On Books

Henry and Willi


January 2010


The Modern Library

ISBN 0-679-64010-X



Henry_Adams.jpgilli’s first foray into this autobiography was unsuccessful.  He was somewhat put off by the introduction written by Edmund Morris, which seemed to him rather snippy, not at all the kind of introduction Willi would wish for any writing of his own.  Beyond that, the book itself seemed rather tedious, filled with archaicisms, odd-seeming phraseology, and the peculiar fashion of Henry’s referring to himself in the third person, as though he were simply another player on the stage.  It tends to make of him a writer peculiarly abstracted from his subject.  Willi  abandoned the book 50 pages in or so.  But then for some reason no longer remembered he reencountered the book a few years later.  Perhaps his own education had by then advanced a bit; this time he gathered some meaning from the effort Henry had made over the many years of this book’s genesis.

I think it is natural when commenting on an autobiography to compare the writer’s life with one’s own; it simply can’t be helped.  But with this book that feeling rose to become the point of reading it at all.  To Willi, the most curious aspect of what Henry had to say concerning his life was the surprising extent to which it mirrored Willi’s experience with his own life: in the beginning it just seemed hard for each of them to get started at their lives; while at the end similar, though different, feelings were shared, though that is not so strange, since old age is old age.

This difficulty of getting started in life was true for both even though the plateau from which Henry began was certainly much higher than the plain from which Willi started: Henry’s grandfather was a President of the United States, John Quincy Adams; Willi’s grandfather was a blacksmith, Frank S. Goetsch.  In spite of this stark difference the similarities continue: Henry’s concerns, and thus his writing, as Willi’s, orbited primarily around his work; his mother is mentioned early in the book, rarely to reappear; the rest of the family make bit appearances.  All except the father; he is a central actor and, in the beginning, one of Henry’s major educators, even if sometimes in a negative sense.

Curiously, this great altitudinal difference hardly affected the difficulty of our getting moving.  Henry’s high starting point in life had its liabilities as well as benefits.  He remarks of his birth on the first page of his book: “…,  a child was born and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.” And, he continues, describing the high station he had slid into, “Had he [Henry] been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in the races of the coming century…” Henry sees his heritage as a difficulty, one to be overcome, and he sets about moving but doesn’t seem to gain much traction.  His book reflects this emotion to its end.

Henry was born in 1838 and he lasted until 1918, quite a long run, 80 years.  In spite of the time when he had actually been fitted into history, he is at pains to tell us frequently that he considers himself an 18th century man; a New Englander, he seemed to feel more at home with the values and the ambience of the 1700s, no matter the date of his birth.  Perhaps this was because his most famous ancestor, one of his great grandfathers, John Adams, immediately followed George Washington as President of the United States.  This renown may have anchored his sensibilities in that formative era for the Republic.  He stresses this feeling a great deal, and from this repetition one senses that his expectation of personal success, one that will match up to the eminence of his ancestry, is little.  The brilliant light of the Adams’s lamp was dimming and he seemed to understand from the start that he had no chance of getting it blazing again.  Though he started from a high level he carried an albatross strung round his neck.  This inclined Henry to be more of an observer of events during his lifetime than to be a player.  While the politics of the day had interest for him, he never seemed to want, nor did he seek, public office.  Willi suspects that Henry thought it more sensible not to try.  Yet, being an Adams, one cannot abdicate altogether. 

At the age of 16 Henry, as had most of his relatives on both sides of the family, matriculated at Harvard College.  Henry had this to say of the matter: “the chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.” Willi acquired this same feeling concerning formal schooling very early and so here he was perhaps a step ahead of Henry; he skipped college altogether.  In THE EDUCATION of HENRY ADAMS, the education referred to is what might be called life-education.  And this is where Willi found his best learning as well.

After Harvard College Henry took it into his head to study abroad.  He fixed his mind on Berlin.  But, he tells us, “Charles Francis Adams, the father, has no great love for Europe, which, as he and all the world agreed, unfitted Americans for America.”  Then he confides to us: “Therefore, when he [Henry] presented to an exceedingly indulgent father and mother his request to begin at a German University the study of the Civil Law—though neither he nor they knew what the Civil Law was, or any reason for his studying it—the parents dutifully consented, and walked with him down to the rail-way station at Quincy [Massachusetts—named for his grandfather] to bid him good-bye, with a smile which he almost thought a tear.”

