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Searching for Henry Adams

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983
The Letters of Henry Adams, 3 vols. Edited by J. C. Levenson, Ernest Samuels, Charles Vandersee, and Viola Hopkins Winner. Harvard. $100.

Despite his energetic preference for privacy, Henry Adams has become one of the most sought after figures in the history of writing. Like many of his forebears, Henry was not as uncomfortable in the center of attention as he claimed. Adamses felt compelled to serve and to lead society, even though they doubted that they or anyone would see the world much improved. In Henry Adams’ time, the field for his family’s service had narrowed, and the prospects for making a contribution were dimming. Henry, however, did not retire, but chose his great-grandfather John Adams’ first method, the pen, to teach and persuade. Unlike old John, Henry’s points were often so indirect or clever that the lesson sailed by the reader unrecognized, while Henry grew mysterious. The campaign to understand Henry Adams has now been invigorated by a thoughtful and unexpurgated edition of his letters, three volumes of which have just become available.

My own first encounter with a letter of Henry’s in manuscript was memorable. Many years ago I was in Boston using the splendid collection of papers in the Massachusetts Historical Society when the director, Stephen T. Riley, invited me into his study for a chat. There, on the table before us happened to be a sheet of paper covered by unforgettable penmanship. It was, of course, in Henry Adams’ incomparable hand, which set us to talking about the seemingly universal interest in Henry. Mr. Riley said it occasionally struck him that the Massachusetts Historical Society received more requests to examine Henry Adams material than the combined inquiries about all other manuscripts in the Society’s library. Even allowing that Steve Riley may have exaggerated for effect, his point is instructive. Nearly everyone, it seems, is drawn to Henry Adams. There are many reasons why. He was, after all, part of America’s premier family. Yet he seemed determined to break from that family. His was an ill-starred marriage. He was the center of a circle of fascinating friends. He sought to hide by destroying much of his record, particularly his diary (a grievous loss for literature, although possibly another of Henry’s repudiations of his family, some of whose members, like John Quincy Adams and Charles Francis Adams, left perhaps the finest diaries in American writing).

Most of Henry’s appeal, however, arises from his success as a writer, where, as an American, he may have no superiors and few equals. There was a time when even schoolchildren read The Education of Henry Adams (1918), although its point has been one most people failed to understand. Even such serious adults as Henry’s brothers and sister confessed to being baffled by this book. Brooks Adams considered it a foolish attempt to be jocose. Despite its appearance, the Education certainly was not an autobiography, nor is it reliable as a personal record. But as great literature it triumphed. Nearly as successful has been Henry’s other major writing—the still towering achievement of the nine-volume History of the United States of America (1889—91) dealing with the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1913), the book which architects, philosophers, medievalists, and lovers of literature generally have adored; his two novels, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884); and A Letter to American Teachers of History (1910). The range of concerns touched by Adams’ pen was astonishing, extending from Memoirs of Marau Taaroa Last Queen of Tahiti (1893), through the essay “The Rule of Phase Applied to History” (1908), to the poems “Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres” and “Buddha and Brahma.” The list goes much further.

Still, it may prove that Adams’ letters will eventually be acclaimed his greatest success as a writer. Despite occasional efforts by him to destroy them, these letters have survived to a surprising degree. Now, one of the important publishing events of the decade, a definitive edition of Henry’s letters, strengthens our knowledge of him. From the moment he died in 1918, there was wide popular interest in reading Adams’ correspondence, so that nearly 2,000 letters had been published in various places by 1980. This was, however, less than half of the 4,500 letters known to exist. Of those which were printed, many appeared only in part, or were inaccurate or bowdlerized. Now, with this new edition, these widely scattered letters have been drawn into one setting in a masterpiece of editorial work.

The latest collection of Adams’ letters was possible because the Massachusetts Historical Society, owner of much Henry Adams material, saw the value of making these manuscripts readily available. Under the guidance of Stephen T. Riley, by then the director emeritus of the Society, a long-awaited microfilm edition of Henry Adams’ papers was produced in 1979. There are 36 reels in all, including the letters in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s possession, as well as the Henry Adams correspondence found in the Houghton Library of Harvard University and the materials located in the John Carter Brown Library of Brown University. This microfilm edition contains letters both written and received by Henry. In the course of completing the filming a number of manuscripts, until then unknown or believed lost, were found.

