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Man of the Century

But 100 years after writing his classic memoir, the question about Henry Adams remains: Which century?

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Under a silver gray sky, I stared up at a line of elegant 19th-century buildings on the south side of Avenue Foch, a three-minute walk from the Arc de Triomphe. A guide to literary sites in Paris was in my hands.

"Can I help you find something?" asked a passing Parisian.

Well, yes, I said. I was trying to identify the building where, a century ago, the Boston-born writer Henry Adams (1838-1918) had worked on a book. Then in his mid-60s, Adams was straining to make sense of the world as the industrial age was remaking it; the resulting blend of autobiography, reportage, philosophy and science was published as The Education of Henry Adams. "I sit in a garret, while children pound pianos and sing scales below, all day, and their maids rattle boots and chairs over my head all night," he wrote to a friend. That letter, like hundreds of others in Adams' oddly vertical hand, was sent from 23 Avenue du Bois de Boulogne, Avenue Foch's former name.

"Why, I live at number 23," the Parisian said with sudden pride, pointing to a building just to our right. "Maybe I live where your writer did."

In midlife, Adams divided his time between Paris and a house on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. just north of the White House. Designed by H. H. Richardson, the great American architect of his era, that house, and the one he designed next door for the family of statesman John Hay, were demolished in 1927 to make way for a hotel that took the name Hay-Adams. But the handsome six-story building that had been Adams' Paris pad is still standing.

Education was once a familiar read on American college campuses, but lately I've found that the Social Security set is more likely to have read it than people still stoking their IRAs. That's a shame.

In his copious letters, Adams says almost nothing about the writing of the book, but he seems to have completed it in late 1906. Early the next year, he was circulating privately printed copies to friends who appeared in it, such as Henry James and Theodore Roosevelt, and asking for "assent, correction, or suggestion." Few had any to offer. Having prepared a version for posthumous release, he entrusted it to his fellow Boston blue blood Henry Cabot Lodge in 1916. Following Adams' death two years later at 80, Education was published commercially.

The book sold well; it was still generating about $4,000 in annual royalties when its copyright expired in 1993, according to Conrad Edick Wright, a historian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, former owner of the copyright. It won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1919, and topped a list by the Modern Library, a publisher of literature in affordable editions, of the 100 most important nonfiction books of the past century. Now Wright and Edward Chalfant, author of a three-volume biography of Adams, are preparing a centenary edition. And even as the information age sweeps the world, Adams' book remains a compelling self-portrait of a man trying to keep his feet as the ground shifts around him.

Henry Brooks Adams' great-grandfather, John Adams, was the second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth; his father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman and U.S. minister to Great Britain during the Civil War. Education, which Adams wrote in the third person, begins its chronological march with the author's privileged birth on Mount Vernon Street in Boston on February 16, 1838. But it also notes his feeling that his lineage conferred no head start "in the races of the coming century."

Adams sought education but resisted the classroom. One morning during a stay in Quincy, Massachusetts, with his paternal grandparents (who were addressed as "the President" and "the Madam"), Henry, then age 6 or 7, refused to go to school despite his mother's entreaties. At the top of the stairs, Adams writes, the door to the President's library suddenly opened "and the old man slowly came down. Putting on his hat, he took the boy's hand without a word, and walked with him, paralysed by awe, up the road to the town."

Henry assumed that "an old gentleman close on eighty would never trouble himself to walk near a mile on a hot summer morning over a shadeless road to take a boy to school, and that it would be strange if a lad imbued with the passion of freedom could not find a corner to dodge around, somewhere before reaching the school-door." But only after Henry was seated did "the President release his hand and depart."

Looking for the lesson in the incident nearly 60 years later, Adams realized that "the child must have recognized that the President, though a tool of tyranny, had done his disreputable work with a certain intelligence. He had shown no temper, no irritation, no personal feeling, and had made no display of force. Above all, he had held his tongue....Had uttered no syllable of revolting cant about the duty of obedience and the wickedness of resistance to law....For this forbearance, [the boy] felt instinctive respect. He admitted force as a form of right."

