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The Fascination of Henry Adams

The daguerreotype over my desk well represents the sour, combative, fiercely concentrated intellect of the sixth President of the United States. With the possible exception of Thomas Jefferson, this was the most remarkable mind ever to attempt direction of the nation’s affairs. Yet he was almost totally ineffective in the White House—a failure that, with his unusual comic objectivity, he attributed as much to his pursuit of moral perfection as he did to the baseness of politicians.

President John Quincy Adams’s grandson Henry, the most inclusive and most farseeing historical imagination in our literature, regarded himself as a mere spectator of the political game. He had his own reasons for calling himself a “failure”: every Adams was one. Success in politics always means another man’s defeat; it is a dirty game that leaves everyone empty and disillusioned. That is a typical observation in these many brilliant letters—an incomparable commentary on politics, literature, science, and the world at large in the last half of the nineteenth century. John Quincy Adams won the Presidency in 1824 by making a deal with Henry Clay that damaged his reputation and made him a powerless President. Typically, he attributed his unpopularity to the inability of lesser minds to share his executive vision. The whole superfluous revenue should have “checkered [the Union] over with railroads and canals.” The President sought a national university at Washington. When there was not a single astronomical observatory in the Western Hemisphere, he was ridiculed for advocating in his first message to Congress “lighthouses of the skies.” It was a matter of course that “governments are invested with power to one end—the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed.”

John Quincy Adams was alarmingly an intellectual. His father John Adams, the future first Vice President and second President, took little John Quincy along when he went to France as a commissioner during the Revolutionary War. “J.Q.A.” began his higher education in Paris—at eleven. At thirteen he was at the University of Leiden, where he began the fullest diary of public life kept by a modern statesman. At twenty he was out of Harvard and was soon ready to practice law in Boston. But he disliked the law and was to refuse a seat on the Supreme Court. At twenty-seven he was minister to Holland and thereafter minister to Prussia, U.S. Senator from Massachusetts (while Boylston Professor of Rhetoric at Harvard), minister to Russia, chief of the delegation at Ghent that drew up the treaty with England ending the War of 1812, minister to England. As Monroe’s Secretary of State, he negotiated the Florida treaty with Spain, got the Oregon boundary dispute postponed, secured the recognition of the independence from Spain of the Latin American countries, drafted the Monroe Doctrine, and himself did the research for the classic report he wrote on weights and measures. After being defeated for a second Presidential term by Andrew Jackson, he served as a congressman from Massachusetts for seventeen years. At eighty-one “Old Man Eloquent,” as he was now called, collapsed and died in the House of Representatives after securing the defeat of the South’s “Gag Bill” prohibiting the discussion of slavery.

I keep John Quincy Adams over my desk because I am fascinated by intellectuals in politics. From Robespierre to de Gaulle, the Adamses to Woodrow Wilson, they are so steeped in the past and confident of the future. (Like Trotsky, they are always surprised by their frustrations.) For four generations, either as statesmen or historians—the two Presidents were both—the Adamses were at the center of American politics. As early as 1869, they were the only Americans listed in Francis Galton’s pioneer study, Hereditary Genius. But ending with and in Henry Adams, perhaps the most gifted, certainly the most theatrically disillusioned of them all, the family history, as Henry’s father Charles Francis Adams said, “was not a pleasant history to remember.”

In Descent from Glory, the most informative account we have of their troubles with each other, Paul C. Nagel notes that “no Adams made a comfortable accommodation to life.” They were proud of virtually incarnating America’s great beginnings but were easily irritated and made a point of being truculent. They had the highest expectations of themselves and always felt defeated. Henry was convinced that his grandfather “was disappointed because he was not supernatural.” They were all writers—Henry is now recognized as a major one. They went everywhere, knew the luminaries of every period, described each experience in letters that often became works of art. Each of them was passionate about literature, and up to Henry, who was free to write, complained that their duty to the state kept them from literature as their chief love. But they actually wrote so much that Charles Francis Adams had a public library built just to hold their diaries, letters, records, family portraits. The voluminous Adams papers now being gradually published by the Massachusetts Historical Society are a national archive in themselves. These magnificently edited first three volumes of Henry Adams’s correspondence between 1858 and 1892 (three final volumes will eventually carry the letters to 1918) make it clearer than ever that the Adams family history is a national treasure.

