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“Servant of the Powerhouse”
The Education of Henry Adams, written by America’s greatest historian and heir to America’s first political family, was greeted on its posthumous release to the public as the finest of American autobiographies. For a century it has been routinely characterized as one of world literature’s extraordinary life narratives, a book to shelve alongside the Confessions of St. Augustine and of Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. But The Education is a special case. To classify it as “autobiography”which reflected not the author’s intention but an editor’s afterthoughtrequires a word of warning and clarification. The Education isn’t truly a work of autobiography. It is a meditation on a life formed by a family tradition that wraps itself around a cultural critique of the age and around speculations on a philosophy of historyfor Adams was quite convinced that history is hurtling toward a future of frightening design. This perhaps explains why he chose to write his narrative in the third person. His real autobiography lies within the six thick volumes of his collected letters. A tireless correspondent, Adams was always drafting another brilliant, sparkling, and acidly opinionated dispatch to friends within his narrow social circle (the circle of acquaintance was always small, for his social life was ordered by a rule of “exclusion,” which writer Alfred Kazin suggested was a carryover of “family habit”). In the letters one will find detailed accounts that are at odds with, or that greatly amplify, those offered of episodes, travels, and companions in The Education. Readers who begin to fall under the book’s spell and pursue interest in the author elsewhere will soon discover that Adams was sly and cagey with disclosures. Do not misunderstand: there are many passages of his book that can startle with their emotional candor, once one’s ear has adjusted to the pitch of his prose. But Adams skips over key facts of his life, his marriage and his wife's suicide, to begin with. And he slights his own achievements, ignoring entirely, for example, his greatest work of scholarship, a history on the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to which he devoted his most productive and contented years (the years, not coincidentally, of marriage to Marian "Clover" Hooper). Adams wasn’t the “failure” that the creator of “Henry Adams” would have us believe. He fashioned a literary mask that was partly a thin fiction for privacy and discretion. He preferred to keep at bay those he could keep at bay. Those closest to Adams understood how to read the silences that fall between The Education’s sentences and chapters.
Precisely when Adams began to plot and draft The Education isn’t clear. But one can spot key ideas and characteristic phrases of the book beginning to salt his letters by the later 1890s. Little evidence of the literary process has survived. As a matter of habit, Adams was ordinarily elusive with details of literary labors in progress. And he didn’t mind leaving family and friends with the impression he had tossed off his latest masterwork with hardly an effort. To judge by the letters written at the time he was drafting The Education, Adams was at pains to avoid giving hint that this work was underway. He relished complete freedom to shape and polish without interference or pestering inquiries from anyone who might expect to make at least a walk-on appearance in an Adams memoir.
Adams wasn’t trying to write a memoir of factually accurate recollection as such. He was fascinated with hindsightwith observing his own mind in its contemporary act of remembrance. Memory, he knew, isn’t passive or neutral; it isn’t a mirror held up to the past. Memory is a creative artist that takes license when reimagining scenes of the past. In the chapter that describes Adams’ first boyhood trip south to Washington and to Mount Vernon with his father, Adams tells us what he’s doing. He alerts readers that the journey in reality was surely quite different than what he recalled in old age. Examining his past, Adams focuses on how memories over time became charged with meaning that drew on all the experience and lessons of the years that followed. Adams is present on every page in the voice of his older, wiser self, a literary strategy that works marvels at evoking the book’s elegiac mood.
