Commentary Magazine


The Middle Years of Henry Adams:
Women in his Life and Novels

The second volume of Ernest Samuels’ leisurely biography of Henry Adams (Henry Adams: The Middle Years, Harvard University Press, $6.50) is a book to delight the Adams buff, whose number, these days of despair, is legion. A biography in the “life and times” tradition, carefully researched, well-integrated, and presenting a mass of data in a readable style that does not reflect the clutter of the author’s strenuous investigations—it deserves all the high praise reviewers have showered upon it. What with this biography and another rumored to be in preparation, besides everything else that has been published, Henry Adams bids fair to emerge as a better-documented man than the presidents among his ancestors, of whom he always stood more than a little in awe.

Professor Samuels’ earlier volume, The Young Henry Adams, took the grandson of John Quincy and the great-grandson of John from his birth in 1838 in Boston, through Harvard, service as his father’s secretary in the London Embassy during the Civil War, and back to America, which, following the war, had become enormously rich and corrupt and from which Henry Adams, brahmin of brahmins, felt entirely alienated. The book went on to deal with Adams’s residence in Washington; his efforts as a journalist to expose the dastardy of the politicos who congregated around Grant and the gross manipulations of some spectacularly dishonest businessmen; his participation in the ill-fated reformist Liberal Republican movement; teaching at Harvard; editorship of the North American Review, and marriage to Marian Hooper.

Concerning the years embraced by the second volume, Adams wrote in the Education: “Education had ended in 1871, life was complete in 1890.” Adams had resigned from Harvard and from the editorship of the North American Review and had gone with his wife to live in Washington, near Lafayette Square and overlooking the White House. This was Adams’s most productive period as a historian, in which he wrote biographies of Gallatin and Randolph (a biography of Burr was never printed) and the nine-volume History of the United States during the Jefferson and Madison Administrations, which students of American historiography regard as a classic. In addition, Adams wrote two novels, Democracy and Esther, the authorship of which he concealed.

All of this was done amidst the graces and comforts of patrician living made possible by inherited wealth. The Adamses’ household was the vortex of a Washington social whirl the details of which, Tyler Dennett pointed out twenty-five years ago in his biography of John Hay, made an intriguing chapter in American history—a chapter which Mr. Samuels has now written. At this time the city of Washington was losing much of its provincial flavor. The streets were being paved; the hand of H. H. Richardson was apparent in the architecture of private homes; and something of an international society was beginning to emerge. At the pinnacle of this society were the Adamses, their friends the John Hays, and that eccentric genius, Clarence King. The Five of Hearts they called themselves, and theirs was an exclusiveness difficult to define. The barriers were indeed high, but not impenetrable to kindred spirits regardless of wealth or station. “Money,” said Adams, “plays no part whatever in Society, but cleverness counts for a good deal, and social capacity for more.” Adams was wrong, of course, about money—but not too wrong if we take into consideration the state of the worldly fortunes of King, whom Adams thought “the most brilliant man of his generation.” However, with a salon that left out more people than it took in, the Adamses and the Hays felt that their society was too good for what Washington had to offer. Henry James in his “Pandora” had Bonnycastle, modelled after Adams, say: “Let us be vulgar and have some fun—let us invite the President.”

The re-creation of an era in Washington social life during the Hayes, Garfield, and Arthur administrations, when the curtain of corruption was rising following the Grant nadir, is a triumph of historic writing for Mr. Samuels. The vividness with which he brings the period to life is the result, in part, of the author’s use of the Adams papers which are now in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. True, the main outlines of the story are not altered by the papers. But because of them, there has been added a dimension of detail which Tyler Dennett, working without the papers a quarter of a century ago, had been unable to contribute to his notable biography of John Hay. Here and there, one wishes that a portrait had been drawn more closely, as in the case of Elizabeth Cameron, the ridiculously young, beautiful wife of the old Pennsylvania spoilsman Senator Don Cameron. Mr. Samuels is rather literal-minded in his approach to an understanding of the relationship between Mrs. Cameron and Adams, not advancing a step beyond where his footnotes take him. This is one point at which the author’s devotion to documentation may be a little defeating.

I remember once hearing Mr. R. P. Blackmur of Princeton discuss, on the basis of a mere quickening of the style of the Education when it came to deal with Mrs. Cameron, as well as other evidence, his ideas of the relationship between Adams and her. It is this kind of imaginativeness which I find lacking on occasion in Mr. Samuels’ work. I wish, too, that the peculiar problem of the patrician in the context of late 19th century America had been taken up. But one must draw the line somewhere, even in a three-volume work, and Mr. Samuels’ judgment is almost unexceptional.

Although Mr. Samuels treats briefly the anti-Semitism of Henry Adams, he is correct in putting off its evaluation to a later volume. Adams’s anti-Semitic utterances grow in number and intensity in the period after that covered by this volume.1

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Mr. Samuels does not hazard a plunge beyond the footnotes and into the depths of his subject’s emotional life. This is in some degree understandable since it would be unfortunate to hitch a major work to a psychological thesis that might seem attractive today and prove a dud in a decade. Mr. Samuels is to be congratulated for having turned out a book that avoids the obscurantism of John Berryman’s Stephen Crane. On the other hand, he is chary of even ankledeep wading the Freudian waters. What I miss here is the discreet and controlled use of Freudian techniques characteristic of Leon Edel’s treatment of Henry James.

