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The Letters of Marian Adams

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams. 1865-1883. Edited by Ward Thoron. Boston: Little, Brown and Company. $5.00.

The interest of these letters is triple without being anywhere divided. There is the historical interest of the letters from Washington; there is the social interest of all but the early travel letters; and there is, predominantly, the interest of a developing sensibility and an emerging character. What unites the interest, apart from the fact of authorship, is the accident that all but the first of the letters—which is really a descriptive essay on the Grand Review of Grant’s and Sherman’s Anmies in 1865— are private or personal letters, and of these all but four or five are addressed to one correspondent. These are a daughter’s letters to her father—the letters of Marian Hooper, wife of Henry Adams, from Europe, Egypt, and Washington, to Robert W. Hooper, a retired Boston doctor. They parade a person, not a cause; exhibit a sensibility, not a position; and have as their single motive the nurture of a deep human relationship during long periods of interrupted con-tacit. They make, if you like, an informal and unconscious work of art; they make a long serial fiction, always based upon the reality provided at the moment by person or place or deed, but often escaping or sacrificing reality, too, in the interests of the amusing or the picturesque or the extravagant, in the interests, finally, of the human relationship involved. These letters are, then, the objective or substituted form of a felt intimacy; and it is only through that guise, which must first be appreciated in its human warmth, that we may discern our own interests at whatever level we choose to find them.

With such an approach the personal quality of the letters becomes a principle of illumination rather than a formula of distortion. The politicians and diplomats and private persons coming in and out of Mrs. Adams’ Washington house, the balls and receptions and conferences and conversations, add up to a personal response, all unselfconscious and candid and prejudiced, to the Washington scene under Hayes and Garfield and Anthur. The Star Route fraud, the long attack on Blaine, the trial of Guiteau, and the Ponca affair, are, as Marian Adams explicitly makes use of them, only the vehicle of personal reaction. They keep her going; activate her sensibility and stabilize her point of view; and her letters show both her sense of motion and her access of conviction. They show her growing up. For emphasis, Washington was politics as New York was money and Boston dying culture. People counted in Washington primarily as they gyrated in relation to power and the corruption of power; Mrs. Adams recorded her daily experience of that relation, and as we read we feel Leviathan twitch and tremble.

The historical interest is for us precisely in that personal sense, achieved cumulatively from letter to letter but nowhere conspicuous in the instance, of what Leviathan felt like. The feeling was evidently composite—confused and ominous and exciting—futile and necessitous, intolerably corrupt and inescapably fascinating—the feeling both of a waking nightmare and a steady march. It is an advantage, this feeling, that had Mrs. Adams’ approach been intellectual or philosophical or historical, instead of immediate, prejudiced, and personal, she would never have given us: the advantage of judgment by instinctive taste. That the taste was founded upon integrity and that the integrity was the product of a scrupulous but sophisticated culture, is for the reader to remember. Marian Adams came from Boston, and so brought judgment in her blood. But the Boston she came from was out of power—as it seemed, for the moment; in fact forever—and she served admirably the critical function of pitting against the common American spectacle of irresponsible power an innately responsible sensibility un-depraved by power.

For the rest, for the so-called facts behind the personal response, the reader may be at once sent to the general histories and referred to Mr. Thoron’s excellent apparatus of footnotes and appendices. The histories will provide extension and perspective for the appetites roused by Mrs. Adams and, as it were, certified, dated, and stamped by Mr. Thoron. Especially useful are the certifications provided by Mr. Thoron’s running extracts from The Nation, which represented the Adams or liberal reform side of the politics of the time, and the citations from “The Education of Henry Adams,” which represent the matured, but selective, intellectual judgment of later years.

Similarly—and this makes a good transition—Mr. Thor-on’s biographical notes and citations do a good deal to heighten the interest of Mrs. Adams’ letters as an inadvertent social study of the English and American scene; the notes provide the flavour and prop of identification and so satisfy that instinctive superstition which holds even the scantest genealogy as a firm aid to understanding. Here —for the social interest—it is again the assured Boston blood that energizes the operation of Mrs. Adams’ taste. Boston blood was, as always when not too thin or fanatic, perceptibly salt; it was constitutionally aware of the smart of things, and no smart was so obvious as the smart of pretence or smuggery, of snobbery or cheapness, in oneself or especially in others. Marian Adams’ blood was of an unusually rich solution; richened by travel, by native rebelliousness, by opportunity taken, and by her husband’s extraordinary intellectual power. Her blood, so richened, was her social taste, and her wit was the weapon of her taste; as a certain residual intolerance, an occasional blindness—qualities invariably emphasized in strong character—was her defence of taste violated or uninformed. She rejected Lilly Langtry and Oscar Wilde because their morals were intolerable, and she rejected Whistler’s painting because she was blind to its effect. But she was hardly ever taken in, or not for long, by any person or pattern she did accept. Her taste when it worked was accurate; an expression, more than a measure, of value. What she thought, and the principles of her thought, were either tacit or in abeyance before the magnificent opportunity to see and feel. If she lacked the profound general insight into character and history which her husband expressed at his best, she also lacked the ponderous disadvantage of that insight which is inept because it is merely intellectual. Her taste was resolute, quick, and shrewd in action; sharp for the ludicrous, unerring for the vain and the sham; exquisitely sensitive of detail; and founded ultimately upon a sweet, warm, animal intelligence —the intelligence men think of as feminine, and some women call poetic, an intelligence gracious, vivid, and charming without loss of the rational.