Now he carries us along with him as his education widens to include bits of England, France, Germany and Italy.  The sum of this education didn’t amount to much in Henrys mind, but he begins to form some notion of life outside of Quincy; he previously had felt that Boston was quite far from home.  He had this to say about the French: “He [Henry] disapproved of France in the lump.  A certain knowledge of the language one must have; enough to order dinner and buy a theater ticket; but more he did not seek. …  [H]e disliked most the French mind.  To save himself the trouble of drawing up a long list of all that he disliked, he disapproved of the whole, once for all, and shut them figuratively out of his life.  France was not serious, and he was not serious in going there.” For latter day Americans, such as Willi, these insights still obtain.  Yet Henry goes on, as might many present-day Americans, “…  Being in no way responsible for the French and sincerely disapproving them, he felt quite at liberty to enjoy to the full everything he disapproved.”

His German education in Civil Law seemed to founder on the guttural rocks of the German language.  He removed himself from the University and went to an ordinary school with 11 and 12 year old boys to try to remedy this difficulty.  But he seems quickly to lose all further interest in formal education and after this lengthy hiatus abroad, he came home wanting to find work.  He chose Boston, which now was closer to Quincy than when he had left.  Our autobiographer says: “He [Henry] passed three or four months thus, visiting relations, renewing friendships, and studying the situation.  At 30 years old the man who has not yet got further than to study the situation, is lost, or near it.  He could see nothing in the situation that could be of use to him.” Willi shared this feeling so completely—though at a somewhat younger age—that he begins to sympathize with Henry, never mind his distinct tendency toward priggishness.

Now history caught up to Henry in the form of the Civil War.  As Henry’s father had been to his father—the president—a private secretary, so in turn became Henry to his father, Charles Francis Adams, when he was appointed ambassador to England during the American Civil War.  It was an exceedingly delicate time in that relationship.  Henry’s job in this station seemed to consist mostly in copying communiqués and in trying to make some way in the social life of England so as, he says, to maintain the contacts necessary for diplomacy.  But it is quite clear that Henry loved England, and the English manner, and he took to English Society just as much as it would take to him which, unfortunately, was then not very much.

It was a poor time for hobnobbing in this rarified atmosphere; the Union seemed to be losing the war, and the British—as well as Napoleon—felt a strong interest in keeping the two American forces at loggerheads.  Sensing that American power, unified, had immense potential, the Europeans quite naturally felt that dealing with two smaller pieces of it would be more advantageous than dealing with one big piece that stretched entirely across the continent; even at that time the future could be seen.  The machinations—and outright crookedness—of the English, from Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, down to the Foreign Secretary, gave Willi a new insight on Lincoln’s war, concerning which, previously, he had not been very enthusiastic.  The English did not surprise Henry’s father, the New Englander, very much, which gave Henry a good start on his education.

We nowadays tend to forget how formidable England was during the 1800s, and we no longer appreciate the rough game that they played, particularly with respect to the United States of America, their former colony.  In this dance of powers consisted Henry’s early adult education; while he was not a player, only a secretary to his father, his observations of the movements, and especially of the elaborate style and the to and fro-ing of the dance was acute.  When the flood tide of the South began to ebb and the Union began to win battles, Henry’s social life in England improved considerably, and his education right along with it.

During the Civil War Henry had been sending occasional dispatches to the American Press concerning the machinations going on in England.  After the war this ad-hoc effort at reportage began to look like an occupation that might suit him.  He goes to Washington.  His book makes this reporting endeavor sound a very occasional thing, often complaining of how little it paid, but that didn’t seem to interfere much with his life; he gallivants around both at home and abroad quite freely.  Money seemed to be more a problem of the head than of the wallet.  This casual relationship to money appears to have run in the family; all the Adams’s showed the hint of wealth, though certainly not of frivolity; they conformed to the traditional New England stereotype. 

