Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Reluctant Adams—Henry and the Rejection of Both Heritage and Modernity

Young Henry Adams.

On February 16, 1838 Henry Adams was born in Boston, the son of diplomat Charles Francis Adams, Sr., grandson of John Quincy Adams, and great-grandson of John Adams.

As a young man the burden of such a linage and the attendant high expectations were almost too much for him to bear. After a so-so brush with a Harvard education and the usual—for his class—Grand Tour of Europe after graduation, Adams returned home.

He was pressed into service as his father’s secretary—a tradition in the Adams family that signaled that he was expected to the political heir in the new generation. He spent most of the Civil War in London where his father was Minister to the Court of St. James. He moonlighted as a correspondent for New York Times. These years in London set Adams apart from most of his generation—he did not experience the battlefields of the war and he settled into confirmed Anglophilia when antagonism to Britain was still considered the mark of a patriot.

Upon return to the states, Adams decided to reject a political career. Instead he settled in Washington taking up a career in journalism as a kind of early muckraker exposing the corruption of Grant administration.

From 1870 to 1877 he was lured back to Massachusetts to serve as Professor of Medieval History at Harvard. While “home” in the Bay State, he married Clovis Hooper. They honeymooned in Europe.

The Adams home on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. with the double arch entry to the left.  Around the corner is the double turreted home of his close friend John Hay.

Adams retired from Harvard and relocated to a fashionable home on Lafayette Square in Washington across from the White House. He took up the life of a self-described public intellectual pursuing both journalism and independent historical research and writing. 

The home was the center of intellectual Washington, built around the tightly knit Five Hearts—Adams and Clovis; John Hay, Lincoln’s former secretary and a future Secretary of State and his wife Clara; and the geologist Clarence King. This happy arrangement was shattered with the suicide of Clovis, reportedly doubly depressed by her father’s death and learning that Henry was having an affair..

Adams working in his home study, 1883

After her death Adams restlessly traveled and wrote furiously. His magna historical opus was the epic nine volume History of the United States During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, chronicling the Republican Ascendency that his great grandfather had abhorred and that his Grandfather had served as Secretary of State.

As he grew older he rejected his family’s Unitarianism and was comforted by the mysteries of Catholicism. In 1904 he privately published his Mont Saint Michel and Chartres celebrating the values translated into stone by the great cathedrals of France.  Alarmed by the rise of industrialization and mechanical innovation symbolized by the automobile he more and more retreated into admiration of a world that for him represented both order and the spiritual apotheosis of humanity.

The Abby at Mont Saint Michel, France represented and ideal for Adams.

Adams’s keen intellect was marred by a particularly virulent anti-Semitism which he scarcely tried to hide. At a time when such sentiments were common in the WASP elite, he astonished even his close friend John Hay with the level of his bigotry.

After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1912 while preparing for another European tour, Adams’ work output slowed, but did not end.  None the less he was able eventually to resume traveling and entertaining a vast network of friends and admirers.  He died in Washington on March 28, 1918 and was laid to rest in a suburban cemetery next to Clovis.

Today Adams is best remembered for the wistful, ironic, self-depreciating and even comic memoir The Education of Henry Adams told in third person about his internal struggle coping with the transition from a traditional age to the dawning scientific/industrial world. It’s still a pretty good read.

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