The Letters - And Life - Of Henry Adams

Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant “squints like an isosceles triangle but is not much more vulgar than some duchesses,” wrote Henry Adams to a friend after a visit to the White House. Atlantic critic Louis kronenberger here probes Adams’ world “of merciless anecdote and mandarin innuendo


HENRY ADAMS stands so decidedly in the forefront of American historians and autobiographers that it perhaps need be stressed that he stands decidedly first among American letter writers. Moreover, it is Adams the letter writer who most vividly reveals Henry Adams the man, the possessor of a particular temperament, the product of a particular society — a society that was in one sense to help create his values; in another, to help make them crumble. The man is fairly remote from us in the scholar and the historian, the man is posed very formally for us in the autobiographer and the man of thought; on the other hand, the man comes brilliantly alive in the letter writer, where he is constantly the man of the world. If, again, in his letters he makes us think of another man of the world who was also a great social letter writer — Horace Walpole — it is not least because Henry Adams thought so himself. Not only did Adams find Walpole and his eighteenth-century world congenial and absorbing enough to make a dinner companion of them when he dined alone, but as a young man, Adams could confess that without hoping to become a Walpole, he would like to think that in aftertimes his letters, too, might be read and quoted as “a memorial of manners and habits” — in his case, “of the time of the great Secession of 1860.” And “what surprises me most,” Adams remarks of Walpole some ten years later, “is that he is so extremely like ourselves; he might be a letter writer of today . . . until,” Adams adds, “I trip over a sword!”

Now, clearly, what attracted Adams to Walpole was not the man himself, for in all sorts of ways they crucially differed — though more than we might imagine, they could be strangely alike, or allied. What attracted Adams is the world they both inhabit, and the worldly events they both chronicle, and the worldly tone they both display in their chronicling. “If we didn’t know these people,” Adams says in 1869 of Walpole’s cast of characters, “then we know some one for all the world like them! How little the world has changed in a century!”

The fact of the matter, of course, is that the world had changed tremendously in a century. Things arc as far apart as The Vicar of Wakefield and Zola; as early Mozart and late Wagner; as the sedan chair and the transcontinental railroad; as the reign of the aristocracy and the rule of the middle class; as thirteen discontented colonies and some thirty-odd United States. The world, between 1769 and 1869, had passed through momentous revolutions — American and French, agrarian and industrial, mechanical and sociological. Malthus and Darwin had invaded the scene, medicine and science had transformed it. Most people, looking back a century from 1870, would have an all too complacent sense of spectacular distance.

And yet one can quite understand how a Henry Adams might remark on “how little the world has changed in a century.” For the great point involved is how little the two men’s way of looking at things and what they looked at differed. At bottom Adams’ comment is not one of fact but of attitude — of nil admirari, and of encountering nothing that really could surprise one. But in a far more literal sense, Adams could feel how little the world he encountered in Walpole’s letters differed from the world he looked out on from his Washington window. For what each man means by “the world” is almost identical, is the world of politics, seen from the inside, and the world of society, lived at its very center; is a world of forms and punctilios that conceal much more than they show and that make, accordingly, for a great hive of gossip, for looking through keyholes and feeling for cracks; a world of bland treacheries and bizarre alliances and astounding coalitions, a world with moments of fairyland and more frequent moments of farce; a world, above all, of merciless anecdote and mandarin innuendo, its surface all gloss, its underside all grime.

IF I so extensively compare two men who lived an eon and an ocean apart, it is to make the essential point that in Adams’ case they really didn’t — that he was in temperament very much an eighteenthcentury man, that he was most often in his sympathies both aristocratic and English. At least two very important qualities distinguish Adams from a social chronicler of genius like Walpole: Adams had a first-rate mind, where Walpole, by any significant standards, had no mind at all; and Adams had generally, what Walpole wholly lacked, a masculine outlook. But the very fact that Adams far surpassed Walpole is what lends particular interest to his so often resembling him. The magnificence of Adams’ letters, as letters, as light thrown on a whole age and society, remains in the end their high and absolute merit. But they have an additional value, as an accumulative, unwitting self-portrait of someone not just a great letter writer, but of someone who might have been, and in his letters reveals why he failed to be, a great man.

