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.

One of them pretty much superseded the others by the mid-stage of his life: that of the bored and languid philosopher-worldling, quick to discern the signs of universal rot. He has learned to laugh at abominations and to measure men and events by their entertainment value. (It says a lot about him that the most frequently recurring words in the letters are variants of ‘amuse’.) Educated by experience and well acquainted with failure and grief, he has lived long enough to be caught up by his own destiny and finds ‘a summer-like repose’ in accepting his fate, ‘a self-contained, irresponsible, devil-may-care indifference to the future as it looks to younger eyes; a feeling mat one’s bed is made, and no one can rest on it till it becomes necessary to go to bed forever ...’ This stoic pose is comically at odds with the histrionic player who over-reacted to real and fancied crises and likened himself at the crest of his powers to a ‘corpse’, a ‘ghost’, a stranded ‘wreck’. An apter representation was Saint-Gaudens’s caricature of him on a bronze medallion, the domed head in profile attached to the body of a bristling porcupine.

‘My dispute, or rather my defence against self-criticism,’ Adams wrote to Barrett Wendell in 1909, ‘is that our failures are really not due to ourselves alone. Society has a great share in it.’ The letters orchestrate this theme of self-exculpation. He comes of age only to discover that politically speaking ‘the House of Adams’ is ‘buried’ and ‘beyond recovery’. History in the guise of Andrew Jackson and U.S. Grant had seen to that. Ancestral traits presaged the family’s decline. The Adamses had good reason to think well of themselves (they had ‘held in succession every position of dignity and power their nation could give’), but they were a stiff lot, resistant to change and ill-equipped to compete with the upstarts who took over the country after the Civil War. His disdain for these blackguards made him no less critical of his forebears, who, given their virtues, weren’t ‘built on the large self-sufficing scale’ of the great Virginians. ‘The New Englander,’ he decided, ‘is, and always was, narrow, nervous, and self-distrustful often, always introspective, uneasy, and till lately, intolerant.’

Accordingly, he and his friends had been fatally conditioned by their inheritance and culture – by Unitarianism, Harvard College, and by the Boston that ‘cankered our hearts’. At 20, he already felt his youth had been taken away ‘by force of arms’. How sad that he couldn’t be ‘gay and fascinating, and that everyone should think me old and mannered’ – but then there wasn’t much point in trying to be what one wasn’t. Fifteen years on, he was doing his best not to become the most odious of all things, the Bostonian ‘intellectual prig’. After another thirty years, he pinpointed his ‘vice’ as ‘self-depreciation’, his ‘moral weakness’ as ‘self-contempt’. And in an often quoted letter to Henry James, he classified himself Type-bourgeois-bostonien, ineradicably respectable by the very nature of things. Lineage and upbringing determined his failure and, so he wanted to believe, extenuated it.

Yet the letters also show that the hapless pawn willed his alienation from America, elected to abandon the scholar’s lot for Washington glitter and to place worldly success and proximity to power above literary achievement. His ‘failure’, if it can be called such, lay in undervaluing his gifts. John Jay Chapman blamed Adams and his fellow ‘dilettanti’ for admiring America too much and despising her too much: ‘They could not help bowing the knee to success, though they did so with a sneer upon their lips.’ The letters bear him out. Adams made much of his so-called anarchism (‘As a man of the world, I like confusion, anarchy and war’), but the ‘man of sense’ shied from ‘the policies of disaffection’ and suffered the powerful ‘imbeciles’ who lacked, he said, brains, education and courage. From start to finish he remained a political and economic conservative. Still, it hardly makes sense to imply that the author of a multi-volume history of Jefferson’s and Madison’s administrations (a work Chapman pronounced superior to the histories of Macaulay and Trevelyan), and of other memorable books, hadn’t fulfilled his promise.

Denied the public role he felt entitled to play (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said Adams wanted a diplomatic appointment handed to him on a silver platter), he fashioned a career out of himself and became perforce a literary artist, a philosophical travel writer. ‘My notion of Travels,’ he wrote to John Hay, ‘is a sort of ragbag of everything: scenery, psychology, history, literature, poetry, art; anything, in short, that is worth throwing in; and I want to grill a few literary and political gentlemen with champagne.’

