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Henry Adams At Ground Zero


ISSUE:  Spring 2002

I was not particularly surprised when The Education of Henry Adams, surely one of the oddest and most important of American books, recently headed up the Modern Library series’ ranking of 100-best works of English language non-fiction. Such lists are designed to get tongues wagging about books—and, of course, buying them. On one level it is a relatively harmless parlor game, rather like heated discussions about whether Mohammed Ali was a better fighter than Joe Lewis or Bessie Smith a better singer than Billie Holiday. On another level, the penchant for lists seem quint-essentially “American.” Indeed, I can imagine many readers ticking off the non-fiction books they’ve thumbed through, even as they make plans to browse around in the others. Much of what drives this essentially well-meaning effort is the guilt that has always been our country’s blessing and curse. As a people, we like nothing more than to construct ambitious “to do” lists and then to take a measure of satisfaction as each chore is completed, or in the case at hand, as each book is dutifully read. Benjamin Franklin, singularly responsible for such civic improvements as fire companies, circulating libraries, lightning rods, and cobbled streets, is also the patron saint of list makers everywhere. Add the palpable fact that as the grains of the last century’s hourglass ran out the conditions seemed right for separating which books were worth preserving and which were merely ephemeral. In looking back, we can see where we once were and why we ended the 20th century as we have.

Many pundits pointed out that the blue ribbon panel’s first choice for best novel—James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922)—may well have been the 20th century’s distinguished work of fiction, but it is also one that few general readers, including themselves, had been able to slog their way through. By comparison, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the runner-up, emerged easily as nearly everyone’s consensus favorite. After that, however, the ranks of dissenters swelled as some noticed that women writers seemed noticeably absent or that works written after 1965 got very short shrift.

Much the same scenario attaches itself to the more recent Modern Library series’ list of 100 best English language non-fiction books. Few general readers, I suspect, have bothered to turn a single page of The Education of Henry Adams. For one thing, Adams, like Joyce, is a difficult read; for another, his book is not at all the tell-all, confessional outpouring that current readers of autobiographies expect. In short, Adams’s tome, then and now, would hardly have made a good candidate for Oprah’s Book Club. Whatever else Education comes to it is not a survival memoir, which is to say, the story of somebody who escapes his or her probable fate. Quite to the contrary: Adams is as puzzled and as seemingly unprepared at the end of his long rumination as he was in its opening pages. Put even more bluntly: in Adams, one looks for happy endings in vain. And yet, hidden under layers of protective irony, self-deprecating humor, and a deep sense of cultural despair, is not only the complicated story of Adams’s “miseducation” but also a prophetic rumination about where America was headed at the end of the 19th century.

Granted, Adams’s persona was firmly wrapped in the mantle of failure—so much so that savvy readers soon suspected that he was protesting just a bit too much about his ignorance and ineptitude. Still, when he writes that “Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the form of inert facts,” we can, I think, take Adams at his word. “Inert facts,” the material that one dutifully memorizes and then reproduces on exams, were essentially useless because they could not be actively applied to rapidly changing situations. Such “facts” simply sat there, rather like cornflakes in a bowl of milk, and became increasingly soggy. Here it is worth mentioning that Adams’s proposed sub-title for the Education was “A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity.” If the Virgin hearkened us back to a simpler age, one that organized and thus unified itself around the force of religion, science often seemed to dump the human component altogether, preferring the disinterestedness that is an essential component of the scientific method.

Adams had, in fact, explored the tensions between religion and science earlier—in a novel (Esther, 1884), and in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (privately printed in 1907), of which the Education is a sequel. What his ruminations point toward is nothing less than the rapid collapse of Western culture as science replaces religion and dehumanized people increasingly pray to machines rather than to Gods. Adams may not have been the “failure” he made himself out to be, but he was surely a sour, disappointed man. Part of the reason probably lies in the very long shadow cast over his name by great-grandfather John Adams, second president of the United States, and grandfather John Quincy, our country’s sixth president; another part is the unexpected suicide, in 1885, of his wife, Marion Hooper; and the final part has to do with the large intellectual ambitions of the Education itself. Not since the days when the Puritan mind of Jonathan Edwards tried to reconcile determinism with free will has there been such a dazzling display of intellectual sophistication as there is in Adams’s Education. That the book concludes on a pessimistic note is hardly surprising, given his sense of the quickening pace that a technology-dominated society would exact on its citizens.