When satisfied with his progress, Adams had a small private edition printed. A few dozen copies were distributed to an elect audience in 1907 (recipients included the president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt, and the president of Harvard University, Charles William Eliot). Adams’ plan of publication called for treating the initial printing as page proofs for correctionassuming, and one can wonder at the author’s sincerity at making this request, invited readers cooperated and returned copies with their changes in the margins. But Adams received little in return but praise. Over the following decade the book lived an underground life. Scarce copies were in high demand, circulating from hand to hand. Adams meanwhile deflected publishing overtures to make his book avail-able to the public. He had grave misgivings. His attitude toward his countrymen in mass was caught in P. T. Barnum’s nasty jibe about how one won’t go broke by underestimating the American public’s intelligence. (With characteristic bluntness, Brooks Adams expressed a sentiment at the heart of the family’s outlook when he assigned the revealing title, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, to a collection of later essays by his brother.) But Adams permitted arrangements by the Massachusetts Historical Societyhis elder brother Charles, after all, was the society’s presidentthat would guarantee the book’s eventual publication. Just months after Adams died, at eighty, in 1918, the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin issued the book. The critical acclaim, avid interest, and long run as a best seller that awaited The Education would have stupefied its author. The book won the Pulitzer Prize the following year.
What did it mean to be an Adams? “The family mind,” Adams once observed in a letter to his brother Brooks, “approaches unity more nearly than is given to most works of God.” Their family exemplified the very best spirit of individualismalways proud, realistic, independent-minded, scrupulously honest, and amazingly resilient in the face of defeat. Curious and intellectually driven, they were rationalists from head to toe. They had crossed from Puritanism to The Enlightenment, shifting allegiance from the theology of Jonathan Edwards to the Age of Reason’s “self-evident truths” and the dry sobriety of Unitarian faith. By inheritance and training Adams and his siblings were eighteenth-century creatures on whom the family mind imprinted itself with the force and habit of tradition. And because the nation’s story was so closely entwined with the family’s story, Adams’ feeling for history was intimate and proprietary.
For more than a century, John Adams and his Massachusetts descendents fused towering ambition and a rage for public controversy to first-rate political abilities. The family’s consuming pride in political affairsand the invariable and inevitable cause of its setbackswas its refusal to bend politics to interest. As politicians the Adamses were famous in Massachusetts (though perhaps it is closer to the truth to say that in their home state they were notorious) for abhorring all politics of faction and party and for taking up defense of the national interest when it collided with local or regional interests.
The family’s record of service in high office was nothing short of astonishing. John Adams, whose life spanned the years 1735 to 1826, was a revolutionary firebrand, a founding father, the country’s first vice president, and the second president of the United States. His son John Quincy Adams, who lived from 1767 to 1848, was, if possible, even more remarkable in his gifts and accomplishments. Adams served as a foreign minister for two presidents, George Washington and his own father. He was the chief American negotiator for the Treaty of Ghent, which concluded the War of 1812 with Britain. As President James Monroe’s secretary of state, Adams drafted a document that remains the cornerstone of American foreign policy principle, the Monroe Doctrine. And in 1824 Adams himself became the nation’s sixth president. But he served only a single term, losing a bitter contest for reelection to Andrew Jackson of Tennessee. With uncommon strength of character in defeat, Adams chose to honor the request of Quincy neighbors that he return to Washington as their congressman, and in doing so he turned his post-presidential years into unexpected triumph. Over the next two decades Adams was the strongest dissenting voice, a lightning rod of opposition, to the slave powers in Congress. His anti-slavery efforts became his greatest political legacy. Adams died before the outbreak of war, but his talented and steady son Charles Francis Adams, who lived from 1807 to 1886, played a crucial role in preserving the Union. As the Union’s minister to Britain during the war years, Adams had to confront the zeal in Britain and Europe for forcing a negotiated settlement of the conflict on Lincoln’s governmentan intervention that would permanently divide states North and South. Entrenched European powers were keen to smother a rising North American rival in its cradle. Adams succeeded at stalling and sidelining the British, giving Union armies the time they needed to turn the war at Vicksburg and Gettysburg.
Besides the family’s gift for politics, literary talent resurfaced in the generations with stunning regularity. Henry Adams, born in 1838, was the fourth child of Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams, a union that joined the Adams’ fortunes to a family then reputed to be the wealthiest in Boston. This Adams would become not only the family’s standout literary talent but also a major American writer. By the turn of the century, Adams and Henry James were the strongest living exemplars of New England’s literary culture.