However different the nineteenth century might otherwise seem, it still offered its letter writers decided eighteenth-century opportunities and rewards. If the eighteenth century’s Walpole was the son of a tremendous Prime Minister, the nineteenth century’s Adams was the grandson and greatgrandson of Presidents. When young, Adams, too, had his own form of the classic Grand Tour, to become thereafter a member of a well-born and well-connected circle, and to move very rarely outside it. Adams took an eighteenth-century pleasure in the company of clever women who possessed the attributes of great ladies; he took an eighteenth-century interest in the minor forms no less than the monuments of culture — in objets d’art no less than paintings, in country houses as well as cathedrals. Adams, too, within his own constricted social world, became the friend of party politicians as well as distinguished statesmen; and became, just so, as shruggingly cynical of what his friends were up to as any worldling under the Georges. In high Horatian eighteenth-century strain Adams professed to live apart from society; yet, with eighteenth-century finesse, he contrived to be intimately, indeed confidentially, in touch with it. All this helped imbue his letters with peculiar, particular, delightful eighteenth-century overtones and effects. He shared one thing further with that supreme era of social letter writers: however much he might disparage whom he was writing about, whomever he was writing to he made every effort to please.

Sometimes this was simply by being playful: he wishes, he says, that he could offer news

either that I was dead, or born again, or had lost my grandmother, or was left an orphan, or was elected King of Manchuria. On the contrary, nothing has happened. Almost every one else has died, as usual, or threatened to die, and whole batches ol Kings have been elected in Manchuria; but I am sitting here in Washington just as you left me ten years ago.

Adams had that quality among great letter writers not only of making something of nothing but of almost wishing for nothing, to show what could be made of it. And he had always a certain sophisticated fancifulness, or whimsicality of phrase. He describes the great Temple of Aesculapius as a sort of “Greek Carlsbad.” He writes from his summer home in Massachusetts that “the mosquitoes are so thick that on hot, sunny days they cast an agreeable flickering shade.” He had also the gift of creating something wild and amusing out of what in itself might be grisly:

Old Levi P. Morton, who is hovering in or about his nineties, was in the Bernav R.R. accident the other day, and crawled out from the dead bodies through an upper window; got a cab nearby, drove two hours, caught another train, and got to Paris at 11 o’clock, while his daughters were turning over all the corpses on the field to find him.

And Adams adds by way of postscript:

The man knew better than to be killed and leave his daughters ten millions apiece. No King Lear about him!

In no very different style, Adams describes his fiancee to one of his closest English friends:

Imprimis, and to begin with, the young woman calls herself Marian Hooper and belongs to a sort of clan, as all Bostonians do. . . . She is 28 years old. She knows her own mind uncommon well. She does not talk very American. Her manners are quiet. She reads German — also Latin — also, I fear, a little Greek, but very little. She talks garrulously, but on the whole pretty sensibly. She is very open to instruction. We shall improve her. She dresses badly. She decidedly has humor and will appreciate our wit. She has enough money to be quite independent. She rules me as only American women rule men, and I cower before her.

A little more acidly, indeed with a touch of the snobbish dowager, Adams gives this description of his first White House call on President and Mrs. Grant:

At last Mrs. Grant strolled in. She squints like an isosceles triangle but is not much more vulgar than some duchesses. Her sense of dignity did not allow her to talk to me, but occasionally she condescended to throw me a constrained remark. . . . 1 flattered

myself that it was I who showed them how they ought to behave. One feels such an irresistible desire ... to tell this kind of individual to put themselves at their ease and talk just as though they were at home.

Twenty-five years pass, and Adams goes again to the White House, this time to dine with the socially far more acceptable Theodore Roosevelts: they, indeed, are his good friends.

We waited twenty minutes in the hideous red drawing room before Theodore and Edith came down, and we went into dinner immediately with as much chaff and informality as though Theodore were still a civil service commissioner. . . . Edith was very bright and gay, but as usual Theodore absorbed the conversation, and if he tried me ten years ago, he crushes me now.