In short, Henry Adams’s The Education of Henry Adams is one of those books more honored than are its pages turned, but one chapter, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” is a notable exception. In a few remarkable pages he takes a measure of the medieval past as well as taking a prescient look at the new 20th century looming ahead. Its argument revolves around two tropes—the 40-foot dynamos that Adams watched with increasing fascination while he attended the Paris Exposition of 1900, and the Virgin, a force that, he argues, once unified 12th- and 13th-century Europe, and that had created such majestic splendors as the cathedral at Chartres. For Adams, the Gallery of Machines not only summed up the Industrial Revolution in an oversized nutshell, but also pointed the way toward what he believed would be a disunified and dehumanizing 20th century.

One could, of course, argue that Adams worked from a limited sense of what made the year 1900 so important. His fixation on the dynamo speaks to a long obsession with the psychodynamics of force, but a case can be made for other ideas that would change life even more than the dynamo to which Adams ironically prayed. I am thinking, for example, of Max Plank’s quantum physics and Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams— both of which also burst upon a startled world in 1900. Adams might well have included them in his litany of things that his (mis) education, at Harvard and elsewhere, had not prepared him for; but the plain truth is that he allowed the dynamo to become a collective symbol for his nagging sense that the past was irretrievable, the present chaotic and confusing, and the future a cause for deep concern. Why so? Because just as the world of earlier schoolmasters had been turned upside down by the observations of Copernicus and Galileo, and later, by Columbus’s explorations, so too had the dynamo confounded every organizing principle that Adams had searched for—presumably in vain.

One wonders what Adams would say were he able to ponder our new 21st century from the vantage point of Ground Zero. I posed exactly this problem to my undergraduates in a survey course in American literature, prefaced by this confession: I had first concocted a version of this assignment three years ago, when speculations about what the Millennium would bring were much in the air. No doubt Mark Twain’s quip that nobody should be a pessimist before the age of 40 and that nobody should be an optimist thereafter is part of the generational arithmetic (unconsciously) built into the assignment. Not surprisingly, I number myself among those who feel that our culture is speeding toward hell in the proverbial handbasket, but with these caveats: I do not imagine a golden age of television, or anything else; and I think that all the grim talk about an apocalyptic smash-up just around the corner is so much romanticism on the cheap.

What I was concerned about, however, was how the human spirit would fare in a world increasingly defined by the computer chip. Many worried about would happen when the Y2K bug finally hit on January 1, 2000. Some had already established a foothold in the wilderness, laying up stores of dehydrated food, bottled water, and weapons. Others planned not to travel by airplane on that day, or indeed on any that immediately followed. Still others figured that they’ll just ride it out. After all, an event as hyped as Y2K usually turns out to be a disappointment, rather like the hurricane that does not hit or the much-ballyhooed Hollywood film that ends up a bust. What remains clear, at least at this post-Y2K point, is that the microchip is ubiquitous: it browns our toast, turns our lights on and off, and is the guiding principle in our cars. No one can buy a house or deposit money in a bank without running into a computer chip somewhere along the way. Indeed, we are told, in terms that approach patriotic cant, that the computer is responsible for our nation’s then strong economy and for the “smart bombs” (talk about a contradiction in terms) that have turned us into (selective) policemen of the world. To imagine our computers “down” and dysfunctional reminds me of nothing so much as those ex-Marxists who contributed to a collection entitled The God That Failed. Is it possible, I wonder, that romancing the chip will lead to a similar despair?

“Not so,” I can imagine many muttering. The computer chip has made much possible, but as they used to say in vaudeville, “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!” If a person is casting about for an equivalent to Adams’s dynamo, he or she need go no further than the internet, the most powerful source of information the world has come up with thus far. One would have to be a curmudgeon of the first rank to toss cold water at the oceans of material that can be called up by a simple double-click of the mouse. Fortunately, there are any number of such curmudgeons in the house, including some who put the kibosh on the internet’s ancestors. “I know too much already,” detective maven Raymond Chandler once observed, and he went on to make this startling assertion: “I would be happier knowing less.” Eyeballing these words, Joseph Epstein, a cultural scold of the first water, could hardly contain his enthusiastic agreement: “We read certain writers for those moments when they tell us what in our hearts we already know, but for one reason or another, haven’t managed to formulate for ourselves. This was such a moment for me.” It is also high praise of the sort that Epstein parcels out very sparingly.