Like all Adams males, Henry was educated at Harvard. His class of 1858 included "Roony" Lee, son of Robert E., then a colonel in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry; Adams notes that within a few years fellow students from North and South would kill "each other by scores in the act of testing their college conclusions."

He spent the war years in England, serving as private secretary to his father. Adams' account of that man's effort to keep the British from recognizing and aiding the Confederacy crackles with tension, in contrast to the young man's account of his "dilettantism" in London society. "The English mind was like the London drawing-room," he writes, "a comfortable and easy spot, filled with bits and fragments of incoherent furnitures, which were never meant to go together, and could be arranged in any relation without making a whole." (As for the American mind, or at least as Europeans viewed it, "It was a convention, superficial, narrow and ignorant," Adams writes, "a mere cutting instrument, practical, economical, sharp and direct.")

He admits to toying with ideas, notably in a chapter titled "Darwinism." As he lay on an outcropping in rural England on a summer day in 1867, eight years after publication of Origin of Species, Adams declares himself willing to accept kinship with the fossilized fish embedded in the rocks around him as readily as he accepted his Boston forebears: "Out of his millions of ancestors, back to the Cambrian mollusks, every one had probably lived and died in the illusion of Truths which did not amuse him, and which had never changed. Henry Adams was the first in an infinite series to discover and admit to himself that he really did not care whether truth was, or was not, true. He did not even care that it should be proved true, unless the process were new and amusing. He was a Darwinian for fun."

After London, Adams retooled as a Washington-based freelance journalist. Given his bloodline and the more informal times, Adams accessed the White House as casually as we would a Starbucks. He was a close reader of presidential character and, by inference, his own. Upon meeting Ulysses S. Grant in 1869 at age 31, for example, Adams intuited one of those men "whose energies were the greater, the less they wasted on thought....Such men were forces of nature, energies of the prime...but they made short work of scholars. They had commanded thousands of such and saw no more in them than in others. The fact was certain; it crushed argument and intellect at once."

Like young people in every generation, Adams groped uncertainly toward a career, in his case as a journalist. "No young man had a larger acquaintance and relationship than Henry Adams, yet he knew no one who could help him," he writes. "He was for sale, in the open market. So were many of his friends. All the world knew it, and knew too that they were cheap; to be bought at the price of a mechanic."

In 1870, Adams quit Washington to teach history at his alma mater, acquiescing to an unsolicited job offer from Harvard president Charles Eliot, though only after pleading by his family. In his self-deprecatory way, Adams claimed that "one could not take oneself quite seriously in such matters; it could not much affect the sum of solar energies whether one went on dancing with girls in Washington, or began talking to boys in Cambridge." Still, he built a reputation as a superb teacher who challenged students with interactive seminars in lieu of traditional rote methods. He taught for seven years and then, starting in 1879, spent a decade researching and writing the nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. It was innovative in the reach of its archival research as well as a "prose masterpiece," according to Garry Wills in Henry Adams and the Making of America.

But as the 20th century approached, Adams worried that, by inclination and education, he was better equipped to be a mid-19th-century man. Among his concerns were the 1905 Russo-Japanese War over Manchuria, rioting against the czar in St. Petersburg and whether Germany would align itself with Russia or Western Europe.

Wondrous, but still worrisome, were such new sources of energy as radio waves and radium (though his narrative goes through 1905, he does not mention Einstein's publication that year of the theory of relativity). He was not religious, but technology made him devout. He pondered the "great hall of dynamos" at the Paris exhibition of 1900, where he felt the mighty machinery "as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross."

The earth itself, he writes, "seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arms-length at some vertiginous speed and barely murmuring—scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's breadth further for respect of power—while it would not wake the baby lying against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force."

And yet despite the range of Adams' interests, his capacity for self-examination and his unblinking engagement with the world, there is a striking gap in his story, for reasons that he found too painful to discuss in Education.

In 1872, Adams had married Marian Hooper, known as "Clover," who came from a wealthy Yankee family. She was a superb horsewoman, pioneering photographer and witty hostess, but a shadow fell over their honeymoon in Egypt when she suffered a bout of depression. In 1880, they moved from Boston to a rented house on H Street in Washington, two blocks from the White House. They rode horses in Rock Creek Park and developed a close friendship with John Hay and his wife, Clara, and with the geologist Clarence King, an apparent bachelor who secretly kept an African-American wife and family in New York. This group socialized regularly in the evenings and called themselves "the five of hearts."

