Third Person Singular

Having an ear bent by Henry Adams, the prototype of the modern thinker

I was looking for an old quotation, something to the effect of "Political office should be held only by men who don't want it." I thought this was from The Education of Henry Adams, which I remembered as being a trenchant criticism of politics, as pertinent today as when it was written, in 1905. I got out my copy, unopened since college—and maybe unopened then, if Monarch Notes were available. ("Trenchant criticism ... as pertinent today ..." certainly sounds like Monarch Notes.) I began to skim, became fascinated, and actually read the thing.

The Education of Henry Adams is not so much a criticism of politics as a catalogue of political feelings. Adams had a lot of them. Adams shared his feelings. He honored his feelings. He cared. Pertinent today, indeed, Adams's politics were as deeply felt as those of the deepest and most feeling of contemporary persons who feel things deeply. (Phil Donahue comes to mind.)

During the Civil War the author's father, Charles Francis Adams, was Lincoln's Minister to England. Charles Francis made a brilliant, long-fought, and ultimately successful effort to prevent British intervention on the Confederate side. Henry was his dad's private secretary, went to dinner parties with London's pro-Southern bon ton, and made an effort of his own—"the effort of facing a hostile society ... when one is exasperated, furious, bitter and choking with tears over the blunders and incapacity of one's Government." So strong were Adams's emotions that when news of Gettysburg arrived in London and Adams was publicly hugged by a Union supporter, he was not embarrassed although he was from Boston. "That evening, for the first time in his life, he happened not to be thinking of himself."

The Education of Henry Adams is written in the third person, a voice that gives dignity to that character, much in vogue these days, the self. It recounts sixty years of Henry Adams's being frustrated—and aren't we all?—with politics. The book begins with boyhood frustrations at Boston State House intrigues. "Politics ... had always been the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as the climate." It climaxes with frustration at everyone. "Had the Czar and the Kaiser and the Mikado turned schoolmasters ... he would still have known nothing. They knew nothing themselves."

Set at the end of the volume are three chapters on a theory of history impenetrable enough for a current graduate seminar. Adams estimated that history would end approximately now, in time for Francis Fukuyama—although he didn't believe that the final credits would roll over a protracted romantic kiss. (But maybe Fukuyama doesn't believe this either anymore.) And, also pertinent today, Adams claimed that "every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power." I checked my stock portfolio of two years ago and found that Adams had been exactly right. My broker swears Adams will be right again.

I had gone to consult an antique censor of political ills and had discovered the prototype of the modern thinker.

Henry Adams thought many of the good thoughts that good moderns think today. He was willing to put aside the fact that he was a rich man to make bold attacks on business: "The Trusts and Corporations ... were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy." He belittled material progress: "Prosperity never before imagined ... had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid." His notions of economics had a fuzzy modernism. He went, guided by his feelings, from the idea that the value of money should be based on gold to the idea that it should be based on silver (the fully modern idea that the value of money should be based on nothing not yet having occurred to anyone). And Adams thought that the high-tech revolution would change everything: "Wireless telegraphy or airships might require the reconstruction of society."

In the early 1900s Adams wrote to his closest friend, John Hay, then the Secretary of State, "I incline now to anti-imperialism, and very strongly to anti-militarism." Adams believed that the right people could make a difference in government. He said, in The Education, "As for Adams, all his hopes of success in life turned on his finding an administration to support." The Administration on which all his hopes had once turned was President Ulysses S. Grant's.

Henry Adams lived a hundred years ago. He was not a perfectly modern thinker. He was prematurely postfeminist and wrote that woman's "axis of rotation had been the cradle and the family," adding that "if her force were to be diverted from its axis, it must find a new field, and the family must pay for it." In a letter to a friend expressing support for Third World self-determination, Adams's language lacked sensitivity: "As I rather prefer niggers to whites ... I incline to make the most of the tropics while the white is still tolerated there." Adams loathed trade unions. However, if we recall how the good thinkers felt about union members who voted for Ronald Reagan, we won't be hard on him for that. And Adams was an anti-Semite. He wrote to his friend Elizabeth Cameron, "The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever." But maybe even the virtuous moderns of today have gross prejudices to which they are as yet blind.

What truly makes Henry Adams the prototype of the modern thinker is that he was the first thoroughly educated, widely read, highly intelligent American who didn't know what to think. He moved from theory to theory. "By rights," Adams wrote of himself, "he should have been also a Marxist, but some narrow trait of the New England nature seemed to blight socialism, and he tried in vain to make himself a convert. He did the next best thing; he became a Comteist." Auguste Comte was the man who invented sociology.

Adams gave ample space in The Education to his struggle with the philosophical question of whether the universe was an organic whole—a rational totality guided by purpose—or just a mess. Life, Time, People—were they a "unity," or were they a "multiplicity," or were they unwisely merged with America Online, causing a stock-market disaster and wrecking everybody's 401(k)? The philosophy departments at today's universities have gone far beyond this in exquisite refinements of puzzled thought. But with Henry Adams we see the moment when the pronouncements of philosophers ceased to be greeted with forehead slaps of recognition or shouts of "Heretic!" and began to be met with mumbles of "Oh, shut up."

Adams searched for an equation that would explain the whole world—when he believed in that world. "Except as reflected in himself," he said, "man has no reason for assuming ... an ultimate substance." Two years before Einstein published his special theory of relativity, Adams wrote, "Motion seems to be Matter and Matter seems to be Motion." But then he went on to write, "The motion of thought had the same value as the motion of a cannonball seen approaching the observer on a direct line through the air." One would rather be struck by a thought—even a very bad thought, such as "I'll bet my wife would like a leaf blower for our anniversary."