Thereafter, many other Henry Adams letters came to light through the meticulous efforts of the scholars who began preparing a letterpress edition. This project was also sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society along with the Harvard University Press and generous aid from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation. The center for this editorial project has been the University of Virginia, where work on the Henry Adams letters has gone forward in the Alderman Library near the offices where the editing of the George Washington and James Madison papers proceeds, these being two other great editorial enterprises encouraged by the university. Henry Adams probably would have been less impressed by this juxtaposition than by the fact that his letters were entrusted to some of the most capable hands available.

The editing of Henry Adams’ letters has proceeded under the eyes of four scholars, two of whom have written what many persons believe are the best studies of Henry Adams. These two, Ernest Samuels of Northwestern University and J. C. Levenson of the University of Virginia, have been joined by Charles Vandersee and Viola Hopkins Winner, colleagues of Levenson. Their efforts, as contained in the three volumes at hand, are a great success, illumining the uncertainties of each letter with grace and restraint. A memorable feature of the work is the introduction, an interpretive sketch of Adams and his career, written by J. C. Levenson. This essay is the refuge hereafter for anyone seeking a brief, wise, and accurate story of Adams’ life.

These first three volumes—there are three more soon to complete the enterprise—enclose the period of Henry Adams’ life from 1858 to early 1892. Letters known to survive from those years number 1,519. Of them, 1,277 are published here, including 549 never before printed, and 261 which are published in full for the first time. Also present is a wonderful assortment of illustrations, some familiar, but many new ones. There is a special treat, a beautifully reproduced set of the watercolors painted by Henry during his escape to Tahiti in 1891, where he had the tutelage of John La Farge. There are also maps, genealogical charts, and an excellent bibliographical essay by Charles Vandersee.

Volume one of this edition covers the years 1858—68 in seven chapters or sections, each preceded by a brief, helpful introduction. These chapters take Henry on his postgraduate wanderings in Europe, through his experience in Washington with his congressman-father during the secession winter of 1860—61, and then to England, where he served as confidential secretary to Charles Francis Adams, who was the United States minister to Great Britain from 1861 to 1868, Volume two (1868—85) has six sections which follow Henry through his attempts to be a journalist in Washington, thereafter as professor and editor at Harvard, and as a married man who became an independent writer and observer in Washington after 1877. Then European trips, scholarship, and the eventual breakdown and suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper (Clover) Adams, dominate the rest of the volume, which closes in 1885 with Henry’s grief over the loss of his wife. The third volume (1886—92) has seven sections. These tell of Adams’ heroic striving to conclude his work on the History, his deepening friendship with Elizabeth Cameron, his travels to the far Pacific, and his eventual determination to resume life in America. The notes and chapter beginnings throughout these volumes are models of the assistance which editors too rarely bring by combining accurateness, completeness, and brevity.

Only in these three volumes can be found Henry’s dependable interpretation of his life from 1858 to 1892, so far at least as he was prepared to express it. In volume three, for instance, is the text in full of Henry’s letter to Mrs. Cameron begun on 5 November 1891 after a reunion in Paris had failed to please either of them. Here Henry tells her, “I would give you gladly as many opal and diamond necklaces as Mr Cameron would let you wear if I could only for once look clear down to the bottom of your mind and understand the whole of it.” (Ill, 557) The letter is much more than a statement of a man’s immemorial bewilderment over woman; it is Henry’s announcement that his hope of fulfillment through Lizzie Cameron would not be realized: “. . .the apocalyptic Never. . .” (111, 558) Still, this marvelous letter, composed over seven days, closes with Henry’s cry, “Yet I wish—I wish—I wish, I could see clear through your mind. You have a nature like an opal.” (111, 560)

