Man of the Century

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

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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."


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