In 1917, about a year before he died, Henry Adams remarked in a letter to one of his oldest friends: “I once wrote some books myself, but no one has even mentioned the fact to me for more than a generation. I have a vague recollection that once some young person did mention an anecdote to me that came from one of my books and that he attributed it to some one else.” A good deal of what is most characteristic of Adams is contained in these two valedictory sentences written at the age of seventy-nine. They are haughty; they are drenched in bitterness; and they ignore any and all realities that might spoil the dramatic effect at which they aim. The reader of these sentences would never suspect, for example, that only four years earlier a privately printed book by Adams, which he had finally allowed a commercial publisher to issue after an endless courtship, had broken all the firm’s records for advance sales. Nor would anyone suspect that two years later, in 1915, the same firm would try once again to get the rights to yet another of his privately printed books (which, said the editor, aroused in him “more publishing covetousness” than any book he had ever read).
There are very few people whose company would not become something of a strain after two thousand pages of letters, and Henry Adams is clearly not among them.
But whatever might have been the case during his own lifetime, the world has never stopped talking about Henry Adams since his death. Upon its release to the general public exactly six months after he died, the book which had aroused so much “publishing covetousness” in its future editor achieved, under the title The Education of Henry Adams, an even greater commercial and critical success than its record-breaking predecessor, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Today, sixty-five years later, both of these works of his old age, as well as most of his earlier ones, are still in print. Moreover, articles and books about Adams keep being produced at a rate that might have gratified even a vanity as large as his. In the last few years alone, for example, we have had one book (by Professor William Dusinberre) celebrating the major work of Adams’s middle period, the nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, and another (a posthumously published study by the eminent critic & P. Blackmur) treating Adams in general with almost as much reverence as he himself treated the Virgin Mary in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres. Now J. C. Levenson (the author of an earlier critical study of Adams), Ernest Samuels (whose authoritative three-volume biography of Adams was completed in 1964), and two other literary scholars (Charles Vandersee and Viola Hopkins Winner) have brought forth the first three volumes of a definitive edition of The Letters of Henry Adams.1
Running altogether to nearly two thousand large and closely printed pages, these massive volumes take us from 1858 (when Adams was only twenty) to 1892, when he still had a quarter of a century to live. Three more volumes, of at least equivalent bulk, will therefore be required to complete the project. Yet so prolific a correspondent was Adams that not even the full six volumes will include all his extant letters. Of the 1,519 letters that have survived for the period covered by the first three volumes, “only” 1,277 have been included. Of these, nearly three-quarters have been published before, either in part or in full. The contribution of these volumes is thus 549 new letters and 261 complete texts of old letters previously available in abridged or expurgated form.
No doubt there are specialists who will think this contribution a significant one. But speaking as a general reader, I have to say that the work and the expense that went into this undertaking are not self-evidently justified by the results. First of all, anyone who approaches these letters more or less cold will find them very hard to follow. Adams in his early and middle years was not nearly so allusive and elliptical a stylist as he became toward the end of his life, but these letters are so crowded with people, events, and episodes about which even a reasonably well-informed reader today is bound to be either ignorant or vague that they are often impenetrable. Nor do the stingy little notes provided by the editors help much (though more expansive explication would admittedly have required a great deal of precious space). In addition to being obscure, many of these letters focus on details of little concern to anyone but students either of the period in question or of the life and career of Henry Adams. Finally, there is the problem of Adams’s personality. There are very few people whose company would not become something of a strain after two thousand pages of letters, and Henry Adams is clearly not among them. Indeed, it is a tribute to his gifts as a writer that one can tolerate his tiresome affectations and poses, not to mention his nihilistic attitudes, even for a few hundred pages; but two thousand make an inhuman demand.
In saying all this, I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing of interest in Adams’s letters, or that they are all impenetrable. Actually, to anyone who knows Adams only through the Education—which nowadays includes most of the people who know Adams at all—the letters he wrote in his youth are bound to come as a pleasant surprise. The author of The Education of Henry Adams was a disappointed man in his sixties, placing his great intellectual and literary powers entirely at the disposal of his bitterness. But the Henry Adams we encounter in the first volume of these letters was an exuberantly ambitious young man in his twenties, sufficiently sure of himself to think that the letters he was writing “might still be read and quoted as a memorial of manners and habits” a century or two later “when everything else about us is forgotten.”