To say that I had enjoyed it would be, to you, a gratuitous piece of deceit. The dinner was indifferent, very badly served, and, for some reason, nothing to drink but a glass of sherry and some apollinaris.

It is almost possible to say of Adams, here, that whether or not he enjoyed the dinner party is beside the point. What is clear is that the immensely enjoyed not enjoying it. After all, to the social chronicler, the more gaffes and solecisms and contretemps on any occasion, the better; to a sort of drama critic of the social scene, the staging, the lighting, the performances of the actors make all the brighter copy for not being quite right in themselves.

On the public and political side also, even on the side of large events, Adams can be lightly mocking, can mingle froth with bile. Though himself keeping, with a certain insistent disdain, outside the arena, he is decidedly pleased with how well he knows all the gladiators, and no less pleased with having a commanding view of the show, which he describes with a kind of cynical gusto.

Mr. J. P. Morgan gets practically the whole loan, and the small thieves are furious. My view ... is always to encourage the big thieves and to force the pace. Let’s get there quick! I’m for Morgan, McKinley and the Trusts. They will bring us to ruin quicker than we could do ourselves.

Like Horace Walpole again, Adams is very wishful of ruin — only to show considerable fright when anything real starts threatening him.

BUT it is time to move on from the eighteenthcentury worldling in Adams to the nineteenthcentury man of intellect, and the child of a far more complex age. The nature of the great world may have changed rather little in a century; but something disenchanting, and democratizing, had intervened. Where men a century before, with their modishly skeptical minds, were not too often confronted with taxing and vexing new forces and hypotheses, Adams, with his own inquiring nature, was now constantly assaulted by them. Where men a century before basked in that short sunny interregnum between the reign of superstition and the reign of smoke, Adams came to manhood in a century whose geology could be as menacing as its munitions, and whose new ways of writing history seemed almost as radical as its new ways of making it. There was also a side of Henry Adams that not just responded to this but went forth to meet it. The ambivalences, the contrarieties, the ironies of life held and fascinated him; and where a mere accomplished worldling could see only the masks and false faces of politics and society, Adams saw into the true, or at any rate trenchant, forces behind them.

The lights of Adams’ searching curiosity play all over the letters from the far parts of the world where he went to satisfy it, where, often with considerable discomfort, he went poking and rambling about, and looked into corners and questioned. To grasp their range, the letters from Japan or from Samoa must be read as a whole; short quotations can only garble general reactions.

Similarly, brief extracts from the letters of his earlier days cannot adequately convey the strong sense of political and social curiosity, of intellectual and moral inquiry he exhibited, and the student of the world at large he was, rather than the spectator of a world of capitals. To the austere, republican, crusading family strain the young Henry added a touch of what is good and enriching in Hamlet. And yet, as the letters — which are the truest index to the personal life — reveal, there came as time passed, there came increasingly, a touch of what was bad and debilitating in Hamlet, and hardly anything at all of the old true Adams strain. There was in Henry Adams on his mother’s side, as he was swift to point out at the very beginning of the Education, the Boston rich mercantile strain, what he called the State Street side. If the Adamses had put at birth a sword, or a torch, or the tablets of the law in Henry’s hands, the Brookses had put in his mouth a gold spoon. He spent much of his life pretending to gag on the spoon, as on so much else; but in truth he was not to suffer from gagging on it, he was to suffer from being unable to do without it. It was the golden apple, the apple of inner discord, in his life. In terms of intellectual distinction, in terms of Henry Adams the serious and great historian, the paternal strain was to prevail. But with the man it did not; with Henry Adams the man it was the State Street side, in the sensitive and cultivated forms it had the means to create, that would predominate.