Beginning in his early years abroad, assisting his father in his duties as Lincoln’s minister to Britain, Adams secretly wrote on politics and the tension between the Union and Britain as the New York Times’ unnamed London correspondenta tricky matter that ran risk of embarrassment to his father’s mission if exposed. After returning home in the late 1860s, Adams made a stab at reform politics as a muckraking journalist. For a brief while, with his articles on finance and politics drawing blood in the capitol and notice on both sides of the Atlantic, Adams succeeded in making his Washington commentary a force. Grant’s presidential victory held promise that reform politics and Adams and his friends might even come out winners in the political stakes. But cronyism and rampant corruption within Grant’s administration, which Adams satirized with great success in a roman a clef, Democracy, he wrote and published anonymously, quashed all hopes for political influence.
Harvard beckoned with an offer of two jobs, teaching medieval history and taking editorial direction of the North American Review, then the country’s preeminent journal. Adams’ family put its weight in support of Harvard’s offer, and Adams accepted. A stint of nearly a decade teaching, writing, and editing followed. These years were counted by university sources as a fine success, though Adams later wrote dismissively about this period in the chapter of The Education entitled “Failure.” He was enormously popular with students, trained the university’s first history doctorates, and even introduced the form of modern seminar teaching to the United States. But Adams chafed at academic form and Harvard’s social “desert.” If campus life was a bland disappointment, life beyond the Yard surprised the thirty-four year old confirmed bachelor with an unanticipated blessing: he married Marian Hooper of Cambridge in 1872. Adams’ Harvard years eventually came to a close after he was invited to edit the papers and write the authorized biography of Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of treasury. The offer provided him with the excuse to quit teaching, which bored him and restricted his writing, and to return to the city he loved, Washington.
Adams joked that, like his ancestors, he gravitated to capitols almost by a law of nature. He and his wife moved south in 1877, setting up house off Lafayette Square, near the White House, and soon lorded over Washington’s liveliest salon. Settled in a happy marriage, surrounded by friends, and knowing that in writing history he had found his true calling, Adams completed two political biographies and his landmark nine-volume History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, by all odds the best historical work of Adams’ generation and arguably the finest history ever written by an American.
Marian Adams’ beloved father died in 1885. His death triggered in Marian a deep tailspin of depression, which she never escaped. Her suicide late that year left Adams devastated. As Adams and his wife were aware, depression and suicide had a history in the Hooper family line: Marian wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last suicide in her family. Losing Marian when he was forty-seven began the long stretch of decades that Adams always derisively called his “posthumous life.” Her lossand her impulsive surrender to overwhelming irrational force in deathmarked Adams forever. She haunts the two masterpieces he wrote in the autumn of life, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres and The Education.
Though The Education wasn’t published until 1918, its release couldn’t have been timelier, as the book’s appreciative audience soon proved. Striking a direct rapport with the younger generation, the book acquired the status of a classic in short order. That the young took up and championed Adams was curious, but the elder and patrician historian had shaped a voice of worldly disillusionment those men and women of the 1920s Lost Generation recognized as addressing them in their generation’s accentthe distinctively new accent of Modernist literature, of Pound and Eliot and Hemingway, Adams’ true contemporaries. The book’s urbane and magisterial style impressed them. Crucially, they read Adams’ moral dilemmas as prefiguring their own. Adams’ book spoke to them as if written by a peer, not as a work by a writer already dead who had lived most of his years in Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin’s century.
They understood Adams to be saying he had failed in life because even the best education available had been inadequate preparation for the new century’s challenges. They read The Education as a cry of revulsion against the mechanization of the industrial empire that began to consolidate in the United States soon after the Union’s victory in the Civil War. Adams, they assumed, had craved a political career, but was denied an opportunity equal to his talents. Artists and intellectuals offended by the business culture’s new dominance and the gaudy spending spree of the Roaring Twenties read Adams as ennobling them with an implied invitation to identify with his defeat. At the close of the 1930s, Louis Kronenberger, a writer radicalized by the poverty of the Great Depression, caustically observed of the Lost Generation that its notion of integrity had turned on an ideal of withdrawal and retreat. The era’s artists and intellectuals, he argued, saw in the vulgarity of capitalism a threat to their talents and seriousness. But rather than engage capitalism with a concerted political challenge, they had shrunk from confrontation, retreating into scenes of private preoccupation. They indulged themselves, Kronenberger claimed, with a consoling belief that they hadn’t failed but that the changed conditions of national life had failed themjust as they read Adams as saying that the new cultural landscape of the Gilded Age had failed him.