Henry might also have been describing his own personality and the quality of his letters—all having the rich play of prismatic colors which brings the beautiful opal to mind. But these gems need a setting to realize their full charm. Grateful as all of us must be to J. C. Levenson and his colleagues for bringing forth these Adams letters, there is, alas, something lacking. In our time, fearful publishing costs have excluded from this edition the letters written to Henry, documents which the reader needs fully to appreciate the contents of Henry’s letters. While the correspondence received by Henry can be found in the film edition of these manuscripts, in going there the reader loses the superb guidance of Professor Levenson and his editorial group. So, we have Henry’s letters alone, leaving the reader to imagine such personalities who sent letters to Henry as Elizabeth Cameron, Charles Milnes Gaskell, John Hay, Brooks Adams, Henry’s younger brother, and Mary Cadwalader Jones, Edith Wharton’s sister-in-law. These are only some of the individuals with whom Henry traded many letters, exchanges in which both sides of the correspondence survive. Henry was a masterful letter writer, but so were these other individuals, who, alas, will have to remain shadowy figures for many who read these new volumes.

The student of Adams’ manuscripts must live with another handicap. Many letters of Henry’s no longer survive. The losses are numerous and grievous. I particularly lament the disappearance of Henry’s letters to his parents in Massachusetts from Italy, where he watched his sister die from lockjaw in July 1870. Volume two of this new edition gives us all that survives out of an episode so important in Henry’s life and that of his family. These are Henry’s letters to Charles Milnes Gaskell—”dear Carlo”—of 8,13, and 25 July 1870. (II, 73—76) While these are helpful, they are meager evidence of what went on in Henry’s mind and what he probably wrote to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Francis Adams, whose knowledge of their daughter’s tragedy came from Henry’s now lost reports.

The distance between Quincy, Massachusetts and Florence, Italy was as wide as the estrangement between the third and fourth generations in the Adams family. Henry’s sister, Louisa Catherine Adams Kuhn, the eldest child in Henry’s generation, had rebelled even in youth against the fate of being female, against the demands of Adams family life, and against the conventions of American society, A constant cause of sorrow and worry to her parents and siblings, Louisa—”Sister Lou”—had spent most of her adult life as a dilettante émigré. Her father, who had considered Sister Lou to be potentially the most brilliant woman of her generation, remarked dolefully on the terrible waste of her life. Henry, too, was devoted to his sister, but meditated with much sorrow on the folly of her career, not realizing how much of his own later life would also be spent wandering in Europe. When Sister Lou lay near death, Henry’s letters to his parents must have been marvels of discerning commentary about both the scene and himself, for Charles Francis Adams praised them in his diary. Charles feared that Henry would become as rootless and wasteful as Sister Lou. The grim episode was powerful in Henry’s life, bringing him to decide to end his own wanderings and accept appointment to the faculty of Harvard and thus to settle down in Boston. These letters Henry wrote in the critical summer of 1870 very likely were among his most revealing, yet they have vanished.

Other losses among Henry’s manuscripts include Henry’s letters to Clover and her family, her father’s replies to his daughter and her husband, and Henry’s letters to his brother John (the most relentless destroyer of manuscripts among the family). Such missing elements reduce severely our under-standing of Henry, as do other woeful losses. Many of Henry’s letters from his father have vanished, for instance, despite the otherwise voluminous and complete files of the elder Adams’ writing to survive. To learn of Henry’s parent’s views on the matters predominant in these three volumes, a reader must consult C. F. Adams’ great diary which, for these years, remains accessible only in microfilm.

A surviving clue to the character of Henry Adams is found in the abundant papers of the younger Charles Francis Adams, the brother with whom Henry was so close during many years. While Charles is now largely forgotten, he deserves a better fate, having been one of the most underrated literary talents of his time. This was something Charles realized and allowed to roughen his already abrasive personality. Eventually, the long-delayed publication of Charles’ Memorabilia may help set things right, as well as bring us closer to Henry.