While in London he receives a message that his sister, staying with her husband in the famous baths at Bagni di Lucca, in Italy, has had a minor accident but has contracted an infection as a result.  She now has a form of tetanus, often called lockjaw.  Henry immediately goes south from England where he is staying to Italy where he says that “…  after ten days of fiendish torture she died in convulsions.”  Now follow several pages of the most poignant writing concerning his sister, death and religion that Willi has read.  It is, as they say, alone worth the price of admission.  And here Willi should add that as a general matter, Henrys language, throughout the book—if one makes a certain allowance for the passage of time, and the change of styles—is crisp and clear and quite often interesting.  It is a model of style of a certain sort that is very dense with information and a pleasure to read after one gets the hang of it:

The sick-room itself glowed with the Italian joy of life; friends filled it; no harsh northern lights pierced the soft shadows; even the dying woman shared the sense of the Italian summer, the soft velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fullness of Nature and man.  She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle.

If this short quotation sounds cold, considering that his sister died after all, it should quickly be said that the whole of it clearly shows Henry’s deep, underlying humanity.  He has a distinct inclination to see the world voyeuristically, as though he was not a part of it himself.  After a while though, Willi began to understand the code of this language in which his emotions are strangely embedded.  Willi increasingly sympathized with this detached way of speaking, and perhaps of thinking.  It is one he shares more and more as he ages.

Now, in a chapter curiously titled Failure, Henry recounts his return to Harvard.  Pressure seems to have been applied on him by his family to return from Washington to Cambridge, a little closer to home, and to begin a more routine life than that of an occasional correspondent at loose in the capital city.  Willy got the impression, though unstated, that strings were pulled at Harvard.  There seems to have been a gap in the faculty there concerning Mediaeval History.  When Henry, unenthusiastic about the change, protested to the President of the University, in his interview, that he knew very little about the matter that he was to teach, Henry tells us that the President replied, “If you will point out to me anyone who knows more, Mr. Adams, I will appoint him.” Willi thinks the fix was in.

With that settled, Henry acquiesced, accepting the job at four dollars a day, and proceeded to choose his rooms.  He affected not to like Harvard very much, either as a student or as a professor, and perhaps he did not.  Nevertheless he apparently acquitted himself well there, developing a then new style of instruction which closely involved the students in the endeavor; Henry did not like, and did not think useful, the traditional act of lecturing.  Nor did he much like professoring as a profession.

Education, like politics, was a rough affair, and every professor has to shut his eyes and hold his tongue as though he were a priest.  The students alone satisfied.  They thought they gained something.  Perhaps they did, for even in America and in the 20th century, life could not be wholly industrial. …

 The lecture-room was futile enough, but the faculty-room was worse. …  Adams new, in that capacity, both congressmen and professors, and he preferred congressman.

After some seven years, Henry returned to Washington, and reportage.  He comments, “On the whole, Adams preferred his attic in Washington.  He was educated enough.  Ignorance paid better, for at least it earned fifty dollars a month.” Curiosity got the best of Willi and he checked sources that indicate that fifty dollars a month then would today be just about $1000 a month.  Thin pickings, but still better than professoring, even accounting for room and board; but nevermind, and money did not stop Henry from sashaying around the country from east to west, nor to and fro across the Atlantic, and in relatively high style.

So far, in all his meanderings, not a woman near his age has been mentioned in the autobiography.  He does a lot of socializing, but it all seemed platonic.  Willi is beginning to wonder concerning Henrys affinities.  But just about here, Henry interrupts his book.  And it’s not just a little time off to think a bit; it’s twenty years.  His next chapter, titled even more peculiarly than the previous, is called, forthrightly, Twenty Years After.  And not a whisper is made subsequently concerning that period.  He begins the new chapter: “Once more!  this is a story of education, not of adventure!  It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.”  This sounds very like an athlete, at halftime, warming himself mentally, while jumping lightly from one toe to another, psyching himself up by saying to himself, I’m ready to finish this thing.  Meanwhile, Willi, as would be any reader, is wondering what happened during Those missing twenty years?  Willi did some sleuthing and what happened was this:

Coinciding with the beginning of this twenty year hiatus in his autobiographical writing, Henry married.  He married a Washington “socialite” named Marian “Clover” Hooper.  It was, apparently, a love relationship, as well as a social marriage.  She is said to have been an amateur photographer, but from what Willi reads, her photographs are “amateur” only in the sense that she had no desire or need to be paid for them.  She had plenty of money from her father.  And she was talented in other ways as well.  She deserved a biography on her own merits and got one, written by one Otto Frederick in 1979.

