(Masterpieces of American Literature)

His familial heritage seemed to destine Adams for a life in politics; however, he discovered that the ideals of the past were no longer applicable to the realities of a modern mass democracy in which alliance and obligation to a political party seemed to eclipse independent statesmanship. Unwilling to adapt, Adams turned from active participation in politics to a literary and scholarly career and became a brilliant, highly moral, and idealistic observer of the public life of the United States on the verge of entering the twentieth century.

Adams’s great interest in politics is never far from the forefront of his writing, and it comes as no surprise that his first piece of fiction, Democracy: An American Novel, tests the inner strength of his heroine, Madeleine Lee, to run the maze of power-obsessed Washington while trying to keep her morals intact and her ideals uncompromised. Adams amply studied his subject; his later autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, is full of instances in which he received a practical “education” in the corrupt means of contemporary power politics.

The crucial point that emerges in both his fiction and autobiography is Adams’s firm conviction (validated in principle by modern research) that the then-current system of partisan appointments led to an undignified run on offices with the onset of every new federal administration. With a keen eye on the abuses of the system, which Adams had observed with a wide-awake intelligence and well-trained moral sensitivity, and which he had lambasted directly in his earlier political writing, he succeeded in making Democracy: An American Novel a powerful mirror of the ills of a system that had lost its earlier ideals in the quagmire of party politics.

Thus, the central question expressed directly in his first novel, and strongly implied in his autobiography, is whether a qualified person should compromise in order to achieve a position of power from which he or she may do some common good, or whether the risk of contaminating one’s ideals is too high a price to pay. The fictional Lee flees the arms of a corrupt senator who tempts her with power; the Henry Adams of his autobiography decides that “failure” to achieve political office is the only thing for which his idealistic and moral education has fitted him to suffer. The topic is again taken up in his 1895 reflection “Buddha and Brahma” (published in 1915), in which Adams’s reworking of an Eastern legend privileges neither the active nor the contemplative life.

Critics have charged that much of Adams’s disaffection with the American style of politicking was rooted in his unwillingness to compromise and his somewhat elitist tendency to remain aloof. His friend Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it thus: “If the country had put him on a pedestal, I think Henry Adams with his gifts could have rendered distinguished public service. . . . He wanted it handed to him on a silver platter.” Yet there is something of the power of the idealist in Adams’s writing, and it is the finely honed ironic style and superb wit that accompany his observer point of view that give his works their unique voice. By keeping himself free to watch and analyze, Adams allowed his art to develop a sureness of touch, successfully conveying his critical opinions in a graceful and exciting manner—a style that would work equally well when he examined, for example, the topic of religion, as he did in his second novel, Esther.

Further, Adams’s disgust at political corruption is not only the thematic concern of his literary work; it also looms large—indeed, it is the trademark—of his rich political and historical writing. Endowed with a brilliant analytical mind, and traveling widely from his dearly cultivated home base across from the White House, Adams was in a privileged position to see and analyze the dramatic shifts in power and culture that technology and industrialization brought following the Civil War, both in the United States and all over the globe.

Increasingly concerned with the breathtaking tempo with which these changes were happening wherever he placed his foot, be it the then-popular industrial “World” exhibitions, the Westernized islands of the South Seas, or the rapidly technologized Western Europe lying cheek by jowl with the inert giant of czarist Russia, Adams began looking for a means of understanding and rationalizing what was happening. Toward the end of the century, he became convinced that the future would hold no more fixed truths or unifying ideas that could make sense of the increasingly fragmented “multiverse” he saw developing. For Adams, twentieth century multiplicity extended to all fields of human endeavor, ranging from science to economics to religion, and the centrifugal forces of unfettered progress threatened to tear apart what was left of historic systems.

Against this backdrop, a first visit to Norman France in 1895 offered Adams a vision of a time in history when spiritual unity was perfect and humanity lived in harmony with God and the cosmos. From his repeated travels to the abbeys and cathedrals of northern France, Adams created his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, intended as a travel guide for his friends but developed into an artistic statement offering an answer to the troubling present. Adams planned this work, which he subtitled “A Study in Thirteenth Century Unity,” to stand alongside The Education of Henry Adams, which he gave the subtitle “A Study in Twentieth Century Multiplicity” to make obvious their close thematic relationship.

In these late works, Adams attached the different forces governing the thirteenth and twentieth centuries to the central symbols of the Virgin Mary and the technological wonder of the dynamo; he also put the conflict into poetic form with his splendid “Prayer to the Virgin of Chartres” (published posthumously in 1920). In his autobiography, the dynamo epitomizes the accelerating dynamic of change in the Western world and finely dramatizes the author’s frustrated apprehension of a process which threatens to sweep away history itself. The Virgin, in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, becomes synonymous with Adams’s lifelong longing for a center that will hold:She [the Virgin] never calls for sympathy by hysterical appeals to our feelings; she does not even altogether command, but rather accepts the voluntary, unquestioning, unhesitating, instinctive faith, love and devotion of mankind. She will accept ours, and we have not the heart to refuse it; we have not even the right, for we are her guests.

Democracy: An American Novel

First published: 1880

Type of work: Novel

Tempted to gain immense political power by marrying a ruthless and corrupt senator, the heroine decides for morality and rejects him.

Because of the sarcastic critique of his contemporary Washington which his first novel offered, Adams decided to publish Democracy: An American Novel anonymously; he succeeded in keeping his secret to his death and continued to move in the society whose moral flaws and rampant corruption he had exposed with such incisiveness.

As the novel opens, the thirty-year-old Madeleine (Mrs. Lightfoot) Lee decides to go to Washington, D.C., to observe the play of power politics in an effort to overcome the sense of hollowness with which the death of her husband, the Southerner Lightfoot Lee, and her infant baby have filled her. Clearly modeled after both the author and his wife, Miriam “Clover” Adams, Lee has independent means and great social charm, and she is inevitably drawn to “the action of primary forces,” “the machinery of society, at work,” thus echoing one of Adams’s personal longings.

Further, the fact that Lee’s arrival comes after a disappointing series of attempts to make herself and her inherited fortune useful to society is a fine play on the author’s own most burning obsessions. Her frustrations with the products of higher education parallel the author’s recent resignation from Harvard University in 1877, and she moves to a “newly hired house on Lafayette Square” opposite the White House, effectively next door to Adams’s own. Most important, her sarcastic wit and ironic self-detachment from the political jungle she observes are the voice of Adams himself.

In her endeavor to see “POWER” at work, Lee is aided by her distant relation, the forty-one-year-old southern veteran-turned-lawyer John Carrington, who introduces her to the political powerhouse Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe, the “Prairie Giant of Peonia.” While her younger sister Sybil Ross helps to make her salon a success, a variety of minor characters are introduced, all typical of people wrapped up in the machinations at the Capitol.

The inauguration of a new president, a masterful composite caricature of Ulysses S. Grant and the young Abraham Lincoln, sets in motion the game, as everybody begins hustling for appointments and political power. After their initial sizzling meeting at a political dinner, Adams lets Ratcliffe, a fiftyish widower of considerable attraction, charm himself into Lee’s confidence, while she dreams of using power to reform this...

(The entire section is 3810 words.)