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Two American Odysseys

ISSUE:  Winter 1939

Letters of Henry Adams, 1892-1918. Edited by Worthington Chauncey Ford. Volume Two. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.50. The Letters of Lincoln Steffens. Edited by Ella Winter and Granville Hicks. Two volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $10.00.

Few Americans can claim legitimate descent from Odysseus, but both Henry Adams and Lincoln Steffens can. The “Education” and the “Autobiography” proved that. It is true that in both cases an Odysseus wrote his own “Odyssey.” This was not true of the Ithacan, unless we expand the Homeric question to include even that possibility; and for those who want to know more about Odysseus than the “Odyssey” tells, it is a major literary catastrophe that his letters were never published. We Americans do things better: now, in addition to the “Education” and the “Autobiography,” we have a second volume of letters from Adams and two volumes from Steffens. We have Homer’s word for it that Odysseus saw many towns, learnt the minds of many men, strove to win his own life, and sought in vain to save his company. Adams and Steffens knew towns and men. Beyond that, their objectives appear to have differed a good deal.

Adams wanted to educate himself, as everybody now knows. But as old age grew older, and as dyspepsia bore him down, his method of winning his own life became a flight from boredom; and as capitalism rotted to its finish, he gave up trying to save his company. In fact, August, 1914 made him cry bitterly: “to me the crumbling of worlds is always fun,” a remark that Odysseus never made and was perhaps too busy to make. The reader may rightly object that the “Odyssey” does not tell what many modern readers have asked: “What happened to Odysseus after his triumphant reunion with Penelope, if indeed he stayed put any time at all?” Old age permanently beached Adams, and his last quarter-century, recorded in this second volume of his letters, ought perhaps to be treated as a postscript to the main poem. He was old. He was bored. His private income was threatened by the rising tide of socialism and bad government. He had indeed known many men in many towns, although chiefly among nice people, and the nice people were dying off. Querulously, but a little triumphantly too, he noted that you never meet ladies and gentlemen any more. Most of what he saw about him was common and unclean. Worst of all, perhaps, he could not even tell about what they did at Troy. For Adams had never been at Troy, and he regarded those who had been, as egregious nincompoops.

Let no reader object that there are Troys and Troys and that for Adams Troy was not Washington but Chartres. Adams had indeed been to Chartres. But, as real as his own thirteenth century was, he came of a line of American statesmen and he longed for the clamor of armor and the dust of political battle. He watched Grover Cleveland break a lance, he was pleasantly outraged by our Theodore, disgusted by the fat-boy stupidities of Billy Taft, preferred the writings of Marcus Aurelius to the wisdom of our philosophic President, Mr. Woodrow Wilson. But not an Achilles did he see anywhere. Still, one longed for action. Thus, all roads led him back to Washington, to political gossip, to disgust and another round trip. Thus, too, though he refrained from public office, his natural appetite for politics led him to castigate nearly everybody who held office, and made of him a somewhat genteel back-seat driver, with a surer knowledge of bumps in the road than of either steering gear or road signs. Like most genteel back-seat drivers he put a pretty high value on his knack with cars.

All this accounts for the humorous despair, and even excuses the somewhat lit’ry style, of these later letters of Henry Adams. They will not add much to our knowledge of the man who wrote them. They will not add much to our knowledge of the period. They will give keen joy to some readers but only, one suspects, to those who like to know important people and to live among them familiarly if vicariously. For Adams knew the right people clear to his death.

Lincoln Steffens is an Odysseus of a different stripe. Like his Greek prototype, he did his soul-searching by searching the souls of other men. He was less interested in recording the effects of life on himself than in trying to affect life. Perhaps it helped that, where Adams had private means, Steffens had to earn his bread as well as win his own life and try to save his company. Where Adams saw many towns, and recorded what the climate and the food did to him, Steffens saw perhaps as many, not as a gentleman traveler but as a shrewd journalist. Adams learnt the minds of many men, for he had little difficulty in getting introductions. But by his own statement there was little enough in most of the minds. Steffens had definite objectives that drove him straight to the men who actually controlled things, in so far as things were being controlled. In order to get his man, in the way a good journalist must, he had to put himself in that man’s shoes; and muckraker and reformer that he was, he soon found himself trying on some pretty queer shoes. But it was more instructive than most of the table talk that Adams could get by his more leisurely methods. Certainly, Steffens emerged with a considerably greater knowledge than Adams of how all the numerous other halves live. Adams was an able thinker, playing at being a man of action, or anyhow at knowing more about practical affairs than the men of action knew. Steffens, like Adams, did not obey a yearning to enter politics; but he was in action up to the neck.

From being a student, Steffens became a muckraker journalist and liberal. Then he found out how much more complicated a substance muck is than the liberal ever guesses; and that made him a radical during the post-war radical-hunt. Whatever he was at a given time, he never ceased active and painstaking enquiry. He never got bored. He never got dyspepsia. His zest, if anything, increased; and it was genuine zest. Like Adams, he recognized that capitalist society was approaching the abyss. But where Adams saw only further degradation in collectivism, Steffens turned to collectivism as to the next chapter of an increasingly interesting book. Adams became, in his own favorite phrase, a conservative anarchist—with an income based on dividends from copper—and Steffens saw that, compared with Lenin, the leaders of bourgeois society were both conservative and anarchical. Like Odysseus, Steffens had the integrity to jilt a lady and take ship again; unlike Odysseus as we know him, Steffens had in his declining years the vitality to beget a boy and a book.

If Odysseus actually did write letters during his voyages, they may have been even better than these letters of Lincoln Steffens. For, among other things, Odysseus pulled a long bow, even among his wife’s suitors. But one would have to see Odysseus’s letters to be sure. How can they have been much more vivid, more humorous, courageous, gay, informative, and wise than these amazing letters from one of our own contemporaries? Adams was positive that the art of writing letters had died, and his own letters are so artistic they almost prove his contention. But the artless letters of Steffens prove quite the contrary. They would do credit to any century, to any odyssey.

Odysseus and Steffens both won their own life in a sense not true of Adams. They both retained their faith in the grandeur, as well as the tragedy, of man’s destiny. Odysseus strove in vain to save his company and bring them home. We Occidentals, who are the company Adams and Steffens strove to save—Adams till he grew dyspeptic and Steffens till he died—can bear witness in 1938 that the company has not yet been saved. But the letters which Steffens, not Adams, left behind him, throw out some useful hints on which cattle not to eat if we would reach port.


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