The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams 
by David S. Brown.
Scribner, 464 pp., £21.20, November 2020, 978 1 9821 2823 4
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Threebooks made me fall in love with the dynamics of history: The Forsyte Saga, Buddenbrooks and The Education of Henry Adams. I discovered Adams’s autobiography last, when it headed the preparatory reading list, alphabetically organised, that I was sent in advance of arriving at university. (I still haven’t got round to the other autobiography in the As, Saint Augustine’s, which might have led somewhere very different.) Printed privately for friends in 1906, the Education was published six months after Adams’s death in 1918 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography the following year. Many readers have been enchanted by its candour, and many more by its teases, distortions and evasions. A product of his historical detachment, literary skill and privileged position as the grandson and great-grandson of presidents, Adams’s review of 19th-century American development is incisive, apparently insightful and certainly idiosyncratic. His faux-reticent third-person self-criticism established him as a more intriguing figure in readers’ minds than any of the public figures he skewered with practised astringency. Reading it now, the Education seems more mannered and ponderous than Galsworthy and Mann’s sagas, but its description of haut-bourgeois confusion in the face of social change is just as effective.

Adams’s account of himself starts with an illusion – that a boy born in 1838 possessed of his lineage held all the cards in life – and charts the unrelenting loss of certainty that followed. He was born in Boston, whose Puritan conscience and Unitarian rationalism had shaped the early years of the American republic, but which could not cope with its pre-Civil War tensions, let alone its frenetic postwar reinvention. A Harvard education provided judgment, restraint and independence, but not leadership skills, because it had nothing to say about capitalism or science, evolution or empire. Adams was brought up to regard the Washington political stage as his natural domain – his great-grandfather John Adams was the first president to live in the White House; his grandfather was John Quincy Adams – and he could never keep away from the city and its gossip for long. But his early political heroes soon revealed feet of clay, and his acute self-awareness told him not to chase after office in an era defined by simple men of crude force like General Grant and, later, Teddy Roosevelt. The money power was rampant; no one valued ‘trained statesmen’. One theme of the Education is that the juggernaut of government, and its temptations and pressures, ruin all who seize power: ‘the distortion of sight – the warping of mind – the degradation of tissue – the coarsening of taste – the narrowing of sympathy to the emotions of a caged rat’. Adams’s mission became to interpret it all. His writing was prolific, opinionated and ambiguous enough that it has launched a fleet of biographies, editions and collections of his letters over the last century.

David Brown’s fine Life is the latest to grapple with Adams’s paradoxes and limitations: his inconsistent ego, his contradictions, his Waspy waspishness. It deals with his reserve and self-consciousness, his reluctance to risk failure, his unconvincing indifference to public recognition. It charts the Adams family’s ambivalence on the issue of slavery – they made themselves unpopular with Boston merchants by standing against it in the 1840s, but after it was legally ended they resisted attempts to tackle racial discrimination in the Southern states. Like others before him, Brown attributes Adams’s lack of sympathy with post-Civil War American politics to his good luck in spending the war in fashionable London society (his father was the United States representative) rather than in a Union Army camp. Brown also effectively exposes Adams’s outbursts against ‘Jew bankers’, an unpleasant aspect of his alarm at the increasing power of capitalist interests over American life. And he tackles the mystery of Adams’s wife, Clover, who seems to have been as introverted, ironical and critical as her husband; their friend Henry James thought her ‘a perfect Voltaire in petticoats’. Her main enthusiasm was photography, but she went to great lengths to avoid any record being made of her face. There is no mention of her or their (childless) married life in the Education, and Clover killed herself in 1885 after thirteen years of it – probably because of pressures in her own family as well as hereditary depression.

Perhaps the most important of Adams’s personality traits was his critical detachment. He was honest about his indifference to poetry and his coldness towards religious feeling or Emersonian transcendentalism. Many commentators – though not Brown – have condemned him for lack of enthusiasm, reducing him to a bringer of bleakness and bile. In fact, his showy mordancy was balanced by a great deal of personal kindness, a gallery of close and gifted friends, and a constant curiosity about the modern world. His sculptor friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens produced a medallion portraying him as the ‘Angelic Porcupine’.