Adams, being a modern, was of course atheistic. This led, as it usually seems to do, to a great deal of metaphysical speculation, and to an investigation—then novel, now predictable—of Eastern religions. Adams once called himself a "Unitarian mystic." Unitarians are a denomination whose adherents are famous for not knowing quite what to think. Perhaps Adams reached satori, emptied his mind of all thought, and then didn't know what to think about it.

Henry Adams was also the inventor of the Whiny Loser memoir. He achieved this in spite of the handicap of having—as he himself proclaimed—very little to whine about. There was nothing of Morticia, Pugsley, Lurch, or Uncle Fester in his Adams family. Henry's great-grandfather, John Adams, was the second President of the United States, and the man who made the speech that persuaded the delegates of the thirteen Colonies to issue the Declaration of Independence. Henry's grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was also President, and, later, a lonely force for the anti-slavery cause in the House of Representatives. Charles Francis Adams was the most important American diplomat of the nineteenth century. And Henry's second cousin three times removed was the effervescent Boston patriot (and bottled beer) Sam Adams. Henry Adams was the Andrew Cuomo of his clan.

Or worse. He never held even appointive office. He was an author. He wrote Life of Albert Gallatin (not much read today), Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (not much read today), a biography of John Randolph (not much read today), the 2,700-page History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (called "magisterial," which is bibliographic shorthand for "nobody's ever read it"), and the anonymous novel Democracy, the Primary Colors of its time. But Henry Adams never loudly announced his anonymity, the way Joe Klein did. The secret of his authorship was kept until he died. Democracy is said to be very good, for a Washington novel.

But then there is Adams's literary breakthrough, The Education. Adams brought modernity to egotism. All through history successful personages have been seduced by self-love. However, with the advent of the present era's fully uninhibited, nonjudgmental attitude toward loving, a failed self could be so embraced. Admittedly, Adams did not use a modern technique to produce his modern memoir. He failed to include everything you never wanted to hear about him. He left out not only his wife's suicide but his entire wife. In order to have any idea of what's going on in The Education, one must read other books: Henry Adams, by Ernest Samuels, and America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918, by Richard Brookhiser. But the modern-memoir effect was achieved nonetheless.

Until The Education of Henry Adams, a memoir told us the great things that a great personage knew, and gave us the play-by-play in the championship game that was his or her life. Adams, however, admitted at the outset of The Education that he "never got to the point of playing the game." As for knowledge, he said of himself at age sixty-four, "the pursuit of ignorance ... had, by this time, led the weary pilgrim into such mountains of ignorance that he could no longer see any path whatever, and could not even understand a signpost."

Men and women whose mode of thought is old-fashioned and who don't feel things any more deeply than they have to are left agape—the men wondering, "Why am I reading this?," the women wondering, "Why didn't he stop and ask for directions?" Meanwhile, modern thinkers have filled the New York Times best-seller list with this very kind of memoir.

The superficial, insensitive reader, out of date in his cogitation, finds The Education of Henry Adams a handy stick with which to thrash the modern. Or he does until he realizes that he, too, has begun to talk about himself in the third person and also has been unable to put down the book.

There are rich globules of nasty fat in the mortadella of Henry Adams's writing. These wouldn't appeal to an audience of modern thinkers, careful about the calories in their mental diets. "The Senate is much given to admiring in its members a superiority less obvious or quite invisible to outsiders." "Every friend in power is a friend lost." "Practical politics consists in ignoring facts." Of practical politics Adams also said, "No one in his experience had ever passed unscathed through that malarious marsh." He detailed the symptoms of political fever, for which there is still no cure: "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."

Reading Samuels and Brookhiser, it's clear that Adams believed the world had been going to hell and might have gotten there. In 1909 Adams wrote a pamphlet, A Letter to American Teachers of History, which he described as "a scientific demonstration that Socialism, Collectivism, Humanitarianism, Universalism, Philanthropism, and every other ism, has come, and is the End, and there is nothing possible beyond, and they can all go play, and on the whole, base-ball is best."

Adams turned against the political liberalism of his youth. In his seventies he claimed to have an "insane antipathy to reform, and to virtue of every social variety." And even as a young man he had been skeptical of some of the national liberations and nation-buildings that were popular with the enlightened, then as now. While on a European tour in 1860 Adams wrote to the Boston Daily Courier that Garibaldi was being called "the Washington of Italy, principally because they know nothing about Washington. Catch Washington invading a foreign kingdom on his own hook, in a fireman's shirt."

He also detested Theodore Roosevelt, and it's high time we heard someone do so. At a White House dinner Adams was "overwhelmed in a torrent of oratory, and at last I heard only the repetition of I-I-I ..." (so much worse, in Adams's opinion, than "he, he, he").

Adams was a terrible snob. After calling on President and Mrs. Grant in the White House, he reported that their conversation was "rather dull."

I chattered, however ... and I flatter myself 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.

So ferocious was the snobbery of Henry Adams that Henry James—Henry James!—made fun of him. In the short story "Pandora," James parodied the Washington social life of his friends Henry and Clover Adams, whom he called the Bonnycastles: "'Hang it,' said Bonnycastle, 'there's only a month left; let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President ...'" This is not quite pertinent today, but it is pertinent to just yesterday, when Bill Clinton was in office.

In Henry Adams, I discovered not only the prototype of the modern thinker but also someone who is more interesting: a viper-toothed, puling, supercilious crank, thwarted in ambition, aging gracelessly, mad at the cosmos, and ashamed of his own jejune ideals. He is nevertheless very dear to me. And he appears in my front-hall mirror.