We do not have Henry’s diary, save for brief but compelling fragments from a time soon after Clover’s death. These bits are published by Professor Levenson and his colleagues, but they are so few that no fair comparison can be made of Henry as a journal-keeper with his father and grandfather, Charles Francis and John Quincy Adams. These two were at their best in writing diaries, leaving posterity possibly the best work of this kind in Anglo-American literature. It may prove that an Adams, in order to be genuine, had to be alone with himself. That was the case with the two presidents and Charles Francis—and the glimpse of Henry in his diary suggests the same may be true with him—as it was also with his brother Charles. Take, for instance, lines Henry placed in his journal on 3 June 18880:

Another long season ended, and all ready to begin the Quincy trial [caring for his senile mother], I have had a gloomy week, not quite so desperate and wild as in my worst days, but, so far as I can remember, equally hopeless and weary. I long for travel, but must imprison myself for another year. I went, last Thursday, with the Cabot Lodges and a small party, down the river to Mt Vernon on the Despatch. The dissipation cost me three days of despondency. Mrs Cameron and Martha left yesterday for Harrisburg, and cost me another day of low spirits. (Ill, 118—19)

Tempting though it is to speculate about these fragments of a diary, it is the presence of the many wonderful and complete letters now brought together which allows a much fuller appreciation of the many sides Henry Adams displayed of himself in his correspondence as he pursued, even in these relatively early years before 1892, a practice which his brothers later liked to call Henry’s habit of talking through his hat. Malice, racism, tenderness, ambition, pride, humility, pomposity, harshness, and gentleness were only some of the attributes he chose to display as the occasion seemed to require. This was true even in his letters to Elizabeth Cameron, John Hay, Charles Milnes Gaskell—all for whom his affection was profound.

Take, for instance, as a promise of what lies ahead for those who read these volumes, Henry’s observations to Elizabeth Cameron in one of the last items in this collection, written 18 January 1892 from London:

Queer sensation, this coming to life again in a dead world. People are rather glad to see one; ask no questions; slide silently over all that has come between, as though all the ghosts were taking tea with us, and needed no introductions; and so we rattle on about today and tomorrow, with just a word thrown in from time to time to explain some chasm too broad to be jumped. . . . Even Harry James, with whom I lunch Sundays, is only a figure in the same old wallpaper, and really pretends to belong to a world which is extinct as Queen Elizabeth. I enjoy it. . . . These preposterous British social conventions; church and state, Prince of Wales, Mr Gladstone, the Royal Academy and Mr Ruskin, the London fog and St. James’s Street, are all abstractions which I like to accept as I do the sun and the moon, not because they are reasonable but because they are not. They ask me no questions and need no answers. (Ill, 603)

Preceding this excerpt and running back through the years from 1892 to 1858 are Henry’s often playful, sometimes earnest, frequently brilliant, but always appealing observations on politics, art, letters, the economy, and personalities. So much is here that it would be caviling to mourn the absence of the other Adams letters destroyed or lost. No doubt it is a marvel that so many of Henry’s letters—and those he received—did survive. He, with his father and brothers, may have broken with the saving habits of John and John Quincy Adams by destroying letters, but the number of manuscripts was enormous and the process of pruning never very concerted. Thus we have enough to bring us close to the real Henry Adams in these newly published volumes, even if one side of the correspondence had to be omitted. The editors supply answers to most questions and describe other personalities so admirably that these books should bring pleasure to many readers.

In fact, fine as Henry’s books may be, I believe that these letters, now so well presented, reveal that his greatest literary attainment is the graceful, witty, and wise correspondence he carried on with many of the most engaging minds and personalities of his time. Actually, however, I find Henry most himself and unfeigning with Lucy Baxter. These volumes contain 30 of his letters to Miss Baxter, who was a Southern-bred woman who had been an intimate and helpful friend of Henry’s sister Louisa, and who was invaluable to Henry and his brothers when she served as companion to their aged mother, Abigail Brooks Adams.

Each reader may now seek the real Henry Adams in these and the remaining three volumes of letters forthcoming. While the completion of this splendid edition cannot occur soon enough, the three volumes at hand will invariably be rewarding to those who set out to discover Henry Adams. This will be as true for those who come newly to the search as for the veterans of many efforts to know the author of these letters, which to all lovers of history and literature may reasonably be considered the most charming and instructive written by an American. Let Henry Adams teach and charm us, even if the nature of the man may stay just beyond reach— for that, after all, was what Henry had in mind.


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