Adams doted on his wife and fretted while she attended her dying father in Massachusetts in the spring of 1885. "How did I ever hit on the only woman in the world who fits my cravings and never sounds hollow anywhere?" he wrote to her. But after her father died, depression again overtook Clover. On a Sunday morning that December, as Henry set out to the dentist about a toothache, she went to her studio and swallowed a fatal dose of potassium cyanide. (Her aunt and sister also committed suicide and her brother attempted to.) Two days later, Adams replied to a condolence telegram from John Hay, "I shall come out all right from this—what shall I call it—Hell!"

Clover's suicide coincided with the completion of his Lafayette Square house. A few weeks after he buried her in Rock Creek Cemetery, Adams moved into it alone. Fortunately, the Hays and their four children would soon be next door. Henry, though childless, loved children. He created a "hat shop" under his desk for a favorite child, and the sign for it remained there until he died 30 years later.

Clover's name appears nowhere in Education, though there is a passing mention of Elizabeth Cameron, the beautiful, lively and much younger wife of an alcoholic Pennsylvania senator who had been a friend of Clover's as well as Henry's. As a widower, Adams was smitten by "Lizzie," but her interest in him was not romantic. That became painfully clear to Adams after he cut short an extended South Seas voyage (1890-91) with artist John La Farge to "race" via steamship to Paris, where Cameron had led him to believe she awaited him. Alas, she gave no satisfaction to her would-be lover when he at last presented himself. Protesting that he "was not old enough to be a tame cat" (he was then 53), Adams expressed his love, and his hurt, in a long letter to Cameron as she sailed back to America. "I, who would lie down and die rather than give you a day's pain, am going to pain you the more, the more I love," he wrote.

With the years, Adams and Cameron deepened their platonic relationship and faithfully corresponded. Adams attended to her apartment in Paris while she traveled, and he kept up a doting friendship with her daughter, Martha. He let his guard down with Lizzie as with nobody else, as in a 1907 letter in which he wrote: "Behold me! I am busted and boiled and buttered. I am a biled owl. I am a cold buckwheat. I am a bummer-duffer idjut."

Adams planned to sail from New York to Europe on the first eastbound crossing of the Titanic on April 20, 1912. After the liner sank on the night of April 14-15, Adams wrote to Lizzie in Paris that he had "said it all, seven years ago, in my Education." And he had: "Every day nature violently revolted, causing so-called accidents with enormous destruction of property and life, while plainly laughing at man, who groaned and shrieked and shuddered."

Three days after writing that letter to Lizzie, the 74-year-old Adams suffered a stroke. His family, disapproving of his bond to the still-married Cameron, tried to block her from visiting him as he convalesced. She came anyway. In 1913, Adams resumed his annual shuttle between Washington and Paris. He developed a new enthusiasm for medieval music. When the art historian Bernard Berenson sent him a magazine containing "Old Music," Adams wrote back: "Nearly at my last gasp, I got your songs yesterday morning, and before noon we had sung them over and over....I keep alive only in the 12th century, by cutting all connection with life since 1300."

During one summer in Paris, Adams had invited Lizzie, Berenson and the novelist Edith Wharton—the latter two of whom held each other in "low regard," according to Patricia O'Toole's The Five of Hearts, a portrait of Adams and his circle—to a dimly lit private room in a Paris restaurant. Wharton wore a black lace veil that hid her face. Berenson "was captivated by her artistic prejudices, which matched his own," writes O'Toole. Only when the lights came fully on did he recognize Wharton. Thus started a close friendship that lasted until Wharton's death, in 1937.

Adams died in his sleep on a spring night in 1918 at home in Washington. He was buried next to Clover in Rock Creek Cemetery, under the hooded figure of a mourner sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. (Gore Vidal, an Adams admirer, has instructed that he be buried close by.) No inscription, not even a name, is on the monument. Perhaps Adams foresaw that his lively essence would be better memorialized in the pages of his Education.

Peter Hellman, a freelance writer in New York City, also writes a wine column.

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