That’s not such a bad summation of his books and many of his letters. Lighthearted, lyrical, clever, and comparatively unbuttoned, the best display a wonderfully sensitive eye for landscape and topography and a seismographic intelligence. Like Kinglake and Evelyn Waugh, he resorted to comic hyperbole; like Mark Twain, he dramatised his disenchantments and was a great one for sweeping half-facetious generalisation: Greece was a fraud, Poland dreary, Australia a bore, Japan primitive, Java a ‘disappointment’, India ‘a huge nightmare, with cobras and cows’. Everywhere he journeyed impayable tourists amused and disgusted him. The American ‘Cook tourist’ he runs into on the Syrian plains ‘is sometimes a presbyterian, and interested in the facts of Christ’s biography, and the evidences of tradition; she – almost always it’s a she, three to one – talks about it at table d’hôte. She comes in caravans of twenty, fifty, a hundred, three hundred, at a time, personally conducted, in clouds of dust, in storm and tempest, – crusaders without an object or a faith or an idea – and goes away with a stock of associations, every one of which is grotesque in its want of relation with the things supposed to have been seen.’

After his wife’s suicide in 1885, unmentioned in the Education and only touched upon in his letters, Adams notified his condolers that he was finished, smashed, a washed-up man sated with sorrow and beyond pain: yet his letters from foreign parts don’t sound very disconsolate. A large number were addressed to Elizabeth Cameron, the young and beautiful wife of a Pennsylvania Senator. He had begun to write to her effusively, almost flirtatiously, in 1886 while travelling in Japan. Several years later he was patently love-sick. The long and detailed letters he sent her – a travel diary, really – amounted to an oblique courtship, the rueful lover striving to divert his mistress, dazzle her by his brilliance. And what he couldn’t quite bring himself to declare directly, he conveyed transparently in letters to her daughter, Martha. Martha should know that Dobbit, as she called him, felt ‘very dull and stupid without her’. He loved her very much, thought of her all the time and yearned to play Prince Beast to her Princess Beauty. Some ‘naughty man’ had ‘stolen my gold sword and silk-stockings and silver knee-buckles’, so he couldn’t come after her, but if she would come to him, she might help him ‘to write beautiful history in my big library’.

To none of his other correspondents did he expose himself so unabashedly, and never again did he break out of his Prufrockian reserve. Thereafter ‘Mrs Cameron’ was his trustworthy confidant and he her respectful and solicitous courtier. His bootless infatuation may well have deepened his belief in the spiritual superiority of her sex. The bare-bosomed women he encountered in Japan and Samoa had proved to his great relief that sexuality need not be licentious, as it so often was in disreputable France. In time, he would pay homage to the Virgin, Elizabeth Cameron translated into the vital and all-forgiving gothic mother-goddess.

News of engagements, marriages and accouchements filled his letters. He even dreamed he was going to have a baby, an amusing revelation, he wrote to Mrs Cameron, ‘of my own mind and character’, and came to depend on his ‘coop’ of ‘nieces’, genuine and honorary, who coddled him and to whom he dispensed cynical aphorisms on matrimony, husbands and children:

We all know that every woman repents marriage, and that they mostly wish their husbands and children were dead, or suffering life-sentences in the state’s-prison for their cruelty to Women with a capital W. Still, with all this notorious, there is probably some temporary and fitful pleasure, as in alcohol and cream-soda, in the vice of marriage ...

Take some fellow of your own age, keen as a rat, selfish as a shark, restless as a wasp, and put all your sympathy into him, for he needs it, and in the long run will make it worth your while, even if he doesn’t return it.

Children are an illusion of the senses. They last in their perfection only a few months, and then, like roses, run to shoots and briars.

Their ‘Uncle Henry’ also took it upon himself to educate them, but the polishing, it would appear, went no further than bringing them to Europe and supervising excursions to museums and churches. One would hardly gather from his letters to them – or to close English friends like Charles Milnes Gaskell, Sir Robert Cuncliffe and Cecil Spring Rice – that the gamut of writers he casually and aptly quoted or alluded to seriously engaged him. Not one letter contains an extended passage on a literary work. His test for a storyteller, a ‘trivial sort of animal’, was that he or she be amusing and superficial. Presumably he demanded more from great poets. In general, his one-shot judgments sound as if they were tossed-off bits of persiflage. Thus Dickens’s ‘cockneyism’ fretted his ‘temper beyond endurance’. Kipling was ‘vulgar’. The books of Huysmans and Mallarmé, and ‘Verlaine’s expiring gnashings of rotten teeth’, were the ‘refuse of a literary art which has now nothing left to study but the subjective reflection of its own decay’. Henry James knew nothing about ‘Woman’, because ‘he never had a wife.’ William Dean Howells always slipped up when he dealt with ‘gentlemen and ladies’, whereas Adams’s friend, John Hay, demonstrated in his novel The Bread-Winners that he understood not only women but also ‘ladies; the rarest of gifts’.