How the intellectual is to fit into the modern economy is a central theme in The Education’s narrative. Possibilities for one of Adams’ class and rarefied gifts were few, Kronenberger noted. In an era of boss-rule machine politics in the cities one could take up the reform effort with fellow upper-class Mugwumps, but then their tiny numbers and the outreach to new immigrants by political organizations like Tammany Hall in New York made that a lost cause, leaving one isolated in semi-permanent opposition and playing for small marbles. Or one could flee to Europe and live the expatriate life cultivating one’s artistic talents, as Adams’ friend Henry James did, for example, and as Adams did too for roughly half each year in his later decades, usually in Paris. Or one could throw one’s lot in with the very crowd one despised, as John Hay, Adams’ closest friend, did. Hay, who began his life in politics as Lincoln’s young secretary during the Civil War, married the daughter of a rich Cleveland business magnate and by the 1890s had parlayed their inherited fortune into a position and role of influence within the Republican Party. After helping to finance the party’s campaigns for years with his checks, Hay served (brilliantly) as ambassador to Britain and then as secretary of state to President McKinley and his White House successor, Teddy Roosevelt. But then Hay, a great charmer and world-class raconteur, didn’t really mind rubbing elbows with reigning party politicos like Mark Hanna and James G. Blaine. Adams, on the other hand, always a carping critic with a sensibility too delicate and refined even for ordinary party politics, wanted to kick the establishment to hellso long as he was still invited to its parties and seated near the head of the table.
Critics saw Adams as posing ironically for a heroic failure in an epic retooled for contemporaries. They understood Adams’ grievance with modern life wasn’t that he had failed (for by every plausible measure his life was accomplished and full) but that the terms of contemporary life had made it impossible to revere and practice the virtues that had molded his family. The social world called to mind by New England Puritanism and Jeffersonian agrarianism had vanished. The virtues of one age were obstacles to success in another. The emergence of the modern statefor the American colonies had swollen into a nationhad made eighteenth-century principles of limited republican government irrelevant. Modern politics had become an exercise in managerial expertise because (Adams tells us) “modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central powerhouses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and men tend to succumb to their own motive forces.” The skills of managerial expertise and a public life needing the administration of men of managerial genius like President McKinley and Hanna, McKinley’s political advisor and campaign strategist, could only leave Adams cold. His fellow citizens no longer looked to the cherished beliefs of the Adamses for guidance.
Meeting modernity’s challenge wasn’t possible without possessing knowledge of the forces driving the age. But understanding these new forces, which Adams believed must be scientific, called for another and quite different education than life at Quincy and Harvard had provided him. And that left Adams faced with a crisis of secular faith, for his attachment to his family’s “eighteenth-century” convictions was genuine. He believed that new forces were wrenching social life apart and restructuring it along unpredictable lines of development. Adams’ broad philosophical view, shared with his brother Brooks, was hard determinismthinking that ran against the dominant current of American optimism. He scorned the nineteenth century’s easy, complacent assumptions about inevitable progress and the perfectibility of man. He loathed the financial powers headquartered in Boston’s State Street, New York’s Wall Street, and London’s Lombard Street. Adams was in mad pursuit of a principle that would allow him to test the “truth” of America’s business culture and its rising financial elite. His search led him to examine the careers of those men who had demonstrated success at directing the new forces in play in society, but there study was stalled by paradox. For Adams had to admit that certain individuals lacking in education and preparation had succeeded in command, it seemed, almost by instinct, as Grant and Garibaldi hadtwo men raw and rough as they come. Others failed despite superb training and fine natural gifts, as happened to Adams’ brother Charles, ousted as president of the Union Pacific Railroad by Jay Gould and his financial allies. Success in life, Adams dearly wished to believe, ought to be the result of mastery achieved through intellectual understanding. How some men succeeded at exerting control over forces they didn’t understand remained a puzzle.
