By Henry Adams
Edited by Edward Chalfant
and Conrad Edick Wright
Massachusetts Historical Society.
542 pp. $34.95
Reviewed by John Timpane
Between the Civil War and World War I, an old world began to die.
Some were aware of it. Others weren't. Still others knew but labored mightily to pretend, deny, hold it off. Nevertheless, as history will, the change came, and after it blew past, all was different. What we call "the modern world" - a world of politics, technology and attitudes we're still largely living in - had arrived, exposing the claptrap, inadequacies and unreadiness of the old.
The Education of Henry Adams,
Adams, readiest of the unready, wrote about what it was like to live through the change, in the change, trying and failing to understand the change. Privately printed in 1907, it was not generally published until after his death in 1918; it won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize.
Ranked by the Modern Library in 1998 as the No. 1 American nonfiction book - and rightly so -
is 100 years old this year. It's a centenary worthy of the best commemoration of all: reading the book. For the Massachusetts Historical Society's centennial edition, Edward Chalfant and Conrad Edick Wright have corrected printer's errors, and tried to bring the text as near as possible to what Adams intended, even inserting marginal corrrections that Adams wrote in his working copies of the privately printed 1907 edition.
Adams moves among many of the great names of the age - a dozen presidents, including his grandfather; Giuseppe Garibaldi; Robert Browning, A.C. Swinburne, and Rudyard Kipling; William Gladstone; William H. Seward; Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Adams was a diplomat in England during the Civil War, snared in a barely civil battle against an English government enthusiastically undermining Lincoln and rooting for the Confederates. Darwin's
Origin of Species
hits while Adams is still in London; the technological revolution that gathered momentum in the last half of the 19th century boils all around him. The climax of the book is the famous chapter titled "The Dynamo and the Virgin (1900)," in which Adams beholds the coming role of technological power in human life. He sees the steam turbines at the Paris Exposition of 1900 and writes that for him
. . . the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the 40-foot dynamo as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. . . . Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.
He sees the dynamo as a symbol of force itself, of the gods of the future, as distinct from the Virgin, the spirit of the past, reflected in the urge to the arts and philosophy, an urge Adams feels may be swallowed up by the surge of the dynamo. I hope you get a sense of Adams' rich, rolling style, loaded with vision, wisdom, and passionate reserve.
An odd book, yet its oddness is also its triumph. No autobiographer ever treated himself with such amused bemusement. (It might be the best use of third-person narrative in all nonfiction, allowing Adams to regard himself as a character, in all senses of the word.) A joke-on-himself throughout is "Adams-as-failure." Son of a senator (Charles), grandson of one president (John Quincy), great-grandson of another (John), Adams is born and raised in the Boston that birthed the republic. Taught to expect a prominent public life, he spends that life looking for something to do.
The core joke of the book, then, is on Adams: We watch as the young man, then the older man, then the old man, search the world for
, a word that means so many things that, in the end, the writer doesn't know what it meant. He suffers, he writes, "the incapacity of viewing things all round." He leads distinguished careers in diplomacy, journalism, the academy, and letters, and none brings "any" education. Again and again, Adams thinks he's on the brink of learning something,
about life, law, literature, government, science, human relations - but again and again, it eludes him. "He lost his grip on the results by trying to understand them," he writes - a Heisenberg uncertainty principle applied to the meaning of life.
Adams portrays himself as earnest, naive, questing, ready for enlightenment. That very readiness, though - the very fact that he's trying to understand - guarantees he never will. He watches his sister die horribly - yet bravely, even gaily - of tetanus, in a beautiful room in the Tuscan countryside, and the savage ironies throw him into despair: "The stage scenery of the senses collapsed; the human mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless energies." He learns little, but at least the fact of death strips him further of illusions.
Looking back at the last years of the 19th century, Adams wrote
in the first years of the 20th, a century for which he realized he wasn't prepared. But he saw clearly enough the cataclysms to come, the continued destruction of old worlds. His was an age of writers, each of whom independently discovered that the new world demanded an unfamiliar, complex, open-ended, ambiguous sensibility.
For all of them, as for Adams, the discovery of the new was bracing, disillusioning, painful. They all knew that discover it or not, acknowledge it or not, the new is going to come.