At issue is information overload, a phenomenon that poor Chandler, pecking away on his rickety, old-fashioned typewriter, only felt in its intimations. He did not live long enough to see the full blossoming of search engines and data bases. Nonetheless, even in his day people were drowning in too many books, too many magazines, too many claims on our limited time and attention spans. Rather like a person held captive at a party by a distraught friend all too willing to share the intimate details of his or her impending divorce, I often think that what the information highway most needs is a rest stop. Do I really need to pop into every chat room with available seating or check up on the latest tell-all book being peddled by Amazon.com? Whatever happened, I wonder, to the leisurely conversations of yesterday, the ones conducted in everything from Greenwich Village espresso bars to old-fashioned suburban coffee Watches? Gone (some would say “sacrificed”) into the mighty maw of the internet. Today, urban coffee shops on the cutting edge boast that they are fully wired and that patrons can slurp down lattes as they surf the net.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, nothing if you happen to figure that human connections aren’t worth a fig and that what matters is a blinking, never satisfied cursor. Adams rightly worried that the dynamo would lead to dehumanization, but even he wasn’t prescient enough to realize how machine-like we would become. Here, one can distinguish between those in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s who took a certain pleasure in announcing that they were “alienated” and the way that subsequent generations passively accepted their dehumanized state. Let me be more specific about this. I have always been affected by a single line from Saul Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Describing a typical Chicago landscape, his protagonist suddenly pulls away from his exercise in realism to ask the following question: “What in all this speaks for man?” One might argue, as several critics in fact have, that the central project in Bellow’s work is the care and feeding of the soul. He uses this loaded word without apology or embarrassment, for it is the (often troubled) soul that makes us fully human. Is that enough to put Bellow in the same camp as the Mont St. Michel-loving Adams? I suspect not because Bellow has a grittier, more existential sense of what matters in our human contract, and because he is not likely to give himself over to the curious theology that pulses just beneath Adams’ ruminations. Still, reverence of a sort factors into what turned both men into important writers.

At this point I find myself on the slippery slope that leads to gloomy thoughts about what those of a certain age call “the end of civilization as we have known it.” Perhaps it is better, wiser if you will, to remember what Amory Blaine, the protagonist of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise (1920), said about time in the newly forming modern world: “Modern life . . .no longer changes century by century, but year by year, ten times faster than it ever has before—populations doubling, civilizations unified more closely with other civilizations, economic independence, racial questions, and— we’re dawdling along. My idea is that we’ve got to go very much faster.” Granted, we do not continue to read Fitzgerald’s novel for its penetrating analyses of socialism or its “ideas” in general, but rather for its uncanny way of putting a finger squarely on the pulse of modern times.

Whatever stability was associated with a generation of out-of-it Victorian parents had been forever shattered by the destabilizing effects of World War I. As such, Fitzgerald spoke for “a new generation . . .grown to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.” To be sure, this is the stuff of which romantic postures were then constructed (Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s Princeton classmate famously called them “gestures of an indefinite revolt”), but if Amory Blaine is dead wrong about nearly everything— and never more so than in his final line about “knowing himself”—he is dead right about the way that years in the modern world seem to race ahead more quickly than do centuries.

Adams understood that timelessness was inextricably connected with the Virgin’s power and that the dynamo offered up quite another emblem of force—mechanistic and ultimately masculine. “An American Virgin,” Adams proclaimed, without his usual self-deprecating ironies, “could never dare command; an American Venus would never dare exist.” Adams felt this because, for better or worse, America retains elements of a Puritan sensibility, not only in its no-nonsense assumptions about “educational toys” (an oxymoron of the first water), but also in the heated debates that revolve around pornography. Here, the Monica Lewinsky affair can stand as Exhibit A. Pundits divided themselves between those who deplored the feeding frenzy that led to impeachment hearing and those who gleefully participated in it. Roughly the same thing might be said of the American citizenry as a whole: even those who did not number themselves in Geraldo Rivera’s nighttime TV audience could not escape the video footage of Ms. Lewinsky. Many students responded by arguing that the computer chip and/or the internet had now replaced the dynamo, not only in terms of being smaller, but also of packing more information, more raw power, if you will. Some, to their credit, worried—much like Adams himself—if the new technologies would further crowd out the individual, and that the dehumanization Adams saw in Big Machines would become ever more accelerated. In 1999, these, I thought, were savvy answers and I declared my assignment a success.