Somewhere in the Education, Adams wrote: “The only absolute truth was the subconscious chaos below, which everyone could feel when he sought it.” Adams drew back from probing the subconscious, with the excuse that it was the most painful process he knew. After his wife’s suicide, he destroyed the diaries of his youth with the comment that he was “horrified to have such a record so long in existence. My brain reels with the vividness of emotions more than thirty years old.”

Still, we are not entirely without clues as to Adams’s deeper emotions. In The Young Henry Adams, Mr. Samuels described Adams’s early pessimism about life, his feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy, and the sense of gloom and foreboding that his mother communicated to him. Samuels also related how Adams needed to be dominated by a woman. The first of the series of such women was his sister Louisa, who died as the result of a carriage accident. Adams, grieving at her bedside, was fascinated by the perverse charm of the death drama unfolding before him. “Death took features altogether new. . . . Nature enjoyed it, played with it, the horror added to her charm, she liked the torture and smothered the victim with caresses.” He wrote of his sister’s death as “a nightmare, an insanity of force. For the first time, the stage scenery of the senses collapsed; the human mind felt itself stripped naked, vibrating in a void of shapeless energies, with resistless mass, colliding, crushing, wasting and destroying what these same energies had created and labored from eternity to perfect.”

It was not just any woman to whom Adams handed over the reins of his life. It had to be a woman powerful enough to take them up. When Adams visited Chartres in 1896, he began “to feel the Virgin or Venus as force”; not taste, nor art, nor beauty, but force. This was to articulate an attitude which Adams felt and hinted at earlier. Compared to the American woman, Adams once wrote, jokingly and also in dead earnest, the American man was a “chump” who wanted to be ruled by her; “a peaceful, domestic animal, fond of baby-talk” and who yearned for “love and doughnuts.”

The strength of Adams’s heroines lay in an emotional depth and intuitive power which were both incomprehensible to male rationality and also superior to it. Adams had slight respect for women’s minds which, he said, are “a queer mixture of odds and ends, poorly mastered and utterly unconnected.” He judged his wife as having a “very active and quick mind that has run over many things, but she really knows nothing well.” Marian could have written neither the History nor the Education, but her strength was nonetheless apparent in ways that did not involve intellectuality; her good taste in clothes and furnishings; in her manner as a hostess in her drawing room; in her instinctive sense of what was fitting and what was not. Finally, there was Marian’s barbed and deadly sense of humor that bubbled up unexpectedly and inexplicably. Once she chided her father, Dr. Robert Hooper, about her faulty training in foreign languages which left the “sexes of my nouns as undecided as that of Oscar Wilde.” Yet she forgave him this and other well-meant mistakes in her upbringing and education and promised not to “bite off your ear like that rude young man in Aesop who was the terror of my younger days.”

Marian’s mother died when she was very young and she was brought up and educated by her father. From him she derived qualities of independence and self-assuredness which Adams so much admired, but which may have been very defeating to him. The ties between Marian and her father were very close and each week Marian wrote him a letter about what went on in Washington. Adams never said what his attitude was toward this father-daughter relationship, but there is a section in Adams’s novel Esther (Marian was the model for Esther) in which Esther’s father, facetiously but with an undercurrent of strong feeling, describes his attitude toward the man Esther might some day marry: “I have hated this fellow all his life. About twice a year I have treacherously stabbed him in the back as he was going out of his own front door. I know that he would interfere with my comfort if I let him get a footing. After all he was a poor creature, and did not deserve to live.”

Discussing this passage, Mr. Samuels conjectures that Adams may have felt guilty when his father-in-law died because Adams may have wished his death. This may be so, but the real problem the passage suggests is the conflict between Adams and father—a conflict that could have impaired his effectiveness as a husband.

A few months after her father’s death, Marian had a breakdown which resulted in her suicide. Father had triumphed over husband from the grave. Adams did not possess the emotional strength to break Marian’s attachment to her father and once he died Adams could not prevent her following him.

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Largely unrecognized by Mr. Samuels is Henry Adams’s penchant for the strong, destructive woman whose image he recreated in a variety of forms. This is true of Adams’s novels which Samuels interprets as had Robert Spiller before him. Democracy is presented as an attack on the forces of corruption which Adams feared would undermine the Republic; Esther as an account of the conflict between reason and established religion. This is a valid account of the intellectual content of the novels, but Adams is also talking about the emotional lives of the two central characters: Madeline Lee of Democracy and Esther. Democracy, published in 1876, deals with corruption in post-Civil War Washington and the action centers about Madeline’s determination to learn about the workings of the democratic system. Madeline, when she arrives in Washington, is an attractive woman of thirty, whose husband and young son are both dead. A typical Adams heroine, she stands alone in the world, and no man can have her. Not Silas P. Ratcliffe, who, even before she knew of his corrupt political background, Madeline wanted “to turn . . . inside out; to experiment on him as young physiologists use frogs and kittens”; nor the more principled Carrington, a ruined man from a ruined family, who is just weak enough to interest Madeline.