At the same time he was full of self-doubt and uncertainty about his future. Should he devote himself to the law or to politics or to literature) And whatever he might choose to do, was he good enough to uphold the Adams heritage and maintain the luster of the Adams name? Both his great-grandfather John Adams and his grandfather John Quincy Adams had, of course, been presidents of the United States, and it seemed entirely possible that his own father, Charles Francis Adams, might eventually follow them into the White House. The young Henry, as the third of Charles Francis’s sons, felt crowded out of politics by his father and his older brothers (or so he said); as for the law, which upon graduating from Harvard he had gone to Germany to study, he soon decided that it was not for him, while he found himself attracted more and more by the idea of a literary career. “I read Gibbon,” he informed his older brother Charles Francis Adams, Jr. (who had the highest regard for him). “Do you know, after long argument and reflexion I feel much as if perhaps some day I too might come to anchor like that. Our house needs a historian in this generation and I feel strongly tempted by the quiet and sunny prospect, while my ambition for political life dwindles as I get older” (this, at the age of twenty-two).
After his student year in Europe, during which Charles saw to the publication of some of his letters in a Boston paper, Henry moved to Washington where his father was serving in the House of Representatives. Again he wrote regularly to Charles in Boston, reporting in great detail on the intricate political maneuverings that preceded the outbreak of the Civil War. When the war finally came, Henry’s father was appointed minister to England by the recently elected President Lincoln, and Henry went along as his private secretary. For the next seven years, he lived in London and now he reported to Charles and others on the intricate diplomatic maneuverings through which his father successfully prevented the British from openly siding with the Confederacy. With the example of Horace Walpole in mind, he also wrote a great many letters about the fashionable society of London and the country houses to which he had relatively easy access (while complaining that his status as an American aristocrat was not sufficiently appreciated by the British aristocrats among whom he moved).
These London letters, frankly written with an eye on posterity, have obviously succeeded in reaching their intended audience, but this does not mean that they succeeded in providing a vivid picture of the “manners and habits” of the time. Henry Adams had a powerful mind and he was a prose stylist of high distinction, but for all his relish of gossip he was no Walpole. Later, when he began writing narrative history, he demonstrated an ability to seize on the telling detail or the memorable anecdote, but, curiously, neither when writing letters nor when writing novels did he have command of that kind of eye. Often he went through the motions, describing balls and dinner parties, transcribing conversations, composing character sketches, and so on. Yet so lacking in spontaneity and so highly self-conscious were these exercises that for the most part they remained dead on the page. And there were occasions when he could hardly bring himself even to go through the motions: “Yesterday we had a pleasant dinner which the feminines will no doubt describe to you, at which Charles Dickens; John Forster, of ‘Goldsmith’ and the ‘Statesman’; Louis Blanc, and other distinguished individuals, were present; and a very jolly dinner it was.” So much for Adams as a chronicler of the life of his times.
In the second volume of this new edition of his letters, we follow Adams, now thirty, back to the United States, where he began publishing serious political essays on the corruptions and abuses of the Johnson and Grant administrations. This led to a joint appointment as editor of the North American Review, a quarterly journal that Adams proceeded to enlist in the cause of political reform, and as an assistant professor at Harvard, where he taught medieval history (a subject to which he would return later in life in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres). But during the seven years he spent at Harvard he also began thinking about and working on what would soon become his main preoccupation: the early history of his own country. It was during this period too that he met and married Marian Hooper (known as Clover).
In 1877 Adams left Cambridge for Washington, where his work as a historian began in earnest. Within an extraordinarily short time, he produced a scholarly biography of Jefferson’s Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin; a more popular book about John Randolph, the great Congressional prophet of Southern secession; yet another about Aaron Burr (which was never published and has been lost); and two anonymously published novels, Democracy and Esther. At the same time, he worked steadily on his massive History, which involved tracking down and copying vast quantities of papers and documents from archives both in the United States and Europe.