The tragedy of Henry Adams’ marriage — his wife’s suicide when he was forty-seven and at the height of his intellectual career — helps account, perhaps, for the character of his later life, for what Paul Elmer More called his “sentimental nihilism”; for what we might call — while saying nothing much different— his half-rueful, half-malicious pleasure in watching the best-laid plans, or the world itself, go smash. The great austere Adams tradition, which he had at the outset cherished, partly because it was a fine tradition and partly because it was a family product, had lost its hold on the nation; but in any vital sense, it had also lost its hold on Henry himself. We have no right to demand a militant nature of someone with a speculative mind. Yet, however much Adams may have been deterred from the life of the arena by temperament, surely he was drawn toward it, for a time, by a consciousness of his Adams heritage and by an ambition all his own. But something — family pride of a sort, and the very background of family Presidents — made any rough-and-tumble seeking out of high office extremely repugnant. Clearly Adams tended to see himself as an heirapparent; the possessor of the gold spoon expected his political career to be served up to him on a silver platter. But the rough-and-tumble political world was not so deferential or obliging; and denied the rewards of office, Henry Adams never, in any crusading sense, endured the rigors of opposition. His were, at first, privately acidulous avowals, and then disgruntled dissents, and eventually mere cynical rejections. The world’s senates and the world’s stock exchanges, Adams muttered, were dominated by rascals; and what could any gentleman, or any wise man, do but sit back and sniff and shudder? Despite the cultivated voice of Boston and Henry Adams, we are rather close at times to the tone and temper of Baltimore and Henry Mencken. John and John Quincy Adams, surveying the triumph of vulgar materialistic democratic forces, would, in their way, have shuddered as did Henry Adams in his; but might they not have shuddered a little, too, at what Henry was doing, or not doing; and at what he winked as well as shuddered at?

IF Henry Adams was Hamlet in that he lacked the resolution to help avenge the murder of his grandfather’s and his great-grandfather’s dreams; if he was Hamlet in that he, in the Education, like the Prince of Denmark in his soliloquies, had a line gift for dramatizing himself; if he was Hamlet in possessing a reflective and humorous nature, veined with sensibility and streaked with cruelty and disgust, and masculine in its thinking and feminine in its emotions — if he was Hamlet in all these things, he was Hamlet in one thing more: in relishing his privileged place in life. Adams might be the retired scholar, but on how high and high-handed a level of retirement: it was not merely as a scholar that he seldom went out in Washington but had everybody come to him; it was as a personage, almost a potentate. That he saw no one in Washington is of course a ridiculous myth: he saw whomever he wanted to, and on his own terms. And elsewhere, any such contention would come close to nonsense; year after year Henry Adams crossed to Europe on luxury liners and for months on end moved about Europe at least as much prince as Hamlet — in a succession of splendid hotels and restaurants and country houses, and in an atmosphere not always so conspicuous for seriousness of thought or loftiness of purpose as for sumptuousness of living and haughtiness of tone; an atmosphere, no doubt, of cultivation and elegance, but also of the great world as it had come to be, and of the often new worldlings who had come forth to be part of it.

There was a savor of the English gentry about it, a certain smack of established Boston, but these sureties of aristocratic or republican breeding went hand in hand with the high-mucky-mucks and panjandrums of the Republican Party in the age of Mark Hanna, with the enlightened tone of Pennsylvania’s ruthless political boss, Senator Cameron. A great many of Adams’ companions were very rich. Henry White was to marry a Vanderbilt; John Hay had married a fortune, and his daughter now married a Whitney; and Adams, thanks to his quite handsome inheritance, could always hold up his end. To be sure, even when in 1900 a million-dollar fortune yielded him more than $50,000 a year (perhaps $150,000 in our money), Adams “humorously complained.” He had, moreover, as Ernest Samuels tells us in his splendid biography, “an expert knowledge of stocks and bonds.” On this head, all the sniffs at vulgar moneymaking from somebody whose money had been made for him, and not really very far back, turn a little tiresome. And in view of his annual London and Paris visits, there is something not just tiresome, but a little fraudulent, about his remarking— to quote just one of many examples— “Of all parts of the world I know, the rottenest are Paris and London.”