Modernity’s frantic “multiplicity” agitated but intrigued Adams. The term hinted at modern life’s dizzy buzz and pace of change. But Adams was in the hunt for insight and a philosophical justification for the age, which he believed the age demands. The Middle Ages, particularly the twelfth century, the high tide of the Catholic Church’s confident self-assertion and control over a unified Europe, provided Adams with an emotional and philosophical contrast with his own time. What proved so appealing to Adams was the psychological confidence the medieval worldview inspiredhow every feature and order of life was informed by and found its place within the Church’s hierarchical vision. In the Virgin Mary as idolized in Chartres Cathedral’s glorious stained glass he found a symbol that personified that worldview’s capacity to quiet the anxieties of troubled souls. But Adams’ medievalism, it should be said, was neither simple nor mere escape. He used the Catholic Middle Ages to gain perspective on contemporary times by counterpoising medieval “unity” with modern “multiplicity.”
Adams tried to frame a philosophy of history by tracing western civilization’s course from the twelfth to the twentieth century. He understood modern scientific theory at 1900 as having concluded that no fundamental, immutable laws exist to impart unity and cohesion on the universe. The universe exists instead as an infinitely vast and infinitely complex expanse over which chance and unpredictability rule. In an earlier age, Adams claimed, it had been the Catholic Church’s striking achievement to impose an exquisite vision of its own design across a dangerous world in turmoil. He could allow that modern science had unquestionably improved man’s material well being. But man’s gains, Adams insisted, have come at a costthe loss of man’s philosophical and theological visions of order. Those constructions, simpler and more satisfying and flattering to man, are sacrifices to scientific progress. Adams was persuaded that because man’s material gains have increased in proportion to science’s advancing knowledge of forces at work in the universe, man’s fate is to live with ever-increasing complexity. But this left him in fear and gripped by a nightmare image: that the rapidly escalating intellectual complexity of science is itself an increasingly exact reflection of chaos at large in the universe. The search for a unifying principle then can only be a quixotic gesture. Social life on earth mirrors the chaos of forces in the dark heavens beyond. Modernity is a stage on which mismatched and antagonistic forces are pitted in combat, and where conflict is the only constant of life. Efforts to subdue nature and organize society with intelligent direction are bound to fail, Adams concluded, because law (which his science-inflected thinking equated with order) isn’t inherent in nature or society. The sublime Catholic worldview of the twelfth century he so admired had no life outside the human mind: it was a projection of human need for order onto the universe. If God doesn’t exist to impart meaning to the cosmosand Adams was a skepticthen it falls inescapably to men to impart their own meaning. Men aren’t gods. But they are made disquietingly aware that their fate has come to rest in their own hands.
A law of acceleration is at work in history, Adams argued. (He couldn’t see that his claim violated his own insistence that all “law” is a projection of our human need for ordera sign that pervasive and unrecognized scientism marred his thinking.) Man’s gains over nature are arriving at ever-narrower intervals of time. Such gains would continue, Adams insisted, until man learned the secret of ultimate, unlimited power locked within the atoma discovery he cannily predicted would follow soon after his death. In the dynamo, a massive mechanical device that transfixed him with the effortless nonstop purring of its movement when he witnessed it at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, Adams found his symbol of modern power and energy. The dynamo epitomized efficient, unlimited, and mindless energy. The machine seemed to express something essential and central to the meaning of his time, just as he believed that adoration of the all-loving and all-forgiving Virgin Mary had been the uniting force driving the creation of Chartres Cathedral. He thought he could see in the dynamo too a frightening omen of nuclear energy’s potential as a destructive force. And in the logic and dynamic of modern social organization Adams darkly foresaw that technological advance would increase pressures toward regimentation and collectivization. Man’s need of controls over ever-growing and ever-accelerating power and energy would expand exponentially. The push of bureaucratic rationalization would drive men toward a future that would see human oversight increasingly displaced by mechanical controls. Converted into a “servant of the powerhouse,” man would meet his end by surrendering his humanity to science.