His life in Washington, punctuated by much foreign travel, was as rich as it was productive. He was happily married to a woman who was considered by no less a judge than Henry James “one of the two most interesting women in America.” He was surrounded by a loving circle of intimate friends like John Hay, the biographer of Lincoln and a future Secretary of State. He occupied a place at the very center of Washington society.
Not surprisingly, the letters Adams wrote during this, the most productive and happiest period of his life, were full of ebullience, optimism, and more good cheer than most readers of the Education would suspect him capable of. They were also considerably less self-conscious than his earlier letters and were largely addressed to the recipient rather than to posterity through the recipient. But like those earlier letters, they were crammed with details about current political activity of no great interest today—and also, incidentally, with even more tedious detail concerning his financial affairs, his shopping expeditions while traveling, and the building of a new house on Lafayette Square right across from the White House. Then, only days before moving into that house, “Clover” Adams, who had been in a depression since the recent death of her father, suddenly committed suicide. This great blow had a temporarily softening effect on Adams:
During the last two weeks I have learned something more about life than I knew before, but the saddest discovery of all was that I did not stand alone in my extremity of suffering. The whole of society seemed to groan with the same anguish. My table was instantly covered with messages from men and women whose own hearts were still aching with the same wounds, and who received me, with a new burst of their own sorrow, into their sad fraternity. My pain seemed lost in the immensity of human distress; and all these people were still carrying on their daily lives, as I must do.
Though from that moment forward he never stopped speaking of himself as a dead man undergoing a posthumous existence, Adams remained true to this resolution to carry on. He moved into his new house, he continued working on his History, and he went on a series of long journeys, first to Japan and then to the South Seas. Writing mainly to Elizabeth Cameron, a young married beauty with whom he carried on a (probably Platonic) affair for the rest of his life, Adams produced what amounted to a book on Samoa and Tahiti. But except perhaps for a brilliantly memorable series of portraits of Robert Louis Stevenson, these letters, making up the heart of Volume III, no more justify the claim that Adams was one of the great letter-writers in the English language than the earlier volumes do.
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Nor do they justify another claim often made on behalf of Adams: that the great bitterness which increasingly became his most salient quality was caused in some sense by his wife’s suicide. Adams certainly loved his wife, and he was undoubtedly crushed by her horrible death. But the liveliness and vitality of the letters he wrote to Elizabeth Cameron so shortly afterward— not to mention his great passion for her —suggest that he recovered much more quickly and fully than he had expected or than some who have taken his extravagant rhetoric at face value believe.
Was it then America that made Henry Adams bitter? Here after all was a man descended from the most distinguished political family in American history and richly endowed in his own right; yet so bad had things evidently become in the America of his day that he could find no proper role to play in its political life. This was the view Adams himself took of his own case in the Education, and the last time I looked closely at him and his work, which was about twenty-five years ago, I saw no reason to question it. For in expressing his disgust with what had been happening to America in the decades after the Civil War, Adams was entirely at one with the standard diagnosis of the “Gilded Age,” when (according to what my education had taught me to believe) the whole country was being ruined by reckless commercialism and political corruption. Moreover, in saying that he was “heavily handicapped ... in running for such stakes as the century had to offer,” he was proclaiming his membership in the community of those whose very virtues of mind and character had unfitted them for success in the kind of society America had become. This was the society that—or so almost every twentieth-century literary critic since the days of Van Wyck Brooks had been arguing—stifled the genius of Mark Twain and drove Henry James into exile, while exalting “robber barons” like Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller and the venal politicians whom they bought and sold at will. In such a society there was no place for a patrician idealist like Henry Adams.
Nor was Adams an isolated case. According to Edmund Wilson, himself a product of the patriciate:
The period after the Civil War—both banal in a bourgeois way and fantastic with gigantic fortunes—was a difficult one for Americans brought up in the old tradition .... They had been educated at Exeter and Andover and at eighteenth-century Princeton, and had afterwards been trained, like their fathers, for what had once been called the learned professions; but they had then had to deal with a world in which this kind of education and the kind of ideals it served no longer really counted for much.
