A review of Improvement of the World, A Biography of Henry Adams: His Last Life, 1891-1918, by Edward Chalfant and Henry Adams: The Historian as Political Theorist, by James P. Young
Both these books, in very different ways, serve a good purpose: they give the readers reasons to be more interested in the interesting American who is their common subject. Young offers a sober and earnest, if uninspired, interpretation of Henry Adams's distinctively American political thought as found in his major writings. Adams's works have become so much the property of English departments that it is useful to be reminded that he had serious political thoughts and that his major works are full of them.
Chalfant is as inspired as young is earnest. He is inspired as the ancient rhapsodes were inspired: he makes stuff up and is proud of it. And it can be entertaining for anyone who has an interest in Henry Adams. Chalfant's book is packed with pretentious and often engaging detail and conjecture, almost hour-by-hour, about how the ideas and feelings of Henry Adams came to him and got into print—or did not get into print—in the last 25 or so years of his life. As Chalfant tells his readers, "my principal interest is in great stories," and he tells some whoppers.
To come to grips with Henry Adams and his place in American history, one must, of course, follow the lead of these books and turn to the man himself and his works. Adams was born in 1838, two years after the death of James Madison. He died in 1918, when Ronald Reagan was seven years old. In his active and productive life, he wrote political journalism, scholarly essays, biography, novels, and a voluminous history of early 19th-century America, in addition to the two books that later generations have found less easy to categorize but more inviting to read: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1913) and The Education of Henry Adams (1918). He also dabbled in poetry and even wrote a history of Tahiti. His extensive, life-long correspondence is regarded as some as the most interesting collection of American letters on record.
Adams traveled prodigiously throughout his life and lived many years abroad, paying thoughtful and often studious and systematic attention to what he observed and recording his observations in private and published writing. He was a voracious researcher and reader, who knew as much as any American of his time about American history and world affairs. He tells us that he "passed the best years of his life in pondering over the political philosophy of Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison," and among the many other serious thinkers whom he felt obliged to engage in his writing were Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Bacon, Spinoza, Pascal, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Tocqueville, J.S. Mill, Marx, Nietzsche. His wide-ranging investigations included a determined effort to understand science as a necessary method of explaining human—and American—history, and as the key problem of the contemporary human condition.
Adams was a professor of history at Harvard for several years, served as editor of the influential quarterly the North American Review, and was a reluctant president of the American Historical Association. But his official or formal positions were of far less significance than his informal and personal activities and relations. From earliest childhood to his death, he associated and corresponded with leading figures in politics, letters, and the arts. For decades he maintained a salon in Washington, D.C., where leading politicians, diplomats, and authors regularly socialized. He said of himself not as a boast but as a matter of fact: "Never in his life would he have to explain who he was."
In his early 20s, Adams expressed to his brother Charles an ambition which, in various ways, he pursued throughout his life: "[W]hat we want, my dear boy, is a school. We want a national set of young men like ourselves or better, to start new influences not only in politics, but in literature, in law, in society, and throughout the whole social organism of the country. A national school of our own generation." Adams never gave up trying to "start new influences" in the American mind, his own included. For more than half a century he became a kind of school unto himself—headmaster, faculty, and member of the student body.
His early journalism tried to shape American opinion on the great issues of the day—secession, civil war, and political reform. His scholarly essays and books aimed at a different layer of opinion but were as purposeful, seeking, among other things, to establish a new ground for understanding American history. With his novels and his innovative works Chartresand the Education he sought to influence different audiences with his "literary art." His correspondence aimed not only at its contemporary recipients but at later generations who Adams well knew would be reading his mail; this private and personal mode of influence became especially characteristic of him.
His Education won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, just a year after his death, and as the 20th century was coming to a close, Modern Library selected the Education as the century's Best Nonfiction Book in English. Whatever the ultimate merits of these honors, as measures of his influence they are confirmed by the publication of a new edition of his letters in the 1980s, the republishing of his major works by the Library of America in the same decade, and by the continuing scholarly interest in his work. Helping Adams in an informal, private way to start new influences in yet another century, the president of Adams's alma mater encouraged the Harvard incoming class of 2004 to consider the "immense value" of reading Adams's Education.
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If anyone had a birthright to the American legacy, it would seem to be Henry Adams. By nature and nurture Adams was, as he called himself, an "American of Americans." In the many high offices they held, his father, Charles Francis Adams, and his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, were faithful champions and guardians of those "revolution-principles" first espoused by his great-grandfather, John Adams, back in 1776. When Henry Adams was a young man, Abraham Lincoln already spoke of those principles in their authoritative American incarnation as our "ancient faith."
