Invisible Censor


10. Henry Adams²

Henry Adams was born with his name on the waiting list of Olympus, and he lived up to it. He lived up to it part of the time in London, as secretary to his father at the Embassy; part of the time at Harvard, teaching history; most of the time in Washington, in La Fayette Square. Shortly before he was born, the stepping stone to Olympus in the United States was Boston. Sometimes Boston and Olympus were confused. But not so long after 1838 the railroads came, and while Boston did its best to control the country through the railroads there was an inevitable shift in political gravity, and the center of power became Ohio. It was Henry Adams's fate to knock at the door of fame when Ohio was in power; and Ohio did not comprehend Adams's credentials. Those credentials, accordingly, were the subject of some wry scrutiny by their possessor. They were valid, at any rate, at the door of history, and Henry Adams gave a dozen years to Jefferson and Madison. It was his humor afterwards to say he had but three serious readers-Abram Hewitt, Wayne MacVeagh and John Hay. His composure in the face of this coolness was, however, a strange blending of serenities derived equally from the cosmos and from La Fayette Square. He was not above the anodyne of exclusiveness. Even his autobiography, a true title to Olympus, was issued to a bare hundred readers before his death, and was then deemed too incomplete to be made public. It is made public now nominally for "students" but really for the world that didn't know an Adams when it saw one.

For mere stuff the book is incomparable. Henry Adams had the advantage of full years and happy faculty, and his book is the rich harvest of both. He had none of that anecdotal inconsequentiality which is a bad tradition in English recollections. He saved himself from mere recollections by taking the world as an educator and himself as an experiment in education. His two big books were contrasted as Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres: A Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity, and The Education of Henry Adams: A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity. The stress on multiplicity was all the more important because he considered himself eighteenth century to start with, and had, in fact, the unity of simple Americanism at the beginning.

Simple Americanism goes to pieces like the pot of basil in this always expanding tale of a development. There are points about the development, about its acceptance of a "supersensual multiverse", which only a Karl Pearson or an Ernst Mach could satisfactorily discuss or criticize. A reader like myself gazes through the glass bottom of Adams's style into unplumbed depths of speculation. Those depths are clear and crisp. They deserve to be investigated. But a "dynamic theory of history" is no proper inhabitant of autobiography, and "the larger synthesis" is not yet so domesticated as the plebeian idea of God. That Adams should conduct his study to these ends is, in one sense, a magnificent culmination. A theory of life is the fit answer to the supersensual riddle of living. But when the theory must be technical and even professional, an autobiography has no climax in a theory. It is better to revert, as Adams does, to the classic features of human drama: "Even in America, the Indian Summer of life should be a little sunny and a little sad, like the season, and infinite in wealth and depth of tone-but never hustled." It is enough to have the knowledge that along certain lines the prime conceptions were shattered and the new conceptions pushed forward, the tree of Adams rooting itself firmly in the twentieth century, coiled round the dynamos and the law of acceleration.

Whatever the value of his theory, Henry Adams embraced the modernity that gradually dawned on him and gave him his new view of life. Take his fresh enthusiasm for world's fairs as a solitary example. One might expect him to be bored by them, but Hunt and Richardson and Stanford White and Burnham emerge heroically as the dramatizers of America, and Henry Adams soared over their obviousness to a perception of their "acutely interesting" exhibits. He was after-something. If the Virgin Mary could give it to him in Normandy, or St. Louis could give it to him among the Jugo-Slavs and the Ruthenians on the Mississippi, well done. No vulgar prejudices held him back. He who could interpret the fight for free silver without a sniff of impatience, who could study Grant without the least filming of patriotism, was not likely to turn up his nose at unfashionable faiths or to espouse fashionable heresies. He was after education and any century back or forward was grist to his mill. And his faith, even, was sure to be a sieve with holes in it. "All one's life," as he confesses grimly, "one had struggled for unity, and unity had always won," yet "the multiplicity of unity had steadily increased, was increasing, and threatened to increase beyond reason." Beyond reason, then, it was reasonable to proceed, and the son of Ambassador Adams moved from the sanctity of Union with his feet feeling what way they must, and his eye on the star of truth.

So steady is that gaze, one almost forgets how keen it is. But there is no single dullness, as I remember, in 505 large pages, and there are portraits like those of Lodge or La Farge or St. Gaudens or the Adamses, which have the economy and fidelity of Holbein. A colorist Adams is not, nor is he a dramatist. But he has few equals in the succinct expressiveness that his historical sense demands, and he can load a sentence with a world of meaning. Take, for instance, the phrase in which he denies unity to London society. "One wandered about in it like a maggot in cheese; it was not a hansom cab, to be got into, or out of, at dinner-time." He says of St. Gaudens that "he never laid down the law, or affected the despot, or became brutalized like Whistler by the brutalities of his world." In a masterly chapter on woman, he summed up, "The woman's force had counted as inertia of rotation, and her axis of rotation had been the cradle and the family. The idea that she was weak revolted all history; it was a palæontological falsehood that even an Eocene female monkey would have laughed at; but it was surely true that, if force were to be diverted from its axis, it must find a new field, and the family must pay for it.... She must, like the man, marry machinery." In Cambridge "the liveliest and most agreeable of men-James Russell Lowell, Francis J. Child, Louis Agassiz, his son Alexander, Gurney, John Fiske, William James and a dozen others, who would have made the joy of London or Paris-tried their best to break out and be like other men in Cambridge and Boston, but society called them professors, and professors they had to be. While all these brilliant men were greedy for companionship, all were famished for want of it. Society was a faculty-meeting without business. The elements were there; but society cannot be made up of elements-people who are expected to be silent unless they have observations to make-and all the elements are bound to remain apart if required to make observations."

