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Henry Adams: Privileged Kibitzer : HENRY ADAMS: Selected Letters, Edited by Ernest Samuels (Belknap/Harvard: $35; 587 pp.)

March 08, 1992|RICHARD EDER

Henry Adams wrote to a friend: "The only question is what we live for. Nothing seems to come of it."

"The Education of Henry Adams" came of it, the most stimulating work of historical puzzlement that our country has produced. So did "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres," as idiosyncratic in its questioning, if more dated.

"Education" asked, in effect: What would a Founding Father make of America at the beginning of the 20th Century? It was Adams' patrician way--John Adams was his great-grandfather--of asking what it means to be an American. "Mont St. Michel's" question was more expansive and gassier: What would a medieval cathedral builder make of Western civilization in the age of electricity and steel?--or, what does it mean to be a modern man?

As a Founding Great-grandson, it was natural to interrogate the present and future through the past, though Adams was more modern than he would admit. As a patrician, he conducted the interrogation from one equal to another, and could not get over History's failure to return the compliment. It hadn't designed a suitable role for him, he felt; all he could do was be a privileged kibitzer.

He kibitzed in his books; he did it in his letters, which fill six volumes. He did it on the level of Horace Walpole, writing of the large and small politics of 18th-Century England, and of the Duc de Saint-Simon at the court of Versailles. He did it brilliantly and with a flourish of dissatisfaction. He would have been proud to be either Walpole or the duke; still, there was that ancestral scruple that wondered why he was not George II or Louis XIV as well.

In part, the scruple was real; in part it was a stance that would allow him inner distance from the convulsive changes of his time, stretching from the Civil War to World War I. I will get up close to the events of my time and record them with passionate intensity, he seems to tell us. But at the same time, as exiled royalty, I will not deeply care.

A burning curiosity about everything from local gossip to the deep movements of history, and a tempering indifference, are the twin pulse of Adams' letters. Until they were published over the past nine years, they were the missing part of his masterpiece. If "Education" is his pinnacle, the letters are the rest of the mountain.

To get up a mountain we need a path or two, and six volumes is a lot of territory. For many of us, the new one-volume selection of letters is, in a sense, their first publication. For Ernest Samuels, who scrupulously and lavishly edited the complete edition, this compression must be like captaining a clipper ship on a cruise around Boston Harbor. For others, it may be the only opportunity to see salt water.

Of salt there is no lack. The capsule view of Adams shows him opposing a Puritan sensibility to the greed and vulgarity of post-Civil War American society. He did oppose them; he also enjoyed opposing them. Every time he moved back to Washington, D.C., where his friends gave him all the access he wanted, a notable vigor and buoyancy enters his letters. His suffocating panic was reserved for Boston and the New England sensibility. His seven years teaching medieval history at Harvard were among his gloomiest.

Jocularly--jocularity marks some of his most depressed moments, and, often, his dullest letters--he remarks: "I have delivered more lectures about matters I knew nothing of to men who cared nothing about them." Acidly and grimly--these suit him--he excoriates New England as "a rather improved lowland Scotland." Its education produces "simple minded, honest, harmless intellectual prigs as like as to themselves as two dried peas in a pod." As for the women, they educated themselves "not for any such frivolous object as making themselves agreeable to society nor for simple amusement but to 'improve their minds.' They are utterly unconscious of the pathetic impossibility of improving those poor little hard thin, wiry one-stringed instruments which they call their minds. . . ."

It was much more fun to consort with his carefully chosen Washington intimates--notably John Hay, secretary of state under William McKinley--and focus on the lusty vulgarity of the White House just across from his own house on Lafayette Park. Once, when Hay was bedridden with flu and his wife went alone to a White House dinner, the First Lady complained: "I don't understand these wives who put their husbands to bed and then go out to dinner. When I put Mr. McKinley to bed I go to bed with him."

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