It is not that, in all this, one would cut Adams off from the cosmopolitan life and the international scene that he was heir to; but that this cut him off from so much else. At his best Adams was a great individual, and in the letters there is something notably individualizing, too. Hut more and more in the letters, we begin to encounter, for all their sharp comments and vivid phrases, certain small prejudices and fixed postures; the tones of dissent that cloak the gestures of acquiescence, the air of criticism that would diminish the refusal to act. A distinguished intellectual is not to be summarily condemned because so many of his best friends are millionaire pillars of the Republican Party during one of its most dubious eras. But it can’t help making us wonder how many real artists and intellectuals who lacked social credentials were part of Adams’ circle, were the people he saw and not simply people he wrote to. It can’t help making us ask how much the worldling Brahmin in him was stopped by surfaces and appearances from appreciating what had decided value and depth.

The two American writers whom Adams saw in later years are surely those we might have supposed he did: Henry James and Edith Wharton. This is unexceptionable; but what of other writers? His very first comment on Kipling has nothing to do with his merits as a writer or a man: “I imagine Kipling,” Adams wrote to Mrs. Cameron, “to be rather a bohemian and wanderer of the second or third social order.” His superbly described meetings with a Robert Louis Stevenson who looked, said Adams, “like an insane stork,” acknowledge Stevenson’s kindness, but they harp on the messiness of his Samoan menage, on what Adams calls its “dirt and discomfort.” John Jay Chapman was for Adams only “the most ordinary, conventional, simple-minded of cranks”: a comment that squares nicely with Adams’ brother-in-law’s assessing Chapman as “just his grandmother and nothing more.” A further drawback to being part of a tight gilded circle is that, with something like the Dreyfus case, Adams becomes an anti-Dreyfusard. And when Dreyfus was sent back to France for retrial, Adams writes: “To my regret they have brought Dreifuss [sic] home, and ceased to talk about him, which makes life dull. I hope they soon begin to bait somebody else, to make it lively again.” Even accepted as banter, this sounds nasty. In terms, again, of literary taste, Mallarme and Verlaine get short shrift; in terms of paintings, Adams could write in 1895, when the Impressionists were still fairly easy to come by, that the Paris dealers “offer no good pictures.”

C^)BVIOUSLY, a man’s personal merits and shortcomings are one thing, and his values as an artist or thinker another. Balzac was not the less truthful delineator of the great world because of his ardent royalism, nor Jane Austen less truthful for her personal provincial snobberies, nor Proust for a snobbishness almost pathological. An insistence on telling the truth, a compulsive artistic probity, went into all such writers’ work. But it seems to me that over the years something comparably vital went out of Henry Adams’ responses to the life about him. The History remains a great monument; both the Education and the Mont-Saint-Michel have distinction and importance. But the truth is, and the letters are our guide to it, that Henry Adams failed in the end of a certain sense of contemporary responsibility. Consider his habit, in his letters, of disparaging the powers that be — the cynical tone, the Schadenfreude that discolors the criticism, the readiness to blame everything on democratic vulgarians or “Jew bankers” (the anti-Semitism was so intense and rabblelike that when stocks went down, Mr. Samuels tells us, Adams “eagerly gorged himself on the filth of the anti-Semite press”). Such disparagement comes to sound like a glib, mindless justification of his own passivity and withdrawal. Cynicism is always a moral evasion, an inward malaise. In terms of Adams’ personal emotions, of lostness and perhaps inner deadness and unfulfillment, much that could be ascribed to his wife’s death or his frustratinglove for Mrs. Cameron can be by so much forgiven. But on that score there is no excusing the callous, irresponsible shoulder shrugs about the public life of the day, or the growls that are all too often whines. All this becomes habitual, mechanical — a fixed attitude in Adams, as John Hay described it to Henry Cabot Lodge, of “Whatever is, is wrong.” And Hay wrote to Adams himself, in that jocular tone wherewith we maneuver to tell our friends the truth, that his chronic complaints were “the sentiments of a scholar and a gentleman who has had a better time all his life than he deserved, and now whines because it is over.” This indeed, and only the more in coming from an intimate friend, is a summary judgment.