Keen as this is, it does not alter one great fact, that Henry Adams himself felt the necessity of making observations. He approached autobiography buttoned to the neck. Like many bottled-up human beings he had a real impulse to release himself, and to release himself in an autobiography if nowhere else; but spontaneous as was the impulse, he could no more unveil the whole of an Adams to the eye of day than he could dance like Nijinski. In so far as the Adamses were institutional he could talk of them openly, and he could talk of John Hay and Clarence Kink and Henry Cabot Lodge and John La Farge and St. Gaudens as any liberated host might reveal himself in the warm hour after dinner. But this is not the Dionysiac tone of autobiography and Henry Adams was not Dionysiac. He was not limitedly Bostonian. He was sensitive, he was receptive, he was tender, he was more scrod than cod. But the mere mention of Jean Jacques Rousseau in the preface of this autobiography raises doubts as to Henry Adams's evasive principle, "the object of study is the garment, not the figure." The figure, Henry Adams's, had nagging interest for Henry Adams, but something racial required him to veil it. He could not, like a Rousseau or "like a whore, unpack his heart with words."

The subterfuge, in this case, was to lay stress on the word "education." Although he was nearly seventy when he laid the book aside and although education means nothing if it means everything, the whole seventy years were deliberately taken as devotion to a process, that process being visualized much more as the interminable repetition of the educational escalator itself than as the progress of the person who moves forward with it. Moves forward to where? It was the triumph of Henry Adams's detachment that no escalator could move him forward anywhere because he was not bound anywhere in particular. Such a man, of course, could speak of his life as perpetually educational. One reason, of course, was his economic security. There was no wolf to devour him if his education proved incomplete. Faculty qua faculty could remain a permanent quandary to him, so long as he were not forced to be vocational, so long as he could speculate on "a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder."

The unemployed faculty of Henry Adams, however, is one of the principal fascinations of this altogether fascinating book. What was it that kept Henry Adams on a footstool before John Hay? What was it that sent him from Boston to Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres? The man was a capable and ambitious man, if ever there was one. He was not merely erudite and reflective and emancipatingly skeptical: he was also a man of the largest inquiry and the most scrupulous inclusiveness, a man of the nicest temper and the sanest style. How could such justesse go begging, even in the United States? Little bitter as the book is, one feels Henry Adams did go begging. Behind his modest screen he sat waiting for a clientage that never came, while through a hole he could see a steady crowd go pouring into the gilded doors across the way. The modest screen was himself. He could not detach it. But the United States did not see beyond the screen. A light behind a large globule of colored water could at any moment distract it. And in England, for that matter, only the Monckton Milneses kept the Delanes from brushing Adams away, like a fly.

The question is, on what terms did Adams want life? It is characteristic of him that he does not specify. But one gathers from his very reticence that he had least use of all for an existence which required moral multiplicity. Where he seems gravest and least self-superintending is in those criticisms of his friends that indicate the sacrifice of integrity. He was no prig. Not one bleat of priggishness is heard in all his intricate censure of the eminent British statesmen who sapped the Union. But there is a fund of significance in his criticism of Senator Lodge's career, pages 418 and on, in which "the larger study was lost in the division of interests and the ambitions of fifth-rate men." It is in a less concerned tone that the New Yorker Roosevelt is discussed. "Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of facts, and all Roosevelt's friends know that his restless and combative energy was more than abnormal. Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter-the quality that medieval theology assigned to God-he was pure act." Pure act Henry Adams was not. If Roosevelt exhibited "the effect of unlimited power on limited mind," he himself exhibited the contrary effect of limited power on unlimited mind. Why his power remained so limited was the mystery. Was he a watched kettle that could not boil? Or had he no fire in his belly? Or did the fire fail to meet the kettle? Almost any problem of inhibition would be simpler, but one could scarcely help ascribing something to that refrigeration of enthusiasm which is the Bostonian's revenge on wanton life force. Except for his opaline ethics, never glaring yet never dulled, he is manifestly toned down to suit the most neurasthenic exaction. Or, to put it more crudely, he is emotion Fletcherized to the point of inanition.

Pallid and tepid as the result was, in politics, the autobiography is a refutation of anæmia. There was, indeed, something meager about Henry Adams's soul, as there is something meager about a butterfly. But the lack of sanguine or exuberant feeling, the lack of buoyancy and enthusiasm, is merely a hint that one must classify, not a command that one condemn. For all this book's parsimony, for all its psychological silences and timidities, it is an original contribution, transcending caste and class, combining true mind and matter. Compare its comment on education to the comment of Joan and Peter-Henry Adams is to H. G. Wells as triangulation to tape-measuring. That profundity of relations which goes by the name of understanding was part of his very nature. Unlike H. G. Wells, he was incapable of cant. He had no demagoguery, no mob-oratory, no rhetoric. This enclosed him in himself to a dangerous degree, bordered him on priggishness and on egoism. But he had too much quality to succumb to these diseases of the sedentary soul. He survives, and with greatness.

² The Education of Henry Adams, an Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.