2012 BIRTHDAY LECTURE: HENRY ADAMS, BUILDER OF TOMBS

When I was an undergraduate at Marlboro College, a lot of my historical reading was self-directed. For reasons now opaque to me, I took it upon myself to read many of the historians of the “Consensus school” of American historical writing: Richard Hofstadter, Louis Hartz, Daniel Bell, etc. To put it briefly, the consensus school believed that American political history is defined by a consensus between all responsible parties on basic political issues. Whatever disagreements Americans may have had, the consensus scholars argued with varying degrees of sophistication and smugness, Americans from the beginning basically agreed on liberal politics, democracy (but not too much democracy), free (but not too free) markets, upward mobility, and individualism. Failed attempts to divert the country away from these principles, undertaken by both the right and the left, only strengthened the establishment that adhered to these basic American principles, until we arrive at the heyday of the liberal establishment of the late 1950s and early 1960s, where the comparatively placid politics and mass prosperity of the post-McCarthy, pre-1960s revolt era seemed to vindicate the consensus school on the wisdom of their perspective. There’s was a history with a happy ending. The 1960s, of course, upset the applecart, and they reacted in a variety of interesting ways, but for a good decade, consensus scholars sat at the top of the American historical profession, and dominated sociology, literary criticism, and other fields as well. Some of them are still worth reading today, if you’re into old, kind of outdated books.

One name that came up a lot as I read these works was that of Henry Adams. He was seldom the focus of much attention, but his name cropped up again and again in these old books, usually attached to one of two things: a pithy and learned observation on 19th century American politics and society, or a grossly antisemitic remark. Before seeing his name all those times, I knew the name Henry Adams from two sources. The first was the top of the Modern Library’s 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century, where sits The Education of Henry Adams. The second was the bookshelves of grandparents of friends of mine, especially if they were of a certain WASP-ish demographic, where the name Henry Adams was one of a whole roll call of names I would eventually run into in my historical reading: Van Wyck Brooks, Richard Henry Dana, Edmund Wilson, and still more Adamses, such as Charles Francis Adams and Brooks Adams. So it was with a variety of associations that I went in search of answers to the questions: who was this Henry Adams guy? Why did scholars write about him fifty or sixty years ago as though their readership would know and care about him? Why does no one talk about him now?

Here’s a brief rundown on basic Henry Adams facts: born in 1838 in Quincy, MA. Great grandson of John Adams, second President of the United States. Grandson of John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States. Son of Charles Francis Adams, Congressman and ambassador to Britain during the Civil War. Henry served as his father’s secretary while he was overseas and thus spent the entire war in Europe, and was witness to a great deal of diplomatic manuevering and back-and-forth as his father strove mightily to keep Britain from recognizing or aiding the Confederacy. After the war, Henry engaged in several pursuits, bouncing from one to the other without being sure what he really wanted, but being insulated by his family position. He pursued journalism and reform politics – then largely the reserve of gentlemanly elites such as himself – in tandem, writing pieces on reform efforts of the day: currency, civil service, tariffs, etc. He also wrote novels related to this subject, politely (but not gently) lampooning the lax ethical and intellectual standards of politicians and expressing the distrust of democracy that later became one of his distinguishing intellectual traits. In the 1880s, he was worked as a history professor at Harvard, where he was instrumental in bringing the seminar model and other modern historical techniques from Germany to the United States, and he wrote several important works of American history. He had a, by all accounts, happy marriage with Clover Hooper, and no children. His marriage ended abruptly and horribly when Clover killed herself shortly after her father’s death. Grief-stricken, Adams took up travel and delved into areas of art, history, and religious expression far afield from that with which he had previously engaged. He wrote about art and medieval history; he doted on nieces, some real, some titular; he was a sought-after figure in elite social circles that fancied themselves cultured, and was widely well-regarded as a sage, though also seen as increasingly eccentric and pessimistic. In 1907, he wrote his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, which was released only to people he knew until he died in 1918, after which it was published and hailed as a masterpiece.

The Education is the definitive statement of Henry Adams’s career, and is the logical conclusion, in style as well as in substance, of the last and most important stage of his intellectual development. Stylistically, the book, written in third person past-tense like a historical monograph, manages some impressive feats: giving the impression of encapsulating the experience of a generation while emphasizing its author’s separateness from his peers; of telling the story of a man through the framework of his world and times and telling the story of the world at a given time through the framework of one man’s experience; and of giving the impression of intimacy with the author even as the author admits to self-serving omissions and obfuscations (though not as many as Adams’s biographers would later find). It also included previously unknown revelations about the diplomatic situation with Britain during the Civil War, some digs at personal and political opponents, a theory of history, and periodic descents into crude antisemitism. In short, it is a real piece of work.

