The Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $5.00]
OTHER days have not always been better days. The old mostly think that they were. The young mostly think not. Anybody, however, who was alive and kicking sixty years ago, and has so remained, knows that one good thing is over. Nothing like the society to which Mrs. Adams belonged exists to-day. Nothing of the talk, various, informed, experienced, leavened with good manners. This society makes the background of these intimate letters she writes her father, week by week and year by year. A mind may be clever by nature; but if it is empty of everything except bridge, it cannot converse, it can only bid.
‘I would I could draw!’ Mrs. Adams exclaims. ‘I would support the family with a daily comic paper.’ And her postscript ends, ‘ What a comfort there is a Paris for hybrid Americans.’
She writes with a pen so sharp that illustrations would hardly help. She has been to the Senate, looking and listening. ‘Sherman swallows his sentences, perhaps fearing no one else will. Mahone looks like a weasel, is very small, proud of his feet, one or both of which lie on his desk.’
She goes to see a friend. ‘Miss Beale is in bed with chills and fever; looks like Blake’s ghost of a flea; says she made the doctor count her teeth after one bad chill to see bow many were gone.’
Social or political, it is a lively pageant of their times which these letters reflect; and for the reader who is too young to remember the personages or the incidents, ample and admirable footnotes supply all be needs to know. For instance: —
‘If Mr. Frelinghuysen bad the tenth part of Bayard’s sense of humour and decency, Morton would have been sent home long since. There seems to be a certain malaria here in official life which few escape. Bayard not only calls a spade a spade but dirt dirt. That L. P. Morton should have preferred to risk a war on the chance of stuffing the pockets of his gabardine with guano is revolting.’
Two pages of notes elucidate this. Nor are they dull. There is nothing dull in the book.
Yes, indeed, the pen is sharp. ‘We went to Mr. Story’s Studio, and oh! how he does spoil nice blocks of white marble. . . . He himself was handsome and pleasant; Mrs. Story is very stout, and tells lies. . . . Mrs. Alma Tadema . . . looked like a lymphatic tigress draped in yellow Japanese embroidered silk, bracelets at the top of her arms, hair the colour of tiger lilies and that fiery flower hanging in bunches from it. She waved up and down the room like a serpent and we trotted round after her. . . . Walter Crane has a large painting of three females in diaphanous rainbow nightgowns, dancing a double shuffle on a beach; they look, all three, like pensive soap-bubbles. . . . At the same minute came Portrait of a Lady, which the author kindly sent me. . . . I shall suggest to Mr. James to name his next novel “Anne Eliza.” It’s not that he bites off more than he can chaw . . . but he chaws more than he bites off.’
Quoting must be forcibly stopped, with just one more. She has ordered a dress at Worth’s, ‘Wednesday, when I went to try on, I came into competition with a woman who was trying on ten gowns; but the wearisome interval was amusingly filled up by watching a compatriot, I
should imagine a prosperous grocer from Iowa, with a fat wife for whom he wanted a smart dress. To see him in his spruce broadcloth frock-coat and awe-struck expression, “hefting” the silks to be sure he was getting his money’s worth, and finally examining for himself shelf after shelf of pieces, was an inspiring spectacle. . . . I found Mr. Worth respectful ami sympathetic. Alice Mason declares that he is habitually drunk, to which one might retort as Lincoln did, and suggest that a little whiskey of his kind to some other dressmakers might not be amiss.’
When the anonymous novel Democracy appeared much fury and much guessing burst out. The present writer heard a lady declare it must be by Henry Adams. ‘No,’ said another, ‘a man could n’t write so well about a woman’s clothes.’ ‘Oh,’ said the first lady, ‘Clover Hooper could easily have helped him there.’ In the letters is strong evidence that the lady was right.
You may shut your eyes, open the book anywhere, open your eyes, and be safe from disappointment. From the grand review of Grant and Sherman’s armies in May 1865, to the antepenultimate sentence in May 1883, nothing is dull. Many countries, cities, persons, and events pass; events remembered or forgotten, men and women likewise; with the admirable notes always at your service. For these, his preface, and the Appendices, the editor is warmly to be praised. Were he alive, John L. Cadwalader, prominent in New York, would not easily forgive the spelling of his name with a double l.
We need such books more than any other sort of books. Our Literature is well furnished with fiction — Hawthorne, De Forest, Howells, James, Mark Twain, to name none of the living. And so our History — Parkman, Bancroft, Rhodes, McMaster, Fiske, Henry Adams, Morison. It is the familiar memoir, the diary, the correspondence, the direct voice from the past that we miss, and which brings to life so much in England and France. This collection is therefore of both immediate and permanent value. The reading of it finished, one muses over that monument in Rock Creek Cemetery. There and thereabouts husband and wife often trotted and cantered together on their horses in the years of their companionship.