On the subject of history, Adams spoke with the force and conviction of a professional who knows his business. Clearly he didn’t consider history writing as one of the lesser exercises of the imagination but rather as a masculine activity exempt from the charge of frivolity. History, he reminded his student, Henry Cabot Lodge, was ‘the most respectable and respected product of our town’. A career in history might well lead to ‘social dignity, European reputation, and a foreign mission to close’. It paid no such dividends to Adams, for whom it remained a gentlemanly avocation, but he held onto his dream of bringing history closer to a ‘fixed science’, and he anticipated the moment when ‘psychology, physiology and history would join in proving man to have a fixed and necessary development as that of a tree and almost as unconscious.’

Adams studied the Germans for method and professed to rank logic and thoroughness higher than knowledge and style, but the injunctions on good writing scattered through the letters belie him. He believed at bottom that history was an art and the historian ‘little better off than a novelist, with imagination enfeebled by strapping itself to a fact here and there at long intervals’. The letters in which he expounded on the craft of writing history, biography and political articles would make a useful little treatise. Especially revealing are those he wrote to his brother Charles in 1867 when he still thought it possible to influence public discourse. Give the barbarians plain stuff without big or useless words, he urged him: ‘They will listen to us when we know how to speak.’ ‘I abhor from my deepest soul,’ he wrote, ‘every attempt to make a thing what it is not; to write for men as if they were children; to varnish a plain story with a shining and slippery polish; to make use of traps in which the readers’ attention may be caught, and the idiot may be waxed into ideas. Let those do such work who like it. No man who knows what a true style is, will condescend to use such upholsterer’s art.’ A proper style ‘should fit the matter so closely that one should never be able to say that the style is above the matter – nor below it.’ He commanded his protégés to omit, cut, strike out the superfluous, ‘though the flesh is weak and shrinks from the scissors’.

Adams preached his gospel of creative omission long after he had given up on the democracy that had rejected him, his family and his class. The letters once so supple and fresh grow stiffer and more formulaic. As friends drop like ‘hit birds’, his condolences serve as excuses to rehearse his own woes. (‘We have always been the victims, never the causes. Disease, Insanity, Vice, Stupidity, have ruined our lives.’) Every crisis, convulsion, catastrophe has for him both cosmic and personal implications, whether it be the Dreyfus affair (needless to say what side he was on), the death of Queen Victoria (which aroused bitter recollections of the London years when the Adamses never ‘received from her or any of her family so much as a sign of recognition’), or the Boer and Russo-Japanese Wars that to him proved the accuracy of his and brother Brooks’s geopolitical calculations. Consulting their Doomsday Book, they prophesied a time not far distant when accelerating technology would outstrip the ‘thought-power’ to control it.

The late letters refer to honours proffered and pleasantly declined (‘As I grow older and idiotic, people become civil and complimentary’), but they don’t suggest that recognition surprised him. He counselled ‘silence’ volubly and was very social in his ‘solitude’. Twelfth-century music brought him surcease, careering around the French countryside in an automobile lifted his spirits, and his interest in science remained undiminished. By 1910 he had lost any desire to tamper with the fraudulent system that kept him solvent. Best ‘keep our tempers’, he wrote to Brooks, ‘and try to make the machine run without total collapse in catastrophe, so that it may rot out quietly by its natural degradation’. Having survived a stroke which occurred ten days after the Titanic went down, and having buried most of his friends, he faced the coming horrors with equanimity. He monitored his business affairs, made ‘frightful grimaces’ in an effort not to think about the war, and increasingly summoned up the past. After the United States joined ‘the great Community of Atlantic Powers’, thus accomplishing ‘the great object of my life’, he was prepared to reconcile himself to a ruined world.

The next-to-last letter he wrote was to Elizabeth Cameron. Cool, affectionate, elegiac, it touched on ‘this wretched war’ that ‘has swept our literary class out of existence and threatens to carry our whole leisure class after it’. But he was already turning his back to the future. Before he died, he read through his diaries and burned them. Had he suspected that his most intimate letters were destined for public exposure, no doubt he would have pressured their recipients to do the same. Fortunately he did not.