In substance, The Education of Henry Adams is the most profound statement that I know of of cultural pessimism in the history of American letters. Read unsympathetically, The Education is the final screed of a deeply privileged man who didn’t like assorted aspects of a world which had passed him by, and who used the talents and education that privilege secured him to fancily dress up the sort of complaint most of us are used to hearing from older relatives or acquaintances about how the world is going to hell. That assessment is basically correct, and Adams will frequently leave contemporary readers unsympathetic or just plain angry. That said, I believe it is worth looking at the shape his complaints took, both to understand better what their context was and because the way in which Adams structured his complaints is important to understanding the significance his later readers granted to his work.

Adams was a great – and, I’ve been told, somewhat inept – borrower of scientific metaphors. As such, the basic metrics in Adams’s understanding of history were borrowed from the physical sciences: energy and valence. Adams held cultural energy to be akin to physical energy, and to be basically finite, and further held that his period was running out of it. How someone could maintain this conclusion during the period that saw the harnessing of electricity, the invention of flight, and the development of untold other scientific and cultural innovations, is where order and coherence come in. Energy without order, in Adams’s view, is chaos, and Adams understood the developments of the late 19th and early 20th centuries – damned near all of them, scientific, technological, economic, political, social, artistic – to be detrimental to an orderly, coherent understanding of the world, and thus harbingers of cultural – and, it is alluded, general, society-wide – chaos.

Adams was far from alone from thinking something like that at the time he felt it. Many beneficiaries of the nineteenth century’s changes felt the same way. Historians have advanced several explanations for the phenomenon of widespread elite anti-modernism. Some, most notably Richard Hofstadter, emphasized a social-psychological explanation: those elites least happy with the state of late nineteenth century America were those whose positions relied on something other than money alone- social position, education, etc. As big new money muscled small old money out of power and social prominence, small old money reacted by forming reform movements and/or seeking out other value systems. A somewhat more straightforward social explanation is the idea that elites of the 19th century were simply scared by technological progress, and even more of by the specter of social degeneracy that might lead to the elite falling from their position, possibly with the help of insurrection from below. There are other explanations, too, but I’ll spare you. The point is, Adams was an outstanding example of a recognized social type: the late nineteenth century upper crust WASP who grew dissatisfied with his surroundings (regardless of how much privilege they afforded him) and sought meaning outside of western modernity as it was then understood. Some of that type went in for primitivism, others got into Eastern spirituality (particularly Buddhism), others, like Adams, turned to medievalism, and the (supposedly) serene, spiritually rich, unquestioned and unquestionable hierarchy provided by Catholicism. Adams never converted to Catholicism, but he went to his grave believing that the high point of human civilization could be found in France in the twelfth century, where the cult of the Virgin Mary provided an energy more powerful than the nineteenth century’s dynamos to a civilization vastly more coherent than McKinley’s America. Adams grew to hate capitalists, workers (especially those with the temerity to organize), and those usual figures of disintegrative modernity, Jews. In none of these ideas was Adams alone. It’s worth noting that part of Adams’s rhetorical strategy was to cite himself as an example of this decline: he neither wanted to, nor was able to, “follow the family go-cart,” as he put it, into responsible political positions and national prestige, and neither he, nor the rest of his elite cohort, could stop the decline that he saw all around him.

So, elite reactionaries reacting against the things – capitalist modernity, to put it simply – that made them elite is not a thing without precedent. If you read material from the time, it seems like everybody (everybody with a little money, that is) was doing it. Why was Adams picked out from amongst the whole gaggle of elite anti-modernists that America in this period produced to be representative? Why did historians and critics care? Why do I?

There is, of course, one obvious answer: because his work was better than that of his peers, and there was a lot of it. There’s some truth to this assertion – The Education is certainly impressive – but I don’t think I need to spend too much time with this audience stressing how hard it is to match quality to posthumous acclaim.


A tentative answer came to me, I feel ambivalent about reporting, on a recent visit to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Few cities are graced with one place that nearly everyone acknowledges is the most beautiful in the city, and Boston is one, and its place is the Gardner. Briefly, for anyone in the audience who doesn’t know of it: the Gardner museum was the home of Jack and Isabella Gardner, very wealthy Bostonians of the turn of the twentieth century. Isabella was a great lover of art, and by and by turned her entire home – walls, floors, and furniture included – into a mosaic composed of great art from the past. The Gardners lived in this monument to art collection, walking on Roman floors and sheltered from the elements by Gothic walls, surrounded by masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and design, until they died, after which the house was made a museum open to the public. I strongly suggest you visit if you haven’t.

