Portrait of a Failure

Daniel Aaron

Henry Adams is a rare bird in American letters: rich, autonomous, and socially unassailable; descendant of Presidents, secure within the genteel Establishment, yet holding himself aloof from it; historian of his country, toward which he felt a proprietary concern; and, by his own reckoning, ‘a failure in politics and literature, in society and in solitude, in hatred and in love’. For many intellectuals, The Education of Henry Adams defined their predicament. They relished its irony, learning and worldly tone, and saw in Adams’s gloomy appraisal of his age and its prospects a corroboration of their discontents. Today his catastrophic imagination is tuned to current fears, and he continues to draw strong responses from both admirers and detractors.

The best introduction to Adams is still Ernest Samuels’s biography, published in three volumes between 1948 and 1964 and now issued in a one-volume abridgment. ‘My aim,’ Samuels writes in the preface, ‘has been to bring Adams’s personality and career into sharper focus than the detailed treatment of the earlier volumes permitted.’ Nothing has been lost in the retelling, and much has been gained. The life unfolds lucidly and without authorial finger-wagging; the discussions of Adams’s writings blend happily with the narrative of his literal and intellectual wanderings. Henry Adams, who called biographers assassins and equated biography with strychnine, could not have found a more sympathetic interpreter. The modicum of poison in this wise and artful book has been gently administered.

Samuels is one of a team of scholars headed by J.C. Levenson (himself the author of an innovative study of Adams) who after an arduous stretch have brought out Adams’s letters – more than four thousand pages of them – in six impeccably edited and annotated volumes. Besides enriching the stock of informal American literature – for embedded in them are novelistic episodes and passages of power and beauty – the letters constitute a kind of epistolary autobiography that complements Adams’s more reticent memoir.

The Education, although written in the confessional vein of Augustine and Rousseau, blotted out – Adams was more voyeur than stripper – as much as it revealed about its subject. He described it as a meditation on ‘the direction, tendency or history of the human mind, not as a religion, but as fact’. But it has also been read as a ruse to forestall murderous biographers, a didactic non-fiction novel (the manikin hero a character bearing the name of its author), an apologia, a covert message to the Happy Few. The letters qualify the self-revelations of the Education and fill in its gaps. They don’t ‘tell all’ – that wasn’t Adams’s style – but they do trace the changes in his fortune and disposition, how he came to be ‘Henry Adams’. Some merely record encounters with friends, household business, travel plans, social gossip and the like. They are sprightly enough but not of much import. A number of others, no less vivacious and salted with malice, are vents for his antipathies: namely, parvenus, political enemies of the Adams family, Congressmen, reformers, mongrel breeds, Irish-Americans, and above all Jews, whom he loathed, feared and half-admired to the point of mania.

To say, as the editors do, that Adams conflated the word ‘Jew’ with ‘banker’ and ‘gold’ scarcely does justice to the intensity of his revulsion. Figuratively speaking, Banker Pierpont Morgan was also a ‘Jew’, but one socially within the pale. The international Jewish Bankerhood were not; nor were the clever ‘spiteful’ Jews Adams occasionally consulted or patronised. Only grudgingly did he concede to the persevering Bernard Berenson a measured intimacy.

His phobia or ‘humour’ can be diagnosed as an aggravated case of a prejudice shared in varying degrees by other ‘improvised Europeans’ like Henry James, Edith Wharton, George Santayana, T.S. Eliot and Pound. His interpreters haven’t ignored or condoned his obsession, but neither have they explored its possible bearing on other aspects of his thought and personality. He seems to have looked upon Jews as an unsavoury mix of the ‘oriental’ and the ‘modern’, quintessentially commercial, ugly harbingers of an ugly future. He detected their handiwork in every war and panic, and studied them as barometers of social disintegration. Observing the Jews and the Moors in Spain gave him, he quipped, a more liberal view of the Inquisition. The presence of 450,000 Jews in New York City alone, ‘doing Kosher’, proved to him that ‘God himself owned failure.’

Such extravagances were consistent with his adopted pose. The very act of letter-writing, he pointed out, tended to exaggerate ‘all one’s mistakes, blunders and carelessness. No one can talk or write letters all the time without the effect of egotism and error.’ Yet obviously he saw no harm in flourishing his biases before indulgent friends. And indeed from ebullient youth to sententious old age, his letters were performances of the sort intended to entertain, condole, advise, inform, rebuke, or merely to blow off steam, the contents often less noteworthy than their stylish packaging. He appeared to be watching himself as he enacted a series of roles: Conservative Christian Anarchist, éminence grise, Cosmopolite, Licensed Scoffer.

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