In speaking here of his father’s generation, Wilson was echoing the ideas and even the language of Adams’s Education. To be sure, Wilson found Adams a much less sympathetic victim than John Jay Chapman, another patrician writer of the same generation who (in Wilson’s words) inflicted “permanent psychological damage” on himself “by beating his head against the gilt of the Gilded Age.” (Chapman, incidentally, was no great admirer of Adams either—“the piping Adams as he sits on his raft in the sunset and combs his golden hair with a golden toothpick.”) But the qualities Wilson disliked in Adams—his coldness and his malice—were, as Wilson’s friend Scott Fitzgerald might have said, merely personal. Adams remained for Wilson a victim of the politics of the period. And for many others, he became, and has remained to this day, one of the main counts in an indictment of America as a country entirely given over to commercialism, philistinism, and corruption.
Having absorbed and accepted this general view for so long, I was taken aback by what I found when I began reading Adams again a few months ago. To start with, what struck me this time more forcibly than before was how bitter Adams was from his earliest days. Even as a high-spirited young man—and long before the world could have given him any cause—he suffered from what he himself would later call “moral dyspepsia.” He had a decidedly sour attitude toward most of the people he met while a student in Germany and then when working for his father in London; he disliked most of the European capitals he visited, including Berlin, Paris, and Rome (which he would later adore); and even in his twenties and thirties, his natural vitality was already subject to corrosion by frequent bouts of anxiety and self-pity.
The second thing that struck me in returning to Adams was the ferocity of his ambition. What he wanted above all else was success, and he wanted it ;n all the usual forms: power, money, status, acclaim. As an Adams, he was expected to seek power— not, to be sure, for its own sake but in order to serve some higher good. Yet he never had a very clear sense of what this higher good might be. At first, he believed in civil-service reform, in the gold standard, in laissez-faire, and in free trade. Later he changed his mind about gold and several other issues. But reading his letters and his books, one comes away with the strong feeling that particular issues were beside the point; Adams simply assumed that the higher good would be served if he and people like him were running the country. “We want a national set of young men like ourselves or better,” he wrote from London to Charles, “to start new influences not only in politics, but in literature, in law, in society, and throughout the whole social organism of the country—a national school of our own generation . . . .”
Adams himself never held public office, high or low, and according to R, P. Blackmur, his “failure in American political society” was not due to any incapacity of his own but rather to “society’s inability to make use of him: its inability to furnish a free field for intelligent political action.” In the past, there had been such a field but America was now “bound for quick success .... It cared nothing for political mastery, and commonly refused to admit it had a purpose beyond the aggregation of force in the form of wealth.”
Now, as it happens, Henry Adams himself, as his letters clearly showed, was not above dreaming of quick success. Nor could any reader of these letters, with their incessant harping on his investments and those of his family and friends, think that he was indifferent to the accumulation of wealth. George Santayana, for one, came away from a visit to Adams with the opposite impression:
“So you are trying to teach philosophy at Harvard,” Mr. Adams said .... “I once tried to teach history there, but it can’t be done. It isn’t really possible to teach anything.” This . . . was not encouraging. Still . . . Mr. Adams’s house . . . [was] . . . luxurious. I got the impression that, if most things were illusions, having money and spending money were great realities.
Be that as it may, there is plenty of reason for dismissing the idea that Adams’s failure to realize his political ambitions proved that American society had become too crass and too fixated on wealth to make use of its best bred, best educated, and most talented young men. For one thing, a good many other young men with backgrounds similar to Adams’s, and with exactly the same education that supposedly incapacitated him, did manage to enter American political life in his time and to make an enormous mark. One of them was Henry Cabot Lodge—the descendant of a family almost as eminent as the Adamses, a former student of Henry Adams himself at Harvard and his junior colleague on the North American Review, a distinguished author, and in general a person of great intellectual gifts—who became perhaps the most important senator of the age. Another was Theodore Roosevelt, who, like Adams, came of patrician stock and was also an author of no small accomplishment (among many other books he wrote a four-volume history, The Winning of the West). And if Lodge and Roosevelt succeeded in electoral politics, Oliver Wendell Holmes (another Harvard friend and colleague) was appointed to the Supreme Court, while John Hay (Adams’s closest friend) was able to become Secretary of State.