Historian John Lukacs has shrewdly analyzed the “split-mindedness” in Adams’ thinking. Lukacs doesn’t mean a psychological condition such as unconscious motives or a schizophrenic state, but something quite differentthe existence of contradictory ideas or rival sets of beliefs at war with one another in the same mind. In Adams one can see a mind genuinely torn between medieval spiritualism and scientific dogmatism. Adams obsessed on the idea that in a scientific age history must become a science, and that historians would have to adopt physical science’s methods and models. He lost sight of the truth that as humans we have need of at least two forms of theory, physical theory and social theory. Their interests aren’t the same. Man’s knowledge of things is by no means the same as man’s knowledge of man. Adams forgot (as St. Augustine, who provided Adams with one of his models for The Education, did not) that science and mathematics are creations of man and find their place in man’s history. He persuaded himself that man would ultimately be assigned a place in the history of science.
Adams’ literary career spanned the Civil War to the close of World War I. Over those decades the country passed through Reconstruction’s bitter lawlessness and the financial squalor of the Gilded Age. Adams lived through it all. He was such an odd, compelling, contradictory characteran historian fixated on writing history as a science and a stunning literary artist who leaned on the power and artistry of his imagery to sway readers. Adams knew where his true strength lay: he felt compelled to remind readers of The Education that images aren’t arguments. He had a family-honed instinct for history and literature as man’s supreme instruments of self-awareness, a trait almost downright un-American in this most American son. Today, long past the time when Adams’ ideas for a philosophy of history were the rage, readers will find the lasting value of The Education in its unforgettable images of that period when America left the wings and vaulted on to the world’s center stage. While Gibbon wrote of Rome’s decline and fall, Adams wrote, with Gibbon’s example before him, of America at the moment it took the world by storm and began its reincarnation of imperial Rome. To his death Adams wondered, with the fate of Rome in mind, about America’s ultimate destination.
Alfred Kazin observed that it was Adams’ arrogance and greatness that he could presume that his own fate would foretell the fate of the United States. And as with his country, so too with his family: Adams looked back over four generations of Adamses and wrote as if submitting final judgment on the entire family tradition. It was as if the family’s accomplishments had fallen to him, and to him alone, to assess and grade. And for better than a generation Adams’ fame and the reputation of The Education were so high they almost seemed to make the family’s illustrious past a prelude to Adams’ career. In the late 1930s historian Henry Steele Commager wrote of Adams: “it is no very shocking exaggeration to insist that to the student of American history the contemplation of Adams is the beginning of wisdom.” To Commager the career of Adams both recapitulated the family history and “illuminated, better than any of his contemporaries, the course of American history.”
What has dimmed that estimate since? To those born after the mid-twentieth century and who were shaped by the tidal shift in social mores and behavior that followed 1968 (to use Adams’ manner of historical shorthand) there is plenty in Adams’ opinions that will appallhis ugly old-money blue-blood loathing for Jews, say, which erupts in his letters of the early 1890s. Today we’re apt to think that Adams’ experience and opportunities as the ultimate insider were just too much of the same sort: too cushioned by his ample wealth and easy privilege and leisured travel in the company of fellow plutocrats. But to those interested in being let in on the private conversation of our plutocratic class, they couldn’t do better than to turn to Adams, an incomparable source and witness to his age, an age that eerily comes to resemble ours. Once one has made the acquaintance of Henry Adams, he tends to become frequent companythe ghost at one’s elbow trying to keep current, reading the day’s headlines over one’s shoulder, the curious and brilliant and strangely fascinating Adams heir who could never quell his interest in what happens next.
Gregory Tietjen, who was born and raised in New Jersey, has worked for two decades in Manhattan’s bookselling and publishing scene. His oldest and strongest interests are in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American political and literary history.