Henry Adams of Massachusetts, the grandson of one president and the great-grandson of another, “born,” as he claims in the famous opening sentences of his autobiography, “in the shadow of the Boston statehouse,” was doomed by temperament, chance, and history to spend his life as an observer of power. A disappointed romantic, Adams created from his own limitations and deficiencies a role that could mask his impotence without deflating his self-esteem. As a professional pessimist, an ironic commentator on the political foibles of his contemporaries, he brought to those who cared to or were permitted to listen, the lofty perspectives of a national history which happened by chance to also be a family one.
Adams spent his early years as a historian, teacher, and occasional novelist, his later ones as an analyst, essayist, and autobiographer. Although in sheer quantity, the productions of his first half-century, including his biographies of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph, his nine-volume History of the United States of America (1889-1891), and the satirical novels, Democracy: An American Novel (1880) and Esther (1884) outweigh the works of his last three decades, it is for the products of his later life, Mont- Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), that he is most likely to be remembered. The three volumes of letters produced during these latter years are likely to tip the balance toward old age even further.
The more than two thousand pages that make up these massive volumes contain a staggering quantity of largely brilliant epistolary prose. Sparkling, ebullient, often witty, occasionally vicious, the letters present a full and detailed commentary on twenty-five years of American social and political life. The perspective is limited and often distorted by bigotry or bile, but the prose is a delight and the view of American political figures, caught as it were from the backs and the sides of their careers, makes the historical satire of contemporary pundits such as Gore Vidal seem unfocused and mild.
Readers of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams are likely to note almost immediately the greater relaxation and freedom that permeate these more informal writings. Although the self-distancing that eventually results in choice of a third-person narrator in the Education is certainly evident throughout these volumes in Adams’ tendency to circle around his own reactions and to assume carefully defined roles in his relationship to his friends, he is on the whole more playful and, for the most part, more direct. He likes to characterize himself as senile, or detached or monkish, but the persona he assumes is clearly in many cases the continuation of a shared joke well understood by his correspondents to mean exactly the opposite of what seems to be said. He could, in short, laugh at himself to his friends, express affection and concern, and support them with great tact when they were distressed or suffering. In fact, one of the most surprising things about the correspondence is the contrast between the bitterness and cynicism which increasingly characterized the author’s view of the world around him, and the lavish affection and loyalty with which he regarded his allies, relatives, and friends.
Throughout the period covered by these volumes, more than a quarter of a century, Adams’ correspondents remain remarkably consistent, testifying to his gift for friendship and to the sustaining social ties which supported him. Primary among his friends were Charles Milnes Gaskell, a British writer and politician whom Adams had met in London during the critical years when he had acted as private secretary to his father, the American ambassador, during the Civil War; John Hay, his closest friend, who, with his wife, had been a fellow member of “The Five of Hearts,” the intimate circle which had gathered around Adams in Washington before Marian Hooper Adams committed suicide in 1885; and, above all, Elizabeth Cameron, twenty years younger than Adams and the wife of Senator Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, to whom Adams wrote weekly and later monthly letters throughout his later life, retailing Washington gossip and political analysis in the intimate but rueful tones of a disappointed lover. Other recipients include such cultural and social luminaries as William and Henry James, the painter John LaFarge, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge, Theodore Roosevelt and Bernard Berenson, and his brothers Brooks and Charles Francis Adams. As Adams reaches his eighties, naturally, many old friends disappear, but enough survive to give a pleasurable continuity. Events are described in one way to Mrs. Cameron and in another to younger brother Brooks. After the first two volumes, the reader comes to anticipate the pessimism of one perspective, the rueful self-mockery of another.
Volume IV begins in 1892, well after the crisis—Clover Adams’ death—that Adams claimed broke his life in half He has finished his active mourning (direct references to his wife are...
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