With great labor and devotion, those "revolution-principles" were faithfully passed down to Henry Adams through the generations as the most precious political inheritance. He took them with the utmost seriousness. The bloody Civil War fought over them was the first great lesson in politics. He remained attached to the world of those principles his whole life. But his attachment, however deep and even passionate, could ultimately be to him no more than a "matter of taste" or habit; as a matter of conviction, he felt himself, even as a Harvard student, "slipping away from" the "fixed principles" of his forebears.
As the years passed, Adams increasingly came to see himself as abiding in a new world in which it was as impossible to believe in the "a priori" truths or "eighteenth century" ideas of his forefathers as it was to believe in the revealed truths of the medieval Church, or the incantations of a pagan priest in the ancient temple of Apollo.
All such "dogmas" belonged to an old world of which, because of the irresistible advance of modern science, Adams felt he could no longer be a part, and to which, in much of his writing, he is bidding heartbroken, if cavalier, farewell. It was not the "truth" of modern science that made it seem irresistible to Adams—science required more credulity of its devotees than did the mysteries of medieval faith. What made science irresistible was its sheer brute capacity to predict and therefore command events. In the world that must submit to be explained, as it was to be commanded, by such science, truth must give way to "convenience."
Moral truth was no exception. Under the microscope of mechanistic science, all moral principles seemed to dissolve into mere "ideals." How his forefathers differed from 13th century saints (or 5th-century BC philosophers) was in the end less important for Adams than how they resembled one another: they respected the authority of what Thomas Jefferson called simply "[t]he great principles of right and wrong." Adams's famous "education" led him to the point where "he knew no longer the good from the bad." Thus was Adams reluctantly driven to the point, so characteristic of later generations of educated Americans that he felt compelled to place between quotation marks, at least in his mind, any reference to a non-arbitrary standard of moral judgment independent of human will—whether knowable through reason or revelation—by which an individual and a people might direct their choices and their destinies.
His "slipping away" from the ancient faith, both in general and in its peculiar American form, was momentous for Adams. Having abandoned the faith of his fathers, he would spend the rest of his life thinking through the necessity for and the consequences of having done so. All Adams's mature writings were in one way or another reflections on the historical, political, psychological, and philosophical dimensions of this problem. Among the more distasteful consequences, Adams saw clearly (well before the writing of his great History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison [1889-91]) that, applied to human affairs, his science decided in the negative "the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of establishing good government from reflection and choice." In the world according to Adams the scientific historian, all is "accident and force," and an America understood in these terms could not, of course, be a nation that in any way might "vindicate the honor of the human race." The statesmanship of his great ancestors could and therefore must be explained in the same way one explains the twitchings of an insect or the formation of a crystal.
In both of Adams's novels (Democracy , Esther ), the main character is a woman looking for meaning in life—whether in politics, religion, or science—some ground of permanence in a world of flux. Neither finds it. It is nowhere to be found. But Adams the "literary artist" makes it clear that the most attractive characters will long for it, nonetheless. Adams, himself, having given up on the fixed principles of his forefathers, felt such a longing "to the last fibre of his being." It drew him helplessly toward mystical faith on the one hand and material determinism on the other—to the Virgin and the Dynamo, as recorded in his two most well-known books, Chartres and the Education. But he could no more consummate his longing than his Esther could allow herself to marry the clergyman she loved or the scientist who loved her. His thought is forever fecklessly suspended between the one thing needful and the forlorn insistence that it does not exist.
As epistolarian, journalist, novelist, historian, teacher, and literary artist, Adams explored the innumerable dimensions of this inexhaustible dilemma, and he let the world know that he had not concluded his explorations when he was gathered to his fathers, from whose ancient faith the ineluctable tendency of his thought had carried him away.
His extended and imaginative reflections proved to be early explorations of the paths that would be wandered by leading American intellectuals for the rest of the 20th century, paths which led away from the fixed principles of "nature and eternal reason" toward history and "change" ultimately, as Adams was fully aware, to "chaos." A generation after Adams's death, a recent German immigrant asked of America: "Does this nation in its maturity still cherish the faith in which it was conceived and raised?" The answer, as we know, so far as it concerned the most learned and privileged Americans, was not a resounding yes. Even those learned Americans who did still "adhere to the principles of the Declaration of Independence," had come for the most part—largely under the influence of German thought—to view these principles as "ideals" or "ideology" or "myth." Adams had anticipated these intellectuals by half a century or more, in part because, as his biographer suggests, he looked for his understanding of these principles "beyond the laws of nature and of God to the primeval forests of Germany." Adams also anticipated Leo Strauss in his conclusion that "the fundamental dilemma, in whose grip we are, is caused by the victory of modern natural science."
Adams was American in a way in which few if any of his contemporaries could be, and which has since become impossible. And yet, thanks to his education, he found it impossible to be an American in the most decisive sense, in the way exemplified by his great-grandfather, a way available to "good and wise men of all ages."