Many historians have a soft spot for Adams because he applied his detachment where it was most appropriate: the practice and understanding of history. His ambition was to historicise everything he considered. The Puritan inheritance manifested in a determination to make something of his life, an intense seriousness about working out his opinions, and tremendous powers of organisation. Having the run of the 18,000 books at the Adams Old House in Quincy shaped him much more than the dusty traditionalism of Harvard. After graduating, he decided to study in Berlin, thinking it the home of honest philosophical and historical enquiry. Instead he found an even worse dustiness: unadventurous lecture-based learning in the service of petty bureaucratic militarism. Still, he retained a sense of what Germany ought to stand for, which was sharpened by his disappointment with the intellectual life of 1860s London, a ‘dilettante museum of scraps’. The most interesting historians there, Buckle and Macaulay, had been too singular to found a school. Freeman, incapable of ‘critical combinations’, offered only naive enthusiasm and arrogant bias. Stubbs, lacking artistic talent, merely compiled a dictionary, while J.R. Green, who had great talent, was tempted into areas he knew nothing about. The best that could be said for Froude and Kinglake was that they were agreeable at dinner.

It’s difficult to know how seriously Adams would have pursued the historian’s vocation had his father not used his connections to find him a job in the Harvard history department in 1870. He claimed not to want it; he took it because it was attached to the editorship of the North American Review, for which he liked to write. Nonetheless, he shook up the department’s teaching, mainly by importing the Germanic ideal: rigorous historical method pursued through private study with a professor and combined with seminar discussion. He worked with three PhD students, including Henry Cabot Lodge, to probe early German legal codes for the antecedents of English and American common law, and he subsidised the publication of their joint volume, Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (1876). This exercise demonstrated his perfectionism and, together with his editing of the Review, took a lot out of him. The ‘whole problem of education’, he later wrote, was that the necessary rigour could only be applied in groups too small to make financial sense for universities. (Indeed.) He continued to find Harvard as a whole unappreciative of him; in 1877, he retired on a whim to live off his private income. It would undoubtedly have been better for him to remain and undergo the curious satisfaction of shaping one’s ego to the service of an institution.

Adams’s historical writings in the mid-1870s show him struggling with the eternal, insoluble problem facing the historian: how to find a plausible pattern in the past, test its durability against the full weight of evidence and then communicate it in clear, attractive prose. He wanted to show that the Anglo-Saxon units of local government, the hundred and the shire, put English public and private law on a democratic footing. ‘In the Teutonic race, the people always have been the rightful source of political power.’ These institutions were also the foundation of Parliament, though the Anglo-Saxon version became corrupted by aristocratic factionalism and monarchical assertiveness, needing to be reconstituted centuries later. These perspectives influenced Adams’s novel Democracy (1880) more than is often realised. Though he was a cultural elitist, Adams knew that there was no alternative to democracy, a natural step for societies founded on the Anglo-American constitutional model. It was a raft on a shoreless ocean, but men had floated better with its support than with anything else. In London, he had watched the last vestiges of an aristocratic political order collapse in the face of the more forceful and honest radicalism of industrial England, as personified by John Bright and W.E. Forster. The question Democracy asked was egotistical in form: was this an arena worth entering? Adams’s way of answering it was to reinvent himself as a woman, Mrs Lee (Adams on gender is a fascinating study). She has the conceit of gaining political influence in Washington for reasons of philanthropy. But by the end of the book, her nerves are in pieces, shredded by the self-serving masculinity of the political world: its subordination to the money power, but also the fierce narrowness of its grasping egos, sufficiently degraded to think that fighting over political baubles is a worthy way to spend one’s limited time on earth.

The Education skips over the 1870s and 1880s, because Adams was desperate to draw a veil over his marriage, but also because in those years he thought he had found peace as a historian. Between 1879 and 1884, he published several volumes on the politician Albert Gallatin and a biography of John Randolph (his grandfather’s old nemesis), as well as Democracy and another novel, Esther. He followed this in 1889-91 with a nine-volume History of the United States between 1801 and 1817, based on research in archives at home and in Britain, France and Spain. (This was all funded by his private income of $40,000 a year, boosted considerably by his sociological interest in the stock market.) He was trying to narrate the making of a coherent nation, and clearly enjoyed the process of working out patterns, forming judgments and honing his prose. But he already felt that even presidents could do little to arrest the flow of history: Madison and Jefferson were ‘like mere grasshoppers, kicking and gesticulating, on the middle of the Mississippi River’. After 1892, he changed tack, away from long archive-based accounts, realising that he had not solved the problem of history, because it was impossible: new perspectives, subjectivities and complexities would always need to be taken into account.