Education has made my enjoyment of many things more ambivalent. It did not ruin my visit to the Gardner a few months back, but visiting after having finished Ernest Samuel’s biography of Henry Adams, I had a new and not entirely welcome perspective on the place. I knew, now, that Isabella Gardner was guided in her acquisitions by Bernard Berenson, one of the great curators and art critics of his day (no, I hadn’t heard of him either before I started reading this stuff). Berenson was, in turn, deeply influenced by the aesthetic principles of – who else? – Henry Adams, with whom Berenson struck an odd but persistent friendship, in spite of Adams’s increasingly vocal antisemitism. Berenson was a Jew, but a Christian convert, conservative politically and artistically, had an eye for art that even a critic as stern as Adams could appreciate, and, most importantly, was a high-minded and extremely patient man, and thus was able to put up with Adams long enough for the man to help shape the task Berenson took on of directing their mutual friend Isabella Gardner’s art collecting, and the creation of her sanctuary. When you know this, and know Adams, and know what his aesthetic principles meant to him and many in his circle, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum looks rather different. It loses none of its beauty, but the enclosed chambers, each themed after a different idealized portion of the medieval or early modern European past (there is very little in the place from later than the sixteenth century, and nothing that could be called “modern” except the utilities) now look like both triumphs of design and a series of efforts to block out a present made unpleasant and unworthy by democracy, the extension of rights to previously unfree groups, and the rest of modernity’s baggage. The intricacy of the construction of these spaces speak both to creative genius and meticulous attention to the details of craft, and to the lengths to which a privileged and unhappy few would go to create a counterworld deep and consistent enough to let them forget about the real one.

By stipulation of Gardner’s will, the permanent exhibitions will never change. The only change that I know of was made by the perpetrators of a heist there in 1990. Unless something drastic happens, the museum is fixed the way Isabella, Berenson, Henry Adams, and the rest of their circle wanted it, forever. This is in many respects a good thing: the museum is beautiful as it is. Combined with what I now knew about some of the animating principles of the place’s creation, this fixed quality put one word in mind the fine June day I last visited: tomb.

None of this should work to the detriment of the museum or even to Isabella Gardner. By all accounts she was a generous, free-spirited, whimsical lady (she once shocked polite Boston society by showing up at the Opera wearing a white headband on which was inscribed “Oh, those Red Sox”), who gave her home and collection to the world freely after her death. But the trip led me to think about the great creations of Henry Adams’s major phase, after the death of his wife, the time during which he became a cultural icon, and it occurred to me that all of those creations could be seen as tombs of one kind or another. In one case, a literal tomb: After his wife’s suicide, Adams commissioned his friend, the great sculptor Augustus St-Gaudens, to create what is now called either the Statue of Grief or the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C. Adams was buried by it when he died in 1918. It is still cited as a great and important piece of monument sculpture. It’s worth seeing if you have the chance.

Perhaps informing the idea I had of Adams as a builder of tombs that came to me at the Gardner museum was memory of my visit to the Adams House in Quincy, where I went one dull day last summer. Several generations of Adamses lived there, and Henry was born there, though he lived most of his life in D.C. Henry, though he had many ambiguous feelings about the house and his family’s legacy, was, along with his brothers, instrumental in getting the house designated a historical landmark, one of the first places to be so designated and protected in the country. If the Gardner museum preserves in amber a fantasy of antiquarian grace and order, the Adams House does the same for the Adams legacy, which the brothers believed to be in danger of being overrun by a century uninterested in their brand of elite leadership. If you go out there you can see, for free, the Adams’s preferred built environment, their furniture, their books, and the biological descendants of the gardens they planted. Given the beliefs that the Adams brothers (I just deleted a page and a half about Henry’s brothers, who were interesting men in their own right) about where American society, and history in general, was going, it is hard not to understand this preservationist instinct as an effort to memorialize a better way of life tragically dying, and this case, the Adamses had the chutzpah to identify that better way with themselves and their ancestors.

The most important tomb Henry Adams built was his last masterpiece, The Education of Henry Adams. Here, he collapsed eulogies into still more general eulogies, like unusually lugubrious Russian dolls. The Education is a eulogy for the political power and social pull of the Adams family, defeated in Massachusetts politics by the Boston merchant and banking families; he eulogized those same interests, along with New England’s political and cultural influence, which in the course of the nineteenth century were supplanted by larger and richer powers clustered around New York and other industrial centers; he mourned for this order, too, soon to be displaced by still larger and more centralized monied powers and threatened from without by foreign competition (he had a prescient fixation on Russia and East Asia) and from within by proletarian uprising, Jews, and other supposed symptoms of decay. Upon rereading the book a few months ago, I was impressed most of all by two things: first, the nerve with which Adams managed to make the decline in political influence (which he drastically overstated, but we’ll leave that aside) of himself, his family, and his friends a metaphor for general civilizational decay AND vice-versa AND got away with it; and second, the basic rigor Adams maintained in his self-absorption. If the whole world was going down the tubes, then I suppose it makes sense to mourn the things that you once opposed along with those you hold dear, because it was all part of the larger whole that Adams believed was in the process of destruction.

