shine concentrated as it were in their own best light.

The antecedent of “it” is vague; “cumulus” making a “focus” that is “different as differently felt” seems a willful violation of root meanings which does not succeed poetically. But the failed poetry, in this instance from “The Expense of Greatness,” is redeemed by the brilliance of the conception and by metaphoric, aphoristic insights. In the chapters on Mont-Saint-Michel and on the historical writings Blackmur realized the ideal of simultaneously heightening understanding and feeling through critical intelligence and an evocative style. “King Richard’s Prison Song” is a finely tuned portrait of Adams’s sensibility and character in old age, idealized but true and only slightly marred by critical jargon. The sketches of Adams in relation to his brothers Charles and Brooks and to Henry James produce the “shock of revelation,” in Joseph Frank’s phrase, for which we read Blackmur.

Blackmur abstracts the symbolic elements from the text—in effect by projecting the artistic consciousness that created the text—and sheds a great deal of light on Mont-Saint-Michel. A poetic reconstruction of the Middle Ages, the book has a unity of imagination and form that lends itself to Blackmur’s approach. His summary analysis eloquently renders Adams’s relation to the Virgin of Chartres, who fuses “the energy of love and the energy of matter in a single radiance.” With the Education this kind of reading is less successful because of the diversity of its themes and its greater adherence to factual reality. The narrative, the narrator’s ironic voice, and the style provide the perspective and unity in the Education; Blackmur’s gloss on the text, though it contains discrete insights, does not have its own coherence, a clarifying “line of force.”

Not only does the argument dissolve because Blackmur depends on Adams’s organization instead of creating one of his own that would cut across the narrative line, but revelation is less frequent than frustration at strained readings. Instead of the commentary being at the service of the text, the text is manipulated for the sake of Blackmur’s generalizations. Here is Adams’s response to the news of the sinking of the Maine when it reached him in Egypt:

This was the greatest stride in education since 1865, but what did it teach? One leant on a fragment of column in the great hall at Karnak and watched a jackal creep down the débris of ruin. The jackal’s ancestors had surely crept up the same wall when it was building. What was his view about the value of silence? One lay in the sands and watched the expression of the Sphinx.

Here is Blackmur:

In Egypt, when news of the Maine came, he “leant on a fragment of column in the great hall at Karnak and watched a jackal creep down the débris of ruin.” If the jackal was a degraded form of the Pteraspis-shark, he also “lay in the sands and watched the expression of the Sphinx,” which was the non-Pteraspis and made even the jackal form less than fatal.

If there is a connection, as pointed out by Blackmur earlier, between Egypt and the Pteraspis-shark, in this context, it eludes me.

That Blackmur considers Adams’s “lightness of touch” merely a sop to his audience signals another limitation. He apparently still believes that, as he wrote in his youthful review, the “wit” that runs through Adams’s letters is incompatible with “more serious matters.” Wit, irony, humor are intrinsic not only to the art of the letters, they’re constants of Henry Adams’s vision and style. Blackmur’s extended commentary on Adams’s return to England in 1897 illustrates what can happen when the historical setting and ironic tone are insufficiently attended to. Giving his reasons for not staying in England despite the pleasure of being there when “one’s fortunes, or one’s friends’ fortunes, were again in flood,” Adams wrote:

This amusement could not be prolonged, for one found oneself the oldest Englishman in England, much too familiar with family jars better forgotten, and old traditions better unknown. No wrinkled Tannhäuser, returning to the Wartburg, needed a wrinkled Venus to show him that he was no longer at home, and that even penitence was a sort of impertinence. He slipped away to Paris….

Later in the same paragraph, he describes the “stranded Tannhäuser” as beginning slowly to feel at home in France.

To Blackmur, the Tannhäuser allusion has special significance: it exemplifies “an unaccountable movement” within Adams in his “pilgrimage of ignorance in silence” which “occasionally burst palpably into the prose of his book in a sudden sentence beyond the tensile strength of the context to contain.” He goes on to speculate on the relation of the Tannhäuser legend to Adams’s circumstances at the time, identifying Venus with his friend Elizabeth Cameron and the Virgin in the legend with the memorial statue at Rock Creek and so with his wife.

Scarcely an outburst, the allusion to Tannhäuser is foreshadowed in the preceding paragraph in which Adams finds London in 1897 largely unchanged from his arrival there in 1861. He is confronted however by the ghosts of his memories of this period when he was private secretary to his father, the American minister. He compares himself to Odysseus in the underworld meeting the heroic dead. The reference to himself as Tannhäuser returning to Wartburg extends the mythological imagery, but only to treat it ironically. A “wrinkled” Tannhäuser is hardly the heroic mythological figure Blackmur invents. As the “oldest Englishman in England,” Adams adopts his characteristic pose of superannuation with a glance backward at the time when he was most at home in England and his family still politically powerful. It is his and the Adams family’s historic quarrel with England that would make “penitence…a sort of impertinence.” Blackmur’s allegorical identifications of the Virgin and Venus are strained. Mrs. Cameron at the time was ill. Even writing in retrospect, Adams would hardly allude to her either as “wrinkled” or as Venus. Redemption by the Virgin is only a hint in the subtly textured passage blending irony, history, and mythology.

Characteristically, Blackmur does not insist on his interpretation: “The reader may make of the image what his own experience prompts him to….” His attitude toward the fluidity of meaning and his poetic criticism by analogies anticipate certain strains in contemporary criticism. This book may be read for its unfolding of Blackmur’s critical mind and sensibility. His Henry Adams is the creation of his own mythopoeic imagination—not that Blackmur does not believe in the critic’s responsibility to fact but rather that, as the quotation above suggests, for him the importance of circumstantial detail lies in what the imagination makes of it. When he cavalierly disregards what is “merely” said, as in the analysis of the Education, his insights are compromised.

The obverse of Blackmur’s highly personal “intellectual biography,” William Dusinberre’s study of Henry Adams begins with the common assumption that Adams wanted a career as an artist, but it departs from the usual view that the later works are his masterpieces. Instead, Dusinberre contends that political history was Adams’s true métier and that his greatest achievement was his History, a work of extraordinary literary craftsmanship and style fusing the scholarly precision of German scientific history with the tradition of English literary history.

The History has been studied as a literary work and literary scholars have found it equal to the late works in its artistic quality. Dusinberre, senior lecturer in American history at the University of Warwick, seeks to justify its supremacy not only as literature but as history. He sets himself the task of assessing its reliability as history measured by twentieth-century scholarship. His conclusion is that while its interpretations and research may eventually be superseded, the power of its prose will endure; it “deserves a place in American letters comparable to that of Macaulay’s or Gibbon’s in England.”

As a reconsideration of “the elements of success and failure in Adams’s career—to help to rescue him from the myth he created about his own life,” this book is radically opposed to Blackmur’s philosophical conception of failure. Dusinberre only grudgingly grants Adams “the right to create fiction out of the materials of his life.” Meticulously sifting evidence, passionately dispassionate in judgment, Dusinberre may have been driven to exaggerate his criticism of the late works—“to think straight you need to overshoot your mark.” He has much that is useful to say about Adam’s relations with his family, his wife, and his English friend Gaskell, and about the intellectual heritage of the History, especially the English background. Because he brings Adams to life as a man subtly shaped by circumstance, his book provides a corrective and complement to the literary figure apotheosized in “At Rock Creek”—Blackmur’s “pure Adams.”

This Issue

April 2, 1981