The story begins with a Puritan shoemaker and church deacon whose son John was the first of his family to enter Harvard. John became New England’s most accomplished legal advocate in the colonies’ struggle with England. John also had the wisdom and the great good luck to marry Abigail Smith. Though deprived of Harvard and unable to spell as well as her anxiously self-improved husband, extraordinary Abigail was the doughtiest of patriots, the most loving and most astringent of correspondents (“I would have you remember the ladies”) to her husband. She alone kept farm and family together when “my dearest friend” was in Europe for years at a time negotiating the new republic’s first treaties.

John and Abigail begat John Quincy, John Quincy and his “exotic” wife (one parent was from Maryland!) begat Charles Francis, Charles Francis with another Abigail (daughter of the richest man in New England) begat Henry. Henry with his clever but suicidal wife “Clover” begat nobody. Henry’s sometimes fiendishly accomplished, subtle, and ironic mind has fascinated readers of The Education of Henry Adams ever since it was posthumously published in 1919. Because in skepticism, style, and general intellectual bravado it so clearly belonged to the 1920s, not to the exhausted innocence of his own century, the book was somehow born an American classic, became a best seller, won the Pulitzer Prize. No one loved it for the character the author presented of a man beyond all political hope. What will always fascinate those with a taste for history is Adams’s personal experience of history and his grasp of events, I know of no other American, except his grandfather, who saw so much of the great world in Europe and America, described everything so closely, and so obsessively called himself a “failure.” His ambition was to make of “History” a universal science.

“I seed de beginnin,” Faulkner’s Dilsey says about the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury, “ennow I sees de endin.” Henry Adams, born during the administration of Martin Van Buren, felt that he was an eighteenth-century type like his forebears, but that he had been condemned as a man, privileged as an observer, to live through the greatest success story of modern times, the triumph of American capitalism. This brought what Henry’s even more vitriolic brother Brooks called “the degradation of the democratic dogma.” Before he died at eighty in wartime Washington, 1918, Henry had lived long enough to see “a new universe of winged bipeds . . . British airplanes sailing up and down under my windows at all hours.” The airplane just stood for an extension of energy. Like the dynamo Adams immortalized in his contrast of the dynamo with the influence of the Virgin Mary over the Middle Ages, the airplane represented mechanical power—the real meaning of modern times, magnificently exciting but humanly self-defeating. As early as 1862, writing from England, Henry wrote to a brother at the front that

Our good country the United States is left to a career that is positively unlimited except by the powers of the imagination…. You may think all this nonsense, but I tell you these are great times. Man has mounted science, and is now run away with it. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science may have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide, by blowing up the world. Not only shall we be able to cruize in space, but I’ll be hanged if I see any reason why some future generation shouldn’t walk oil like a beetle with the world on its back, or give it another rotary motion so that every zone should receive in turn its due portion of heat and light.

History was exciting—and frightening—because it showed a pattern. In the Education, which is not an autobiography (its publisher subtitled it that) but history demonstrating itself on a single life, Adams admitted that sequences are stories. He was writing a story. But like Zola engrossed by the hereditary determination of every human life, Adams saw in his own story, the last of the House of Adams, the inevitable decline and fall of the modern period. It was dedicated to nothing but the exponential increase of energy, and therefore must approach a limit that it would not know how to absorb. The ever-increasing concentration of the world’s affairs on mechanical power already left man morally out of the picture. The humanities would become more and more introverted in an effort to escape history as nemesis.

Only an Adams could have personified so much history from the American Revolution to “Mr. Wilson’s War.” Only this Adams, who, while working on his “scientific” History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison described Jefferson as a “grasshopper” helplessly struggling against history, could have projected so much historical powerlessness into his own life. Actually, so much “sense of an ending” was not in Adams’s mind until December 6, 1885, when Clover took her life. In 1872 he had happily married the brilliant if neurasthenic Marian Hooper, and by 1877 had permanently left his teaching post at Harvard in order to live in Washington, just across Lafayette Square from the White House. He needed the State Department archives in order to begin his History. In Descent from Glory Paul Nagel shows that the Adamses also left Massachusetts because of the friction between Clover and Henry’s rigid parents, who found their biting, easily depressed daughter-in-law not assimilable to their lofty standards.