The careers of men like these obviously demonstrate that Adams was incapacitated not by his education, his background, or his intellect, but by his lack of the qualities necessary to political success in a democracy—most especially the willingness to subject himself to the judgment and the control of ordinary people. For all their high-mindedness and their fears of “King Demos,” John Adams and John Quincy Adams had this willingness, and their descendant Henry Adams did not. So fastidious was he that he refused to associate with anyone outside the smallest and most select of circles, whether social or intellectual. (“Hang it,” says a character Henry James modeled on Adams, “let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President,” while John Jay Chapman once commented that Adams was a member of “the Secret Society of the Only Intellectuals in America.”) As if this were not enough, Adams was so sensitive to criticism that he could hardly bear to publish his books for fear that they would be exposed to the judgment of an ignorant tribe of reviewers. The idea that such a man could run for office in any democratic society at any time, or even do the demeaning things that are usually required to put oneself in the way of appointive office, is simply ridiculous.
This, at any rate, is what several of his own friends thought. “If the country had put him on a pedestal,” Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked to Owen Wister, “I think Henry Adams with his gifts could have rendered distinguished public service.” When Wister asked, “What was the matter with Henry Adams?,” Holmes replied, “He wanted it handed to him on a silver platter.” And in an unmistakable allusion to Adams in the course of a comment about John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt observed that Hay’s “temptation was to associate as far as possible only with men of refined and cultivated tastes, who lived apart from the world of affairs, and who, if Americans, were wholly lacking in robustness of fibre.”
Sensing all this about himself, Adams never even tried to make a political career. But withdrawing from politics did not mean giving up on ambition. On the contrary, telling himself that political power was “the most barren of all forms of success,” while literature offered “higher prizes than politics,” he decided to concentrate on the writing of history. In this area too his ambition knew no bounds. If he could not be worthy of the family name by getting into the White House, he would travel to glory by an even better route: he would become the successor of Gibbon and the American Macaulay.
In dreaming this dream of greatness, at least, Adams was reaching for something that he had both the character and the endowment to achieve. He was a brilliant writer; he was a patient, scrupulous, and indefatigable scholar; and his talent for observing the world of affairs was as keen as his ability to live in it was poor (for, as Henry James remarked of the character based on Adams, though he might not have been in politics, “politics were much in him”).
Ten years he spent on his History, and when the nine volumes were finally completed and published, the results came as a hideous disappointment. The reviews were on the whole respectful, but no one acclaimed him as the new Gibbon or the Macaulay of America. And whereas both Gibbon and Macaulay had sold in the tens of thousands, Adams’s sales (about which he cared desperately) were very modest.
Here then was a double disappointment. Having turned to literature with an uneasy conscience—for he never could rid himself of the feeling that as an Adams he was supposed to be in politics—but having persuaded himself that literary success was after all better, he failed to achieve even that, at least in his own eyes. It was bad enough that America had frustrated his political ambitions, but it was worse still that it refused to make even his literary dreams come true. And so Adams’s alienation was now complete—so much so that William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, for whom the condition of alienation was the true mark of the American intellectual, could by 1941 see in him “a symbol of our entire culture.”
That Adams was alienated from the America of his day is certainly true, but it has been too easily assumed that the estrangement was entirely the result—or rather the fault— of the changes that came over the country in the Gilded Age. Quite apart from the issue of whether Adams would have been any more at home in the society of his ancestors, there is also a question to be raised about the putative decline of America from their time to his own. In this connection it is interesting to note that, as we learn from Adams himself, the very same charges had been made against the supposedly pure precapitalist America of 1800 as were now being made against the America of the Gilded Age. In “The United States in 1800,” the long prologue to his History, Adams wrote:
In the foreigner’s range of observation, love of money was the most conspicuous and most common trait of American character .... No foreigner of that day—neither poet, painter, nor philosopher—could detect in American life anything higher than vulgarity .... Englishmen especially indulged in unbounded invective against the sordid character of American society .... Contemporary critics could see neither generosity, economy, honor, nor ideas of any kind in the American breast.... [Even Wordsworth] could do no better, when he stood in the face of American democracy, than “keep the secret of a poignant scorn.”