Adams was prescient in writing a memorial to himself. He died, and hence gave up his personal influence on American art and literature, in 1918, just as an avant-garde dedicated to new forms of art and literature – who we could lump, somewhat problematically, into the category “modernist” – were poised to sweep to the commanding heights of American culture. The rumblings of cultural modernism existed that existed in Adams’s lifetime he either ignored or denounced in an off-handed manner. Artistic experimentation, to put it lightly, was not something he looked upon with favor. The political and social experimentation that many avant-garde figures of the 1920s and 1930s were proponents of would only compounded his difficulties, had he been alive to see them. A right-winger could do just fine in that environment, as evinced by the careers of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and H.L. Mencken, but even though Adams’s work was respected by people across the chasms of the cultural scene at that time, he was not the center of attention he once was.

Fast forward a few decades to the 1950s, and you get a different picture. After a world war, a depression, several red scares, disappointments for both the left and the right in America, an outbreak of mass prosperity, and a campaign on the part of the US government, including the CIA, to incorporate cultural modernism into the American side of the Cold War, most of the major American intellectuals of the day, many of whom dabbled in left-wing politics in the 1930s, decided that the political center was the place to be. It should be noted that their idea of “the center” is well to the left of what centrists hold to today: they were proponents of a welfare state and substantial governmental regulation in the economy. Here we are, back at the consensus scholars of the beginning of the lecture, at a time when they were not only at the peak of their influence, but the peak of influence for any group of American intellectuals up to that time. This was the time that the field of American Studies was developed, with the explicit intent of creating a unitary national culture to provide national coherence during the Cold War. It was out of this field that the American literary canon was first firmly established, and college students (of which there was an unprecedented amount thanks to the GI Bill) across the land learned were taught that this canon was American literature, even if some of the writers on it were not especially popular in their own times (Herman Melville is the outstanding example of this). One of these works was The Education of Henry Adams– and none of Henry Adams’s other books received anything like the same treatment.


I believe that the scholars of mid-twentieth century America picked Adams out of all of his peers, and Adams’s later work to the exclusion of his earlier work, precisely because he was a builder of tombs. These tombs served any number of pedagogical functions, and the consensus scholars were nothing if not public pedagogues. Adams’s tombs could be pointed to for vindication: look upon what happens, reader, to those who resist the current of American modernity. They could be pointed to for pathos: look at how the American elite of a bygone era fell into pessimism and bigotry. They could be pointed to with pride: look here, uppity radical or snotty European, American culture nearly fifty years

ago could produce complex literary works with as much irony and tragedy as one could want! Implicit in all of this is a sense of the broad-mindedness of the consensus scholars. Devotees of optimistic liberal progressivism, they crowned (with some ambivalence, it’s true) a deeply pessimistic anti-modern conservative. A cohort in which the first generation of Jews allowed into elite American universities in any number could discuss the work of an antisemite without prejudice. One gets the distinct impression that they would not have been as interested in the man if he were less difficult or less of a jerk; after all, many of the consensus scholars liked to play the world-weary sage at times, too. And, of course, Henry Adams was dead, his world was dead, and neither he nor they were coming back, so they were eminently safe to handle.
Who knows what Henry Adams wanted when he wrote The Education? Not his biographers, not me, probably not Adams himself, and not his midcentury interlocutors, though Lord knows they had their ideas. What I think I can speak to is this: if Adams had planned it, he could not have found an audience more ripe for co-optation into his literary scheme – the enshrining of himself and his life as a metaphor for a whole society – than the consensus scholars I read back at Marlboro. I rather suspect the old man honestly convinced himself that he did not want an audience, and that that attitude helped him acquire one. The Education is a monument not just because people took the time to enshrine it, but because of what it meant to those doing the enshrining: in a sense, it is a tomb for those who read it and took it seriously, well after Adams’s death, as evinced by the fact I need to talk to you for a half an hour to get at the beginning of what the whole thing means.

If you’re so inclined, there are numerous reasons to read Henry Adams, not least of which the work’s inherent qualities. But if there’s a reason you should take away from this lecture, it’s that any literary or intellectual phenomenon is best understood in context not just of its own times, but in its reception and the uses it is put to by future interlocutors. Left on its own, The Education is just a dressed-up complaint by an old man. Read contextually, it becomes something bigger, weirder, and in certain respects more unsettling: a look at what exactly goes into literary canonization and intellectual recognition, how it comes and how it goes. I got the most traction in thinking about Henry Adams by making odd connections and treating Adams and his interlocutors as people, with social roles, jobs, and social and personal imperatives that they had to answer to, one way or another. In short – and whether this will prove encouraging or discouraging to my audience is a question that interests me – it was another day in the office.

2012 BIRTHDAY LECTURE: HENRY ADAMS, BUILDER OF TOMBS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s