The Letters of Henry Adams (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
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...
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The Letters of Henry Adams (Magill's Literary Annual 1984)
As any student of American history knows, the epistolary talents of the Adams family are a great and still only partially mined national natural resource. For more than a hundred and fifty years, the pens of this small group of curious, articulate New Englanders scratched out descriptions of the events and discussions of the ideas that shaped the intellectual and political consciousness of their country. Narrow, bitter, and contentious as they sometimes are, the Adams letters have provided a unique record of the American past and a fascinating study in the interplay of personality and politics.
Publication of The Letters of Henry Adams makes available to the general reader for the first time an important vein of this mine hitherto only glimpsed. In the past, scholars or casual readers who did not have access to the Adams family papers could read the letters of this celebrated grandson and great-grandson of presidents only in highly abridged or selected editions, notably the two-volume collection published in the 1930’s by Worthington C. Ford, which deleted comments that might have been an embarrassment to the still-surviving members of the Adams family and their immediate circle of friends. According to the current editors, more than fifteen hundred letters survive from the period covered by these three volumes; of these, 1,277 appear here, 710 of them published in a complete text for the first time. The letters, which begin with Adams’ first European trip in 1858 and end with his decision to return to Washington in 1892, cover his sojourn in the London embassy during the Civil War, his years in Washington and at Harvard University, his marriage, his hopeless infatuation with Elizabeth Cameron, and his retreat to the South Seas with John La Farge. They present, as well as a touching personal history, a vivid report on the rise and fall of the Gilded Age in the United States and the birth of what Adams identified as fin de siècle despondency throughout the world.
It would be worth reading these letters if their contributions to the historical record were their only value. Little of the information about Charles Francis Adams’ diplomatic maneuvering in the 1860’s or the attempt of the reform Republicans to take power in the presidential elections of the 1870’s can be new to the scholar, but Henry Adams’ unique perspective on the period lends a sharp immediacy to his observations. He was an involved participant in the political life around him, especially in his early years, sometimes fascinated and sometimes bored, but always acute and often eager. The four sons of Charles Francis fully expected him to be nominated for the presidency in 1872, and Henry’s letters to Carl Schurz and others during this and subsequent years show him to be as full of intrigue and excitement as any other partisan insider. It is not until the late 1880’s that he can confess that he has, for the first time, no personal friend in the Cabinet and thus knows little of what the inner circles are up to. He had ambivalent feelings about these circles, but his views on their unpredictable revolutions are always interesting and sufficiently snappish to retain their historical bite. Similarly, his letters from Tahiti and Samoa, which he visited in the 1890’s, several decades before Margaret Mead, present a highly individual view of island customs observed carefully at a time when they were rapidly changing.
Adams’ historical and anthropological observations, valuable as they may be, provide only a small part of the interest of these volumes. The letters are a pleasure to read. They are witty, eloquent, and precise. Adams was clearly lucky in his choice of friends, for he was able to write to them on a wide range of subjects, assured of their common interests and affections. Childless himself, he keeps up with the activities of their children. He jokes about himself and about shared memories and mutual friends. No answers to Adams’ letters are provided here, except where they are quoted briefly in notes, but it is clear from, for example, Adams’ letters in block capitals to little Martha Cameron and to his nieces that he was warmly accepted in his immediate world and was more relaxed and open to experience than his famous autobiography would lead the reader to expect.
There are many significant differences between letters and autobiography as literary genres, and it is difficult to imagine these contrasts more clearly illustrated than they are in the juxtaposition of The Education of Henry Adams (1907) with Adams’ correspondence. The former is a fixed rhetorical structure, carefully planned, polished, and unified by a distinctive narrative voice. Written by a disappointed elderly man for a select audience, it distorts, or at least shapes experience into illustration. The letters by contrast offer change, uncertainty, fluctuation. They are alive. The reader becomes absorbed in process rather than fascinated by product. The sharp perceptions and intelligence that characterize the autobiography are never absent, but they seem part of a developing personality, a lively response to an unstable world instead of exemplary aspects of an American character. What was Adams like as a young man? Was he flirtatious? Or passionate? What did he do after his wife’s suicide? How did he feel? One goes to Adams’ letters for answers to such questions raised by Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1913; privately printed, 1904) and The Education of Henry Adams, brilliant but slightly inhuman works.
Henry Adams was born in 1838, the fourth child and third son of a family that was inextricably involved with American political life. Born, as he says in his autobiography, “under the shadow of Boston State House,” he perhaps carried a lighter burden of expectation than his older brothers, but he was never without the sense of being an Adams and thus caught, willy-nilly, in history. The middle-child consciousness that he was somehow out of place and perpetually in need of self-definition, and which would later be expanded into a full-scale philosophical position, pursued Henry from an early age. He was temperamentally drawn to his rebellious older sister Louisa but was closest in age and interest, at least while he was young, to his brother Charles, who had been his Harvard roommate and to whom the majority of the letters in the first volume are written.
Henry rather indirectly escaped the legal career that seemed to loom ahead of him in 1858 by persuading his parents to let him study civil law and languages in Europe. He left suddenly, apparently without consulting Charles, who was reading law in Boston and bored to death with it. Thus, the early letters home from Berlin, a place Henry soon found tedious and dismal, are both defensive and filled with that kind of anxiety about his own and his brother’s career choices that only the very young and the very self-absorbed can feel. Henry insists at first that he wants to stay with law, envisioning himself and Charles working together in Boston in spite of Charles’s contention that the two of them “are not adapted to make great lawyers.” At the same time, although he claims that he does not want to be a writer, he follows his brother’s suggestion to try journalism and write letters for American newspapers about his European experiences. It is impossible not to read the future into his comments from Rome in 1860, when he has just read Edward Gibbon’s autobiography—an event that is described with great care in The Education of Henry Adams, because it provides one of the controlling thematic ideas of that book:
Do you know, after long argument and reflexion I feel much as if perhaps some day I too might come to anchor like that. Our house needs a historian in this generation and I feel strongly tempted by the quiet and sunny prospect, while my ambition for political life dwindles as I get older.
Adams was only twenty-two at this point, and it would take a long time for his ambition for political life to become entirely negligible, if it ever did, but he did begin early to relish his role as an observer and to take it seriously. Like Henry James, Adams was to discover that his success in life would depend on the quality of his perceptions, and that the critical eye he could turn upon experience would be his most valuable and reliable personal resource. Even the earliest letters, homesick and filled with pleas for news from Boston, display his fondness for description and a...
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
American Spectator. XXI, December, 1988, p.21.
Chicago Tribune. February 5, 1989, XIV, p.6.
Chronicle of Higher Education. XXV, September 15, 1982, p. 27.
Library Journal. CXII I, November 1, 1988, p.92.
London Review of Books. XII, January 25, 1990, p.13.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 21, 1983, p. 6.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 12, 1989, p.2.
New England Quarterly. LVI, September, 1983, p. 472.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 6, 1983, p. 9....
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