Dismissing the idea that the critics might have been right, Adams insisted that their contempt for America showed nothing more than an astonishing lack of imagination. “Wordsworth might have convinced himself by a moment’s thought that no country could act on the imagination as America acted upon the instincts of the ignorant and poor, without some quality that deserved better treatment than poignant scorn.” Indeed, though the philosophers and the poets could see only rapacity and vulgarity in America, “the poorest peasant in Europe” could discern “the dim outline of a mountain-summit across the ocean, rising high above the mist and mud of American democracy.” Adams went even further:
… the hard, practical, money-getting American democrat, who had neither generosity nor honor nor imagination, and who inhabited cold shades where fancy sickened and where genius died, was in truth living in a world of dream, and acting a drama more instinct with poetry than all the avatars of the East, walking in gardens of emerald and rubies, in ambition already ruling the world and guiding Nature with a kinder and wiser hand than had ever yet been felt in human history.
Every word of this could be applied with equal, perhaps even greater, force to much of what was written by Adams himself and so many others about the materialism, corruption, and philistinism of America in the Gilded Age, when new waves of immigrant masses were pouring into the country, encouraged by a new breed of “American speculator” inviting them (as Adams said their forebears of 1800 had also done) to “Come and share our limitless riches! Come and help us bring to light these unimaginable stores of wealth and power!”
So bad had things evidently become in the America of his day that he could find no proper role to play in its political life.
In short, in speaking of the America of 1880, Adams sounded exactly like the foreign critics he had derided for their blindness to the poetry of the America of 1800, even though most of the changes which had taken place during those eighty years (including the abolition of slavery) had, if anything, been for the better. Nor was Adams blind only to the political and economic “poetry” of his own time; he was also dead to its poetry in the more literal sense. For example, he rarely read and had no appreciation for the novels of his lifelong friend Henry James. “There is no thought in America,” he said at a time when William James and John Dewey, among others, were active. Nor did he have any interest in contemporary American painters like Eakins and Whistler (or for that matter in the French Impressionists, and he positively hated such European writers of the day as Hardy, Ibsen, and Zola).
This alienation from the life of his own time found negative expression in increasingly violent private outbursts and in various “scientific” theories according to which the whole world was in a state of inexorable decline; “the huge eternal cataclysm” was surely coming within fifty years and his only fear was that he would not live to see it. These apocalyptic yearnings were, moreover, invariably accompanied by anti-Semitic outbursts so frenzied that they scandalized even some of his friends. During the Dreyfus Affair, John Hay (no great philo-Semite himself) said that Adams “now believes the earthquake at Krakatoa was the work of Zola and when he saw Vesuvius reddening the midnight air he searched the horizon to find a Jew stoking the fire.” But Hay’s description, with all its humorous extravagance, caught only the obsessiveness of Adams’s hatred of Jews, not the virulence that came out in such remarks as: “The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever.” Or again: “I tell you Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews, represented by Pierpont Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating the country for the last few years.” Or again: “I am myself more than ever at odds with my time. I detest it and everything that belongs to it, and live only in the wish to see the end of it, with all its infernal Jewry .... I want to go to India, and be a Brahmin, and worship a monkey.”
