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The Man In the Ironic Mask

ISSUE:  Winter 1982
Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure. By William Dusinberre. Virginia. $20.00. Henry Adams. By R. P. Blackmur. Edited by Veronica A. Makowsky. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. $19.95. Henry Adams and the American Experiment. By David R. Contosta. Little, Brown. $4.95.

The publication of three Adams books in one year attests to a fascination with Henry Adams’ life and thought that seems no less intense than his own interest in the topic. Nor are there any signs that such attentiveness has peaked. Harvard University Press is publishing a new edition of his letters by several hands, including his most thorough biographer, Ernest Samuels, and his most influential interpreter, J. C. Levenson. Writing about Adams exceeds that devoted to any other American historian and is longer than Adams’ own corpus, which is itself remarkable for its range and breadth.

The three recent books on Adams diverge sharply in scope and method. Contosta’s is a brief contribution to the Library of American Biography series that is designed to introduce the reader to the subject. Adams lived eight decades, which were enriched with lustrous relatives, talented friends, subtle books, and wide travel; and since he also had a personality that John Hay described as “half angel, half porcupine,” Adams defeats the genre that Contosta has adopted. The approach is straightforward and more sympathetic to his subject than Adams himself was in The Education of Henry Adams, which he refused to classify as an autobiography but which remains an incomparable record of an American life. Emphasizing the patrician’s frustrated quest for power and his disenchantment with the democratic experiment, Contosta strikes the right notes but misses the deeper melancholy of Adams’ music.

Because of the book’s sketchy treatment of Adams’ metaphysical impulses, Contosta does not elucidate the fate to which this fin-de-siècle intellectual subjected himself. For as he aged, Adams elected to isolate himself from his contemporaries, becoming absorbed in problems that seemed to vex almost no one else. It is true that he never recovered from his wife’s suicide in 1885, of which he rarely spoke and which his Education does not mention. But his was the most piquant case of a thinker’s self-inflicted wound. His mind penalized itself by an excessive and morbid pursuit of the endgame of entropy, and surely only the playfulness in which Adams couched his adaptation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics buoyed his sanity. Contosta fails to reckon the full cost of this treachery of intellect, though it must also be acknowledged that Adams never became a systematic thinker, even in politics. As might be expected of the scion of the most famous of political families as well as a friend of John Hay and Theodore Roosevelt’s, Adams bristled with opinions. But unless his early devotion to civil service reform is counted as theory, Adams was primarily a kibitzer who rarely speculated on the perennial problems of freedom and authority or, as his great-grandfather did, on representation and sovereignty.

His views on such issues were only obliquely stated, usually in historical form. Adams wrote three biographies, dozens of essays, and the History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison. Though little read, the nine volumes of his History made his reputation in the discipline which yielded to the professional standards he helped to impose. Carl Becker and Richard Hofstadter deemed it the supreme instance in America of the historian’s craft; and Yvor Winters, reaching for an even higher note, called it “the greatest historical work in English, with the probable exception of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” Dusinberre, himself a political historian, has embroidered such praise into a thesis that places the History near the center of Adams’ literary career and the meaning attached to his life.

Along the way Dusinberre also illumines some of the corners of Adams’ psyche, and here he is more penetrating than Contosta. But his book is chiefly concerned with Adams’ scholarship, which does not suffer in comparison to Gibbon’s or Macaulay’s. For Adams did not endow his historical characters with elegant speeches that they never uttered, as Gibbon did; and his prose is devoid of Macaulay’s bombast. It is hard to disagree with Dusinberre’s conclusion that Adams’ study of the early national period nevertheless “lacks the richness of human sympathy necessary to the greatest literature.” Its scope is also too restricted; the History is not commensurate with its author’s gifts. As a rnagnum opus, it is not as ill-conceived as, for example, the History of U.S. Naval Operations in World War II by Samuel Eliot Morison (whom Adams also knew). But immersion in, say, the Treaty of Ghent tended to narrow Adams’ accomplishment, as Dusinberre convincingly argues.

The book’s larger proposition is less satisfactory, and that is the “myth of failure,” or what might be termed Adams’ fib. Dusinberre insists that his subject’s “life is not to be seen in the distorting mirror he himself constructed,” and adds the warning that “our century would blunder were it to take the old man at his own low estimate of himself,” That self-depreciation, Dusinberre alleges, was grounded not only in the guilt Adams felt for his wife’s death but also in the public indifference his writings inspired. The subversion of his political and social ambitions is often noted; at least as important was the recognition for his literary achievement that Adams craved—and rarely got. Almost three thousand sets of his History were sold within a decade of its publication in 1891. But the Education, which was privately printed in 1907, mentions that ten men who had read the volumes had yet to be encountered.