One trigger for Adams’s re-education was the financial crash of 1893, which intensified his hostility to anti-social ‘gold bugs’. He sympathised with the ‘silverites’, who urged an inflationary bimetallism in order to help indebted farmers. Politics was entering a new and dangerous phase: he once remarked that economic doctrinaires who preached the gospel of tight money were trying to shut it down as an arena of moral choice. Another excitement was the surreal turn taken by science, with the discovery of X-rays and then radium. Adams had been sceptical about the neatness – as he understood it – of the theory of unbroken evolution trumpeted by Darwin and Lyell; if that was science, history was definitely more amusing, and truer. He had preferred to go on hikes with his geologist friend Clarence King, during which they admired and discussed the impact of natural catastrophes on the landscape. Now, he thought, scientists might have to become less smug and boring.

Adams became obsessed with exploring the contrast between the complexity and confusion of a modern world powered by impersonal forces, and the serenity and unity of the medieval mind. He thought that the relentless rise of the machine gave humanity a false sense of its own power, and then crushed it heartlessly. He lamented the blindness with which his past self had complacently celebrated constitutional historical models. In his address to a bemused American Historical Association in 1894, he warned members who continued to practise scientific history that they risked becoming apologists for brutal capitalism (or communism) and an arms race. Increasingly he was drawn, like a latter-day Ruskin or Viollet-le-Duc, to the beauty of medieval art and architecture, and its oneness with nature. In 1904, he privately published Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres: A Study of 13th-Century Unity, a meditation on the masculine and feminine elements in the medieval mystical vision. The Education, ‘a study of 20th-century multiplicity’, was intended as its sequel and antithesis.

Read closely – more closely than I managed at eighteen – the Education’s opening is deceptive. The book is less about an aristocratic intellectual’s unsuitability for a democratic world than about an apprenticeship in an absorbingly difficult but vital modern skill. Adams did not shrink from the challenges of life; rather, he consistently expected his opinions to matter. As a young man touring Italy in 1860, he thought it natural to send back his thoughts for publication in the Boston Courier; those from Washington appeared in the Boston Advertiser, and those from England in the New York Times. Adams’s life seemed significant enough – to himself – that it could illustrate the whole of modernity. He must have intended the Education to be his epitaph – with the bonus that he would not have to endure foolish criticisms of it. He would have been greatly pleased, but perhaps not particularly surprised, to find himself far more prominent in America’s collective memory than Grover Cleveland, the archetypal Gilded Age president.

The Education had another, equally egotistical purpose: to proclaim the Adams family’s role in the forging of American national power. The longest set-piece in the book is an account of his father’s diplomacy in London during the Civil War, and Adams’s role as his private secretary. It is suffused with suspicion of British motives, deriving from his belief in the ‘impenetrable stupidity’ of the British governing mind as evinced since the 1770s. Adams claimed always to have distrusted the pledges of Palmerston and Russell that Britain intended to remain strictly neutral in the conflict. His narrative exposed their hidden purpose – to encourage the South to secede, in order to check the growth of a world rival – and suggested the skill of father and son in outwitting it.

Adams’s artful presentation has influenced quite a few accounts of the Civil War, and offered aspiring historians, including my young self, a neat case study in political hypocrisy. Yet most recent accounts of British policy regard his thesis as massively overdrawn. The same is true for the book’s final chapters, which focus on the role of John Hay, Adams’s neighbour and closest friend, as secretary of state between 1898 and 1905. Hay’s achievement, Adams suggests, was to persuade a declining Britain to accept America’s vision for the Western hemisphere, and then to use Anglo-American authority to discipline Germany and Russia, preventing those two aggressive powers from dismembering China and instead forcing them to co-operate in the establishment of a global pax Americana. The heroic Hay died in office with the task apparently complete, his daily walks with Adams having subtly fortified his mind and spirit. The Education was finished a few months later. Adams left it unaltered, because in 1912 a stroke ended his literary activity. As a result, he never responded intellectually to the world’s discovery in 1914 that his book’s culminating claim was the greatest illusion of them all.

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