Weak enough to make Madeline secure in confessing to him—a confession we could never imagine her making to the virile and active Ratcliffe—that a certain destructive ness in her nature prevented her from loving. “You do not know how much misery I am saving you,” she tells Carrington in rejecting his offer of marriage. “I have no heart to give. You want a young, fresh life. . . . If you married me, you would destroy yourself. You would wake up some day and find the universe dust and ashes.” Madeline’s loving sister Sybil adds this warning: “You wouldn’t like her . . . if you married her; she has always had her own way, and she could not help taking it; she could never learn to take yours, both of you would be unhappy in a week.”

If she did love, Madeline makes plain, it would be because of an “ambitious thirst for power, restless eagerness to meddle in what did not concern her”; or “to escape from the torture of watching other women with full lives and satisfied instincts, while her own life was hungry and sad.” Finally, Madeline expresses strong feelings of self-contempt. She tells of her “hysterical dread of sorrow and suffering”; “narrow sympathies”; and “abject cowardice.” “Life,” she says at one point, is a “vile thing,” and adds: “Oh how I wish I were dead! How I wish the universe were annihilated.”

This attitude of destructiveness Madeline projects outward toward institutions as well as men. As the novel progresses, Madeline becomes increasingly skeptical of democracy, which, she alleges, is destroying itself “with universal suffrage, corruption, and communism.” The book ends with her rejecting suitors and pronouncing her great anathema against democracy. Democracy, says Madeline, “has shaken my nerves to pieces. Oh, what rest it would be to live in the Great Pyramid and look out forever at the polar star.”

The plot of Esther centers on the love of two men for the heroine; the Reverend Stephen Hazard and the scientist George Strong. Esther tells Strong that she rejects him because of her love for Hazard. But the latter also fails in his suit, because the established church he serves is alien to Esther’s agnostic upbringing which was in turn shaped by her father. (As was true of his wife Marian, Esther’s mother dies when she is relatively young and she is brought up by her father.) In the end, Esther is as alone as Madeline Lee contemplating the polar star.

As in the case of Madeline, Esther is endowed by Adams with “more strength than men” as well as an “instinct of power.” Like Madeline, too, Esther expresses strong feelings of self-degradation which are tied to an inability to love. Esther’s rejection of Hazard is accompanied by the statement: “Now I am low enough, am I not? Don’t make me feel more degraded than I am.” For Hazard to win Esther, the latter makes plain, he must create a new and “spiritual” church, one that will not “cry: flesh-flesh-flesh! at every corner.” The doctrine of the resurrection of the body is “shocking” to Esther because, she tells Hazard, “I despise and loathe myself, and yet you thrust self at me from every corner of the church as though I loved and admired it.” We pity Esther in a way that we never could pity the harsher Madeline, particularly when Esther says of the men around her: “I want to submit. Why can’t some of you make me For a few moments I think it is done, and then I suddenly find myself more deficient than ever.”

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There can be no doubt that Adams, who expected so much from women, had very bad luck with them. There was first, mother, whose favorite he was, and who, according to Henry’s older brother Charles, took “a constitutional and sincere pleasure in the forecast of evil. She delighted in the dark side of anticipation.” Then there was Louisa, his sister, the first woman to whom he entrusted the reins of his life. Finally, there was Marian who committed suicide—a suicide which was almost predictable from the development of the character of Esther. People “who detest their own identity,” Adams generalized, “are prone to suicide,” and Esther remarks, as Marian might have, that death “excites almost more than it frightens.”

It is understandable, from both his experience with these tragedy-haunted women and his unconscious image of women, that Adams, although a relatively young widower at the time of Marian’s death, should never have married again. Certainly, he was close to many fascinating, intelligent, and eligible women. But Adams preferred them as “nieces” and not as wives. As “uncle,” Adams could be as near or as far as he desired from the destructiveness with which circumstances and his imagination endowed his heroines. “Uncle” had few of the responsibilities that husbands have thrust upon them. One of the more adored and more adoring nieces, Mabel La Farge, saw through to the core of her relationship with “Uncle Henry.” This, she described, as “convenient and easy, capable of being anything or nothing at the will of either party, like a Mohammedan or Polynesian or American marriage.”

“One of the games Adams played with his nieces was to pretend to be their little boy, and he wrote them winsome letters as their little ‘dear Dordy,’ a pet name they gave him”; Mr. Samuels buries this information in a footnote. My point is that data of this kind may be more relevant to an understanding of Adams than Mr. Samuels seems to think. As Mr. Samuels proceeds with his third volume, a hypothesis concerning Adams’s emotional pattern will be increasingly relevant in explaining Adams’s Mariolatry (the Virgin, Adams’s strongest heroine, has many of the attributes of Madeline and Esther) and his increasing pessimism and feelings of destructiveness toward men, institutions, and the universe.

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Footnotes

1 Interested readers may see my own essay on Henry Adams's anti-Semitism in the Contemporary Jewish Record (June 1945).

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