But of course “our century” (whoever that is) has not held Adams to the same impossibly high standards he set for himself and which caused his spirit to turn so rancid. The Education itself became a best seller upon its posthumous publication in 1918, when it suited the apocalyptic mood as fully as Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes, also published that year and written prior to the war. The “myth of failure” is one in which only Adams himself was trapped. He has been an inescapable presence in American intellectual history, and the numerous estimations of his career and thought have generally been quite favorable. Adams’ work, far from being undervalued, has been taken far more seriously than Dusinberre’s warning needs to be.

Indeed, one aspect has been esteemed more than it deserves to be. In the novels, Democracy and Esther, Adams failed to realize the dramatic possibilities inherent in his ideas about self-government and religion; and the dullness of his fiction is too well-guarded a secret. R. P. Blackmur at least acknowledged Adams’ ineptitude as a novelist, even as the critic was demonstrating the power of Adams’ thought to compel admiration. Blackmur’s first full-scale essay on the topic, “The Expense of Greatness,” was published in this quarterly in 1936; and when he died almost 30 years later, seven hundred pages of manuscripts and several boxes of notes were left behind. This volume, edited by a Princeton doctoral student, brings together some (but not all) of Blackmur’s published essays on Adams. It also presents for the first time some (but not all) of the manuscripts, which reveal how closely Blackmur identified with his subject.

The collection is uneven, as it arbitrarily follows the trajectory of Adams’ own literary vocation. But it is blessed with the critic’s thoughtful maxims and asides, one of which is especially applicable to Adams: “Men are not so much marked by experience as by the precautions they take against it, and by the devices to which they resort to reduce to tolerable form the experience they could not help having.” Because the vulgarity and corruption of the Gilded Age were so repugnant to gentlemen, Adams managed to convert a minus into a plus, choosing to interpret events rather than trying to affect them. He withdrew from the actuality of life in order to make it intelligible, however perverse his own impulse to render that plus as a minus again. But the aptness of Blackmur’s insight—one of many—is worth underscoring.

To this reviewer’s taste, Blackmur’s prose is ordinarily so dense that it becomes forbidding, without the saving slyness and wit of Adams himself. Something is amiss when an exegete is more difficult to understand than a writer who was himself notorious for the number of legs he pulled and for the ambiguities he devised to conceal his anxieties. For example, after Adams had mailed to his fellow historians a couple of pamphlets adumbrating the sinister ramifications of physical science, he complained to his brother Brooks: “The fools begin at once to discuss whether the theory was true.” Self-mockery and irony encased so much of what Adams wrote that it is tempting to suspect in him an irrepressible—and indecent—need to justify his own cynicism. Historians who did not take to heart his notifications of impending disaster validated the sense of his own isolation. Those who read his pamphlets at face value were not clever enough to detect the satire on science Adams may have intended, thus also confirming his belief that his work went unappreciated. As a founder of the New Criticism, Blackmur often came suffocatingly close to mental processes that were too dexterous for their own good. Unfortunately, Adams lacked the common sense of Benjamin Franklin, who once observed that “the most exquisite folly is made of wisdom spun too fine.”

It is nevertheless impossible not to be moved by Blackmur’s portrayal of Adams’ final, cranky years, which the Education of course omits. By then Adams’ restless nature required all sorts of dislocations. Some were in time: he was beguiled by the medieval urge toward harmony and order, to which Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres paid a tender tribute. Some were in space: the descendant of two presidents liked to spend half the year in France. In 1912 he booked return passage on a ship that did not complete its maiden voyage, and the sinking of the Titanic darkened his fears about the excessive pride in the redeeming power of technology. Soon thereafter Adams suffered a stroke; and, though he recovered, he was doomed to live another six years, watching the world plunge into a war that he had once believed—with uncharacteristic optimism—the statecraft of John Hay had contrived to avoid. Adams had become Eliot’s Gerontion, that “old man in a dry month . . .waiting for rain.” He was buried next to his wife in Rock Creek Cemetery, as he intended, with “no inscription, date, letters, or other attempt at memorial”; and the figure that the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created for them is not only mysterious but almost terrifying in its blankness.

But his legacy was not to be anonymous, not when Blackmur could define Adams’ greatness as “a mountain to be mined on all flanks for pure samples of human imagination without loss of size or value. That is the double test of greatness, that it show an attractive force, massive and inexhaustible, and a disseminative force which is the inexhaustible spring or constant declaration of value.” Such was Adams’ virtuosity. He was a scholar of the past who wanted to be a seer. His grasp of the sublimity of art was as deep as his absorption in the problems of science. He could distill the beauty of medieval architecture with the same air of finality that he bestowed upon his satirical depiction of U.S. Grant. But ultimately Adams tried to make sense of a universe not notable for its hospitality to human meaning and purpose. No wonder he was a “failure,” which he compounded by conspiring in his own defeat. By refusing to accept honors or show up for them when they were presented, he ensured that the signs of recognition ceased. Yet his grappling with the riddles of cosmos and society still shows impressive signs of struggle; his books do communicate the passion of ideas.

