A Parable of Poetry and Paradox

HENRY ADAMS by Ernest Samuels, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 504 pp., $25 THE beginning of Henry Adams's career coincided with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, and it ended with his death in 1918, during the waning months of World War I. Like bookends: the first modern war, on whose smoky fields died American innocence; and modern warfare's most horrific manifestation, when 19th-century romanticism perished in the mud of Flanders. Adams didn't hear a shot in either war; yet they fittingly bracket the career of the American writer who, more than any other of his day, recognized the dilemmas of the modern age. Henry Adams recoiled from the implications of scientific modernism - the Dynamo - even as he embodied that most modern of sentiments, angst.

In a masterly abridgment of his three-volume biography published between 1948 and 1964, drawing on new materials that have come to light in the last two decades, Ernest Samuels vividly portrays the bantam historian and intellectual, and analyzes his enduring works.

Adams was the last of the public figures in a famous American line. Great-grandson of the second president, grandson of the sixth, and son of a congressman and Lincoln's ambassador to England, Adams seemed bred to public service. But as Samuels shows, he had too much of the family temperament.

For three generations of Massachusetts Adamses, stiff-necked Puritan probity and idealism were accommodated, albeit sniffily, to the requirements of political life. In the acerbic Henry, though, the distillation was too pure. In the words of a contemporary Samuels quotes, ``Mr. Henry Adams had too much of the English, and diplomatic and supercilious character ... to allow him to become a useful public man.'' From his house on Washington's Lafayette Square, within sight of the White House, Adams was a close observer of American politics for half a century, but he wasn't cut out for that world.

His calling was letters. Literally. Throughout his life - even during periods of maximum literary output - Adams was a prodigious letter writer. Samuels relates how, during Adams's frequent travels, he would compose and send off 30- and 40-page ``journal-letters.'' His letters fill 4,416 pages in six recently published volumes. After graduating from Harvard and serving as his father's secretary in London during the Civil War, Adams took up political journalism in Washington. In the '70s he taught law at Harvard and edited the prestigious North American Review, for which he rustled up articles that, in Samuels's words, ``would carry out his favorite intellectual maneuver of smashing things generally.''

As Adams wrote to a friend, however,``I gravitate to a capital by a primary law of nature.'' In 1877 he returned to Washington with his wife, Clover, where they established a literary and political salon and Henry began the career as a historian that resulted in his great works, ``The Life of Albert Gallatin,'' ``The History of the United States in the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison,'' ``Mont Saint Michel and Chartres,'' and ``The Education of Henry Adams,'' as well as two novels, and many shorter writings.

Samuels's account has its drawbacks. Even abridged, it sets out in unnecessary detail whom Adams sat beside at dinner and the sites he visited in Japan and Samoa.

Also, the author is obscure on American politics and economics after the Civil War. We see Adams grow cynical toward reform as he watches railroad barons and other manipulators flourish like green bay trees, but we grope to infer what is meant, exactly, by Grantism, Mugwumps, and gold-bug capitalism.

But these are trifles. They yield before Samuels's lively style, his clear exegesis of Adams's important ideas, and his clear-eyed insights into the historian's character. Though respectful of his subject, Samuels doesn't avert his gaze from Adams's ``Jew-baiting'' and ``irrepressible egoism.''

In 1885 Clover Adams committed suicide. (Her grave is marked by a hauntingly mysterious sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens commissioned by Henry.) Adams never remarried, and he regarded the remaining (and highly productive) 33 years of his life as his ``posthumous existence.'' His grief reinforced his natural bent toward what Samuels describes as ``determined melancholy,'' an ``introspective and morbid streak,'' and a ``web of inner despair,'' as well as contributing to what contemporaries called a ``profession of eccentricity'' and a ``prickly, hedgehoggy outside.''

Adams's darkness of soul had philosophical counterparts in his loss of faith in democracy and his theories of history., particularly the vision of accelerating decline that Samuels defines as ``the obsessive central theme of the `Education.''' In the physical universe's entropy and dissipation of energy posited by the second law of thermodynamics, Adams found an analogy for what he saw as the downward spiral of history and degenerating state of civilization.

As Samuels shows, though, Adams's despair was only mind-deep. It was belied by a relentless optimism that lived in his sinews and work habits. This was faith in the redemptive powers of art and learning. How else to account for his high literary quality, or for his homage to ineffable beauty in ``Chartres''? Why else did he, until virtually the end, go purposefully to his writing desk every day, or would he, well into his eighth decade, hire tutors in mathematics, physics, and musical theory, and teach himself medieval French?

It is for the hopefulness of untiring and unsubduable intelligence, not for outmoded historical theories, that we remember Henry Adams. In Samuels's words: ``For the literary critic, even when all the `science' of Adams's speculation has been expertly discredited, there remains the poetry and virile paradox of his speculation, the science and philosophy serving at last as an elaborate kind of parable by which he expressed the timeless quest of man for self-knowledge.''

In the end, Henry Adams was a prisoner of his period. But in his courageous struggle to slip his ties and, by the power of mind, break through into philosophical timelessness, he became a thinker for the ages.

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