She had a balanced mind, a poise of sense and being, instinct and training, which had so grown and prospered by 1882, when she was thirty-nine, that Henry James, on the hour of sailing for Europe, made deliberately his last farewell to her, saying that she seemed to him “the incarnation of my native land.” Mrs. Adams herself said of Henry James that “it’s not that he ‘bites off more than he can chaw,’ . . . but he chaws more than he bites off,” and she professed herself dubious of James’ tribute. James exaggerated; other types incarnated America more conspicuously; and as an incarnation of anything—even Boston— Mrs. Adams was exceptional; but James had a sound value in mind. It was not the value of her good table, her fine house, her pictures and books and friends, her love of flowers and dogs and horses, her clothes and charm and conversation—nor even, as he was an inspiriting part of her, her extraordinary husband. To be amusing, to be precious in any easy sense, was never enough for James. The live thing was the important thing, and the live thing in a woman was intelligence showing as residual charm, as quickness or slowness, but always as deep or vivid response.

Nothing so shows such an intelligence as habitual overt characterization: a talent which Mrs. Adams had to the extreme of assurance, an assurance, quite beyond either snobbery or intellect, that freshens as it validates the language used and gives it idiomatic twist. I trust that the following quotations will obviate by example much discussion of sociology and manners, will make plain the variety and scope of Mrs. Adams’ sensibility, and send the reader scurrying to the book from which he ought never to have been distracted.

Characterization is not limited to persons, as the sense of a smile is not restricted to the lips; there is a fundamental buried sense in us which is the agent of all response, and which we may find as well touched by landscape as elsewhere. We have a Paris sun in winter which “hangs like a white frost-bitten ball in the sky.” Again, also in Paris, there is the image of “an asphalt phage, with human surf beating on it.” Speaking of the new red brick houses in London: “The smoke and soot softens them at once, so that they look as if they had grown on the spot from seed.” For the same discriminating depth of sense there is this about a Titian in the Prado, which “looks as if it were painted with powdered jewels soaked in sunshine.” Shifting from the colour of paint to the tone of personality we have “a nice, sweet, good woman but not too deep for wading”; we have Browning “who tapped me familiarly on the arm and said, ‘I’m coming to see you,’ in the tone of ‘keep up your spirit.’ ” We have the Duchess of Somerset who “kept throwing up her chin, as if the check-rein were too tight.” We have Mr. Welsh, the American Minister in London, “a quiet Baptist deacon style of man, with no nonsense and no charm”; and for purely physical description, becoming sharp characterization, there is Mrs. Mackintosh—”fat, rosy, placid, torpid, like a nerveless feather-bed.” For a combination of satire and observation there is a sketch of three senators in action: “Bayard is not an orator, is not quick and has a disagreeable nasal twang, and Sherman swallows his sentences, perhaps fearing no one else will. Mahone looks like a weasel, is very small, proud of his feet, one or both of which lie on his desk.” For a pure quip, a propos of being home late to dinner: “One great advantage in coloured cooks and waiters is that they never look black at any unpunctuality-— a few shades browner one does not notice.” For malice of language without meanness of spirit but rather the riches of caricature, I give two examples. Passing through New York to Washington, Mrs. Adams “tumbled plump on the very most lurid of all our pyrotechnic friends—or acquaintances rather—Mrs. E., a lady with a most plethoric past, a precocious present and a future which would baffle and bankrupt any clairvoyant.” At a London cattle show she saw the beautiful Mrs. Ronalds, who had been a Boston girl. “I think she would easily euchre Becky Sharp; has taken a house in Sloane Street, and, I am told, sent for her mama and papa to enact sheep dogs!” For pure luxuriance of created observation—observation that quite transcends the object—there is this from a Royal Academy reception, to describe the ladies’ costumes: “fat fugues in pea-green; lean symphonies in chewing-gum colour; all in a rusty minor key”—which brings us almost back to the landscape sense from which we started, and brings us up, for a conclusion, to the following paragraph, which seems to me to present nearly all the elements of Marian Adams’ sensibility in compact and vivid form.

Yesterday I went to consult Mr. Worth about a gown to go with my Louis XIV lace, which he admired extremely, as I knew he would. He was standing pensively by the window in a long puce-coloured dressing gown with two exquisite black spaniels—twins—sitting on two green velvet chairs. This is what he wants me to have: the main dress gold colour, the velvet only to lay the lace on and at the bottom in front. I have become bored with the idea of getting any new gowns, but Henry says, “People who study Greek must take pains with their dress.” If I were a bonan-zaine I would sail in and make a business of it, but an occasional venture is too much trouble.

If there is one quality to be emphasized beyond others, and beyond the personal quality, in these letters, it is, I think, the quality that goes with the shrewd, quick, constant sense of social elan: the smart and rush of things.


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