Of course he made mistakes, though Blackmur for one chose to overlook them. Since Adams’ arabesques of theorizing were dependent on the rule of phase, it is odd that he got wrong the name of the Yale physicist Willard Gibbs, who in fact qualified the Second Law of Thermodynamics that Adams found so remorseless. The Education blames Harvard College for not having informed him of the existence of Marx’s Capital, the first volume of which was not published until nine years after Adams’ graduation. But then he assumed the worst of his alma mater, and of life, for which schooling had not equipped him. Over lunch in his Washington home, Adams announced to a member of the Wilson Administration: “Young man, I have lived in this house many years and seen the occupants of that White House across the square come and go, and nothing that you minor officials or the occupants of that house can do will affect the history of the world for long.” The guest that day was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who might be rated as having exercised at least a marginal impact upon the history of the world. The course of events punctured even, or especially, Adams’ most grandiose claims. According to his law of electrical squares, he wrote in 1909, the ethereal phase would “bring Thought to the limit of its possibilities in the year 1921.” He thus anticipated the inauguration of Warren Harding but not anything worse. The sourness of his last years does not enhance his reputation, and the historical profession that he adorned was not entirely wrong in ignoring his predictions.

Capaciousness of intellect alone does not account for the interest Adams continues to command, and another explanation can be proposed: he was different. Despite his formidable surname, he was not a very good American. Although he was bewitched by the problem of being an Adams, that obsession with family is itself exceptional among a people for whom, as Tocqueville observed, ancestors are forgotten, descendants are hidden, and “the track of generations is effaced.” In a country so committed to the idea of progress, Adams was unusual in his sense of declension and in his pessimism; and the dream of upward mobility could hardly have influenced him. Schooling was central to the credo of the 19th-century American, yet “education” is virtually a derogatory term in Adams’ account of his bewildered life. Doubt rarely shadowed the national faith in popular sovereignty, yet Adams traced the degeneration of American democracy after the Civil War and generally scorned the elected representatives of the people. He questioned the special destiny that, according to prominent 19-century Americans, Providence was supposed to have granted the United States; and he suspected that his country was not insulated from the recalcitrant dilemmas of power and morality which punctuated the history of everyone else. The American trust in the power of science to rescue humanity from toil and pain is well-known. But Adams, whether challenging the Darwinian description of ascent to higher forms or staring at a dynamo in a Parisian exhibition hall, refused to corroborate that faith and instead envisioned forces veering out of control. His fellow citizens rarely considered the possibility that the light at the end of the tunnel might be a train. He was an Adams, but he was also, quite poignantly, an outsider.

He of course emphasized his own estrangement. Adams called himself an 18th-century man, for he found attractive the balance and equipoise he believed had marked the Enlightenment. He lived long enough to learn of warfare which was conducted with tanks and poison gas; and he foresaw, in “the stupor of science before radium,” that “morality would become police. Explosives would reach cosmic violence.” It is understandable that, faced with 20th-century complexity and multiplicity, Adams exaggerated the harmony and unity he attributed to European culture in the 12th century, in truth a time fraught with ferment and factionalism. But what unified the medieval experience was worship, to which Adams himself was not attuned; he had to work without the safety net of faith. The depth of his unfulfilled religious yearnings made him a Victorian, for whom the perils of lapsed faith still mattered. That is why Adams, for all of his doubt and his despair, is not very modern—and therefore different.

Few modern thinkers can still enter the mental atmosphere that Adams inhabited. The chairs of speculative historical thought are largely vacant. Few historians adhere to the positivist ideal that promised that the past might be rendered with utter objectivity, and fewer still even attempt to follow the implications of modern scientific thought. Grand laws of social development are rarely projected any more; in contemporary social science, the only law accepted as valid is “But not in Japan.” The fragmentation of culture is now so effective that it is almost inconceivable for a scholar to be able to write luminously about medieval France and authoritatively about 19th-century America.

There are some discontinuities in the political ambience as well. The calibre of democratic leadership remains problematic, but no one advocates the return of the gentleman. When an antiwar dermatologist, Captain Howard Levy, was convicted in 1967 of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman,” an appellate court ruled that no definition of a gentleman could be agreed upon. The assumption of American historical exceptionalism is no longer widely accepted, and to that extent the disenchantment which Adams felt has found contemporary echoes. But even neo-conservatives profess little if any nostalgia for an earlier era of stability and deference.

What has not endured is the complex of opinions and ideas which Adams espoused, although a case could be made for his warnings against the unrestrained application of science; and even those who do not share his sense of catastrophe are required to wonder about limits to the subjugation and transformation of nature. The real source of his appeal, however, is the self that he conjured into being; and so long as American society sponsors curiosity about the individual personality, The Education of Henry Adams is likely to retain its status as a classic. That book was the return ticket of his voyage to the end of night; and it remains, quite unfairly, the standard against which all the subsequent biographies and interpretations are judged.


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