Clover was very attached to her father, and shortly after he died she became, according to accounts, unstable with grief.  And, it was rumored, that Henry had been having an affair.  Henry found her one Sunday, in December of 1885, lying dead, on the carpet, in front of the fireplace.  She had swallowed potassium cyanide, which Willi believes would be a very nasty way to go away.  But apparently it was then the fastest way as Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Goering could tell us, but they never spoke of it afterwards.

Henry never mentioned his wife’s name again, neither in his autobiography nor anywhere else.  Willi suspects that the reason for this is that he blamed himself and not that their emotional bond had been irretrievably broken.  He had himself buried next to her.  Henry is noted for this silence on the matter by Edmund Morris, his introducer: “…  Nothing is more strange to us, in an age of leaky ’emotion’ on the evening news, then denial of intimate memory.  But that was part of the nineteenth-century aristocratic code.  Theodore Roosevelt left an identical lacuna in his own autobiography.”  Willi subscribes to this aspect of the aristocratic code.  Some things are best left unsaid.

The autobiography now, at just past the halfway point, becomes almost a different book.  While Henry continues to mention his education, the focus of his learning seems to Willi to have changed around considerably.  At the turn of the century, Henry goes to Chicago to see the Columbian Exposition, which began in 1893.  Before this time he has made a great point of considering himself to be a person of the 1700s.  Henry was immersed in books, a prolific writer, an admirer of the arts, and most especially of society—what that term precisely meant to Henry, Willi’s education was never quite able to tell him.  But now Henry seemed to turn quite around to see a new vision that previously, to the extent that he had noticed it at all, he had rather despised.

Henry did not like banking—he abhorred it—nor did he appreciate the efforts of the American everyman whom he thought to be excessively interested in work and drink, and not much else; and, while on a surface-level he respected science as a worthwhile academic effort, the notion of engineering, invention, and getting one’s hands dirty in the process seemed to him somehow below the best effort that man could give the world.  But now, with the Chicago World’s Fair staring him in the face, he seemed to sense that all of this two-bit work had a point.  He saw an electric generator, a dynamo as he called it, and now he began to see the 20th century.

The epiphany that so impressed Henry at Chicago, the advance of science and technology, became so powerful in his mind that he returned there shortly for another two weeks to study things over once more.  He begins to reevaluate capitalism as a whole, and he comes to think it better than the alternative (high praise is not expected from Henry concerning anything; this is sufficient).  In his mind science and technology had risen much higher in the level of his awareness.  So much so that he begins to speak of his own work, history, literature, and even economics, those crafts which today might be called the soft sciences, in terms formerly reserved for the hard sciences of physics and chemistry.  Here, concerning banking and capital:

Whether voluntary or mechanical the result for education was the same.  The failure of the scientific scheme, without money to back it was flagrant.  The scientific scheme in theory was alone sound, for science should be equivalent to money; in practice science was helpless without money.

This is not to say that Henry now began to love banking, rather that he saw for the first time it’s need and its power.  Willi, a minor dabbler in business later in his life, got precisely the same education.  And his transforming new vision goes further; here, concerning the conception and construction of Christian cathedrals and other grand works of civilization:

Yet in mechanics, whatever the mechinicians might think, both energies [conception of a thing and its execution] acted as interchangeable forces on man, and by the action on man all known forces may be measured.  Indeed, few men of science measured force and any other way.  After once admitting that a straight line was the shortest distance between two points, no serious mathematician cared to deny anything that suited his convenience, and rejected no symbol, unproved or unprovable, that helped him to accomplish work. 

He now regularly begins to frame his own thoughts and his traditional concerns, those of literature and history, in the terms of science, speaking of the mass, and velocity of history and generally confounding the two realms, forcing the one into the other.  And he wonders greatly about the vast increases in power in the world:

At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power.  He would think the complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind.  He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. 

He had that pegged pretty well.  But it is too late.  Henry is tired.  Age is the great leveler; eventually we all run out of steam.