The Adamses as a family had always been tough on Clover; she was a Sturgis on her mother’s side, and the Sturgises, though among the most distinguished New Englanders, had a sad history of instability. Clover’s sister Ellen was also to be a suicide, and her brother Ned, after trying to do himself in, died in a mental hospital. Clover had lost her mother when she was five; she remained emotionally dependent on her widower father even after her marriage, and regularly wrote him a full account of the bridal couple’s travels from Egypt and England. In Washington, each Sunday morning, she wrote her father an account of the social doings that the Adamses engaged in despite their scorn for most of the local politicos. (A story by Clover’s friend Henry James had a character modeled on Henry Adams worrying to his wife that for Washington their taste was perhaps “a little too good.” “Let’s be democratic!” he says. “Let’s invite the President!”)

Dr. Robert Hooper, Clover’s father, died on April 13, 1885. Clover’s worst depression began in May. On a Sunday morning in December, when Henry was out, Clover took her life by swallowing the cyanide that as a photographer she used to develop pictures. Henry was forty-seven, “too young to die, too old to take up existence afresh.” Years after he said that her death was “an open secret between myself and eternity,” that he had been “thrown out of the procession.”

In The Education of Mrs. Henry Adams Eugenia Kaladin easily convinces us that like Abigail Adams and so many other brilliant American women, Clover never had the education and intellectual training she deserved. Without being as hard on Henry’s Adams-like stiffness as other feminist historians have been, she does make Clover’s loneliness very probable—Henry was an unbelievable worker. He had always been the most restlessly inquisitive of traveling scholars; his early letters describing Garibaldi in Sicily and England during the Civil War are masterpieces of observation, as witty as they are penetrating. Now, after Clover’s death, he went with the artist John LaFarge to Hawaii, Japan, Samoa, Tahiti. LaFarge’s famous feeling for color was to help turn Adams from the austere historian into the sensuous memoirist of the Education and the pictorialist of the Middle Ages in Mont-Saint-Michel & Chartres.

The fullest and most extraordinary letters in these first three volumes were written from the South Seas to Elizabeth Cameron, the young and beautiful wife of Pennsylvania’s aged Senator and political boss, Don Cameron. Adams the widower was in love with Mrs. Cameron, made his passion clear to her, but roamed the Orient for years in order to keep the proper distance. Probably the most famous of Adams’s letters is his very long, very sensuous description of the naked “siva” dance by a Samoan woman—it was of course written to the elegant “Lizzie” Cameron in Washington he probably never so much as touched. Henry James, who was to be astonished by the sensuous qualities in the Education, never wrote anything so lustful and unashamed as Adams’s tribute to “primitive woman.” But perhaps Henry James never suffered the pangs that Henry Adams betrayed when he wrote to his unattainable Lizzie that all man knows of Paradise is in the “three little words which the eternal man says to the eternal woman.”

It was also typical of Adams’s passion for total history that as a physical anthropologist of sorts he collected measurements of the Polynesian natives, made additions and corrections to Darwin’s theory of how coral reefs originated, and left snobbish but marvelously graphic portraits of the emaciated and dying Robert Louis Stevenson, who had taken his riddled lungs to the South Seas. Adams’s feeling for history, said his traveling companion John LaFarge, amounted to poetry. Of course he condescended to the Japanese, who like all Orientals were described as “child-like.” But it was also typical of him to collect and analyze Japanese art before it became an influence on the West. With his special feeling for local expectations in every culture he studied, he also guessed, long before Japan broke out of its isolation, just how far its concentrated feudal “energy” would carry it in the modern world.

Adams’s sense of history was so inclusive that it understandably tempted him to put it into “law.” Although he presumed to make a “science” of history, it was actually the art of history that he was best at—history as the actual appearance and complication of mankind, history as manners, pretense, personal ambition, and undying hatred. These letters, stretching over the last half of the nineteenth century, are truly amazing in their undeviating intelligence, knowledge, and witness to the triumph and heartbreak of history. From Boston to Tokyo, Washington to Palermo, London and Paris to Samoa, they make up such a record as no other American was privileged and gifted enough to leave.

Adams after his death in 1918 was to emerge as one of his century’s recovered modernists—like Whitman, Melville, Dickinson. His sense of the tragedy of modern history was to make him one with Eliot, Hemingway, Joyce. Life, he wrote after Clover’s death, “is a preposterous fraud.” But like the author of Ulysses, he knew that tragedy, though we alone feel it, is in the “nightmare” of history, from which the artist seeks to “awaken” us. Behind Adams’s sense of tragedy is that passionate identification with history that only the greatest artists have attained.