In the world after September 11, 2001, I am no longer so sure about my original assignment, or my students’ responses. Many now argue, rightly, I think, that the 21st century began on that heart-cracking day, and I am no longer as confident as I once was about what the proper questions are—much less about their answers. Nonetheless, I continue to think that Adams’ ruminations about the Dynamo can be helpful. My hunch is that his trope for the century just underway would be the ruins of Ground Zero, with its twisted beams and broken slabs of concrete. They speak with a sublime, which is to say, awesome solemnity to what fanatical hatred now makes possible. The old words, everything from “war” to “normalcy,” take on whole new shadings. If nothing in Adams’ education had prepared him for the dynamo, nothing in our education prepares us for a world post-September 11th.

At the same time, however, the human spirit so dear to Adams has also had a rebirth from the ashes of Ground Zero. In the outpouring of grief and prayer, in the patriotism that betokens an American community more unified than ever, are inklings of what Adams had once associated with the power of the Virgin. Granted, we sing American anthems rather than the litanies that sustained medieval Europe, and we display the flags of a country under terroristic siege, but there is an abiding sense that unity flourishes as it had not done before. Take the perplexing matter of race, for example. Nobody watching the bravery of New York City’s firefighters and policemen bothered to note which were black, which were white; and the same thing applies to those fleeing the World Trade Center towers. Or take the case of patriotism. When long-standing America-bashers such as Susan Sontag weighed in with the dreary rhetoric of how we are a racist, imperialistic land, she was roundly criticized by all shades of the political spectrum. With Ground Zero still smoldering and its dead not yet recovered, this was no time to roll out the old mantras of the hard Left. What mattered is that America was under an attack no one could have predicted, and that Americans had been slaughtered in extraordinary numbers.

Adams often held sour views about the turn America had taken since the days when his family had a lock on the presidency. In the world Adams inherited there seemed to be no room for him. But that said, Adams would surely have walked among the ruins and speculated about what, in his education, could have prepared him for a new world in which fanatics commandeer jumbo jets and steer them into buildings. My hunch is that he would realize that such militant fundamentalists represent only a tiny fraction of the Muslim world, but also that America has generated an enormous amount of antipathy because it is . . .well, America.

Osama bin Laden has emerged as the poster child for evil incarnate, but the new enemy in fact has many faces, often disguised and scattered across the globe. The object of their terroristic activity is to make us afraid. And it is here that Adams provides an instructive lesson because only when one recognizes the new realities of force is one able to make intellectual assessments that will outlast the commentary of the talking heads on CNN or “Nightline.” Adams worried about the implications of the dynamo at the same time that he realized its combined force had forever altered the imaginative landscape he associated with Chartres. Our current challenge is much more profound, and, sadly enough, it is hard to see the likes of Adams among us. “Normalcy,” whatever it used to mean, is no longer possible because one fears what the latest “breaking news” flashing across our television sets will bring, Un-self-consciousness is a luxury that belongs to a bygone time, although those of those who lived through the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, and Malcolm X know something about heart-shattering news flashes.

I suspect that my college was hardly the only one that hurriedly convened panels of “experts” in the days following 9/11. These events were meant to enlighten students about the politics of countries that end in -stan, and typically included members of the government department, a stray sociologist or two, and the requisite religion professor. Literary types were notable only by their absence. Nobody was in the mood to add a theorist to the panels because, quite frankly, this was not the time for deconstruction or other displays of cutting edge postmodernist thinking. To our discredit, literature professors had so abandoned the best that imaginative writing had to say that they made themselves both irrelevant and unwelcome. Somebody talking about Adams would have made a valuable contribution to discussions, at my college and many others, that often degenerated into squabbles among professors appalled by the jingoism they associated with flag-waving and a generation of undergraduates with steel in their spines.

It is, of course, the job of the present administration to reinforce that steel; literature professors focus on the complexities that our best literature reflects rather than propaganda of the rally-round-the-flag sort. But here is precisely where Adams’ uncertainties come into play: his essay is a prototype of the “think piece” but, I would argue, with deeper thought than is usually generated by think tanks across the country. At its core is a rumination about what threatens the human spirit and what elements, if any, are retrievable from other times, other places. In all the fevered discussion that the aftermath of September 11th has generated, we need to remember Adams’ essay—not only because of what it said about his world but also because of what it says about ours.

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