The Education, unlike the letters, was pretty much a full-dress performance, a careful, skillful, resourceful, and in places rather artful, apologia; a document of disillusionment; a confession of failure. It remains an extremely impressive indictment of the more and more corrupt, and corrupting, forces in the public life in which Adams came to manhood and first sought and later refused to do battle. He had, I think, the right to refuse; but he fought hardly more with the pen than the sword. The mass of cynically disgruntled private letters is surely no offset to the fine public responses to current issues that simply never got written; while, as a kind of monumental abdication speech, the Education so laces the sense of futility with a sense of self-pity, so elevates Adams’ failure as to suggest something sordid about success, that we may wonder whether he was abdicating the throne of duty from never having occupied the throne of power.

Yet beyond all their other merits, the letters of Henry Adams constitute an outstanding document of worldliness, revealing the defeat, by a too acute social sense and too rarefied sensibility, of a final human largeness of spirit. If all this, in the great letter writer as worldling, induces a final comparison with Horace Walpole, it is to make the point that Walpole found perfect fulfillment in the role. His particular era, his special niche, his temperament and talent — indeed, his decided limitations — blend into something single and whole, never at the expense of anything greater. Walpole was saved a thinker’s perturbations; for him, the darker side of things stopped with Gothic dungeons and drawing-room disasters. In a different way, another eighteenth-century figure with whom Adams was at certain points allied — f mean Gibbon — perfectly fulfilled himself also. Gibbon’s reputation, much like Adams’, rests on a voluminous great work of history and on an autobiography. And Gibbon’s autobiography is something of a full-dress performance too, and perhaps on one score more acceptable: for being as self-congratulatory about success as is Adams’ for being so self-pitying — and, for that matter, selfcongratulatory — about failure. What is more important, the scholar in Gibbon kept the upper hand of the worldling; whatever his dips and darts into society, Gibbon led a life of supremely unruffled retirement.

Adams, despite superb achievements, can hardly be thought to have fulfilled himself, or even to have altogether nobly failed. I think his failure was on more vulnerable grounds, and from less inevitable causes, and after less determined struggle, than he supposed. It represented a kind of moral valetudinarianism. In the end, what proved harmful to Adams was not despairingly drawing the blinds but so often peeping gleefully out the window at degrading sights, only to chuckle and turn away. Some of the trouble, too, must have sprung from his seignorial spurning of favor and acclaim, from his feeling he was beyond ambition and above contrivance, from such things as making a rather showy ritual of anonymity, with his books to begin with and then with his being buried “without an inscription” — while sharing the most famous cemetery memorial in the United States! About it all there persists a sense of being a kind of law unto oneself, a sacred cow at very luxuriant pasture.

For the whole man, the rightest comparison is perhaps with Matthew Arnold, who. moreover, was much concerned with the same cultural, social, political problems as Adams was. In moral inheritance. too. Dr. Arnold’s son might boast something as sober as could the grandson of John Quincy Adams. And all his life Arnold, like Adams, moved in a world of society and politics, of scholars and public men. Nor did tragic death spare Arnold either, who saw son after son taken from him. But there was one vital difference between the two men: Arnold had always a living to make. With Arnold, indeed, a lack of leisure offers as good a reason for peevishness as any that Adams might put forth. But it was certainly not the pack on his back that made Arnold the finer man; it was that his nature was fed deeper and purer springs. In Arnold, as in Dr. Johnson, worldliness was always tributary to humanism.

Yet, if what is largely absent from Adams’ other writings is all too dominant in his letters, it would be quite wrong to put a final emphasis on the letters for what they “reveal.” Rather, it is in every way right to conclude with the greatness of the letters as a thing in itself, untouched by the faults in the letter writer. Furthermore, the man of the world is, even late in life, very often absent, replaced by the scholar, the traveler, the thinker, the affectionate uncle or friend. And if the man of the world is oftener present, or dancing in and out of the text, or very much its master of ceremonies, he carries us with marvelous verve from country house to country house, from capital to capital, even from crisis to crisis, serving up with sauce diable, what will one day be history; portraying at every season, with its attendant colors and lights, the much-changing, never-changing way of the world. Doubtless what the letters reveal about Adams is part of the price paid for what they are; but what they arc, as I said at the outset. is the best thing of their kind in American literature.