Instead of going to India, however, Adams went to the South Seas to romanticize the primitive culture of Samoa and Tahiti and to lament its impending ruination by Western influence. And instead of becoming a Brahmin and worshipping a monkey, he became (in imagination at least) a Christian of the thirteenth century and worshipped the Virgin Maty. In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Adams’s nihilism gave way for the moment to reverence, as a lyrical talent for celebration which had been dormant since the completion of his History was reawakened by the cathedrals, the poetry, and the philosophy of medieval France. But the old Adams, so to speak, soon returned to write the Education, and here his nihilism, refined into a prose of subtly poisonous elegance and density, informed almost every word. For if the thirteenth century represented civilization at its height and called for reverence, the twentieth century was the culmination of a long process of degradation and degeneration to which the only sensible response was vindictive raillery. As to this invidious contrast, perhaps the best comment was made by Yvor Winters in his long essay on Adams:
Adams arrived at his view of the middle ages by concentrating on a few great products of literature, thought, and architecture; ignoring everything else, he asserted that these were the thirteenth century. He arrived at his view of the twentieth century by reversing the process. He thus deduced that the world was deteriorating, and so found a justification for his own state of mind.
What then remains of Adams today? Despite the best efforts of his epigones and his apologists, the Education is still the only one of Adams’s books that is generally regarded as an indispensable classic. Some critics, Winters among them, consider the History a great work, but there is no use pretending that anyone other than a specialist in the period is ever going to read nine volumes covering only seventeen years of early American history. On the other hand, the prologue and epilogue, which together make up a manageable book, can still be read with great pleasure and profit. The same cannot be said of the biographies of Gallatin and Randolph; for the general reader, they are at best curiosities, while of the perfunctory little book Adams produced on the poet George Cabot Lodge (the last thing he ever wrote) not even that much can be said. Unlike Winters, I find much that is beautiful and illuminating in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, but so technical and so hermetic is it, especially in the long sections on architecture, that only someone with a special reason for doing so islikely to pick it up or to stay with it until the end (even Edmund Wilson, who read everything, could never bring himself to read it). As for Adams’s novels, Democracy (an expose of the corruptions of Washington in the era of Grant and Hayes) is a mildly interesting document, but it has no value as a work of art, and Esther (which deals in the standard terms of the period with the conflict between science and religion) is an embarrassingly poor performance altogether.
We come back, then, to the Education, which many profess to regard as a great work, but which to me now seems repellent in its hostility, its self-pity, and what Wilson called its “stealthy and elusive malice.” It is also so arch and elliptical that I wonder how many of its admirers have been able to follow it any better than William James did. It was, James complained, “a hodge-podge of world fact, private fact, philosophy, irony,” and he told Adams that “A great deal of the later diplomatic history is dealt with so much by hint and implication that to an ignoramus like W. J. it reads obscurely.”
In the early 1950s, when the reputation of Adams had fallen in proportion to the new (and short-lived) enthusiasm among literary intellectuals for “our country and our culture,” Lionel Trilling cautioned against reading “Adams permanently out of our intellectual life.” Trilling acknowledged that there was much to be said against Adams— and he himself said it all—but there were moments when we needed him:
We are at one with Adams whenever our sense of the American loneliness and isolation becomes especially strong, whenever we feel that our culture belongs to everyone except ourselves and our friends, whenever we believe that our talents and our devotion are not being sufficiently used.
This is an acute diagnosis of Adams’s appeal, but there is another way of putting the same point. Thus one can say that Adams has been kept alive as an incitement to and a justification of the hunger of the American intellectual class for the power, and especially the political power, that he himself, for all that he denigrated it, could never stop wanting and envying. The life of the mind was never enough for Adams, and if he is an exemplary figure, what he exemplifies is the self-hatred so many American writers and thinkers have felt over being “mere” intellectuals, and the self-pity they have experienced over what they have taken to be their own powerlessness.
The great irony is that the case of Adams —who remains a force when the names of Rutherford B. Hayes or Chester Arthur are scarcely even remembered—demonstrates how much more powerful intellectuals can be in the long run than even the most successful of politicians. This does not, however, mean that Adams is a force for good. On the contrary, in encouraging a bigoted contempt for this country and in subtly denigrating and devaluing the life of the mind, he has exerted so malignant an influence that, unlike Trilling, I see little of value that would be lost by allowing him to slip into the obscurity he so often boasted of wishing to achieve.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 10, on page 6
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