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September 12, 2005

On Reading Henry Adams in Montenegro

Posted by David Womersley

The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry Adams
first published in 1918
available in Oxford World's Classics, £8.99

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - re-reads The Education of Henry Adams in Montenegro. Henry Adams's major concern was the relationship of unity to diversity, social cohesion to chaos. Prof. Womersley asks, if Henry Adams were to survey - say - contemporary Montenegro, would Adams "be astonished at the endurance of any shred of social unity after all the disruptive energies of not just the nineteenth but also the twentieth centuries had been set loose, or dismayed at the price exacted by that surprising achievement?"

The Education of Henry Adams (1918) is amongst the most intimate and articulate accounts we possess of the shock of the nineteenth century. However, its intimacy is not confessional. A twenty-year lacuna in the narrative covers (if that's the right word) Adams's married life, which ended in 1885 with the suicide of his wife, Marian; and the insistent signature of the book's reserve is Adams's unbroken use of the third person. But this grammatical choice is not a case of prudish wincing from disclosure, for Adams's true subject is much broader, more interesting and more important than the mere various, circumstantial, elations and dismays of his private life.

Born in 1838 into the nearest thing to the American purple, with two Presidents amongst his recent forebears on his father's side and vast Bostonian wealth on his mother's, Adams seemed to enjoy every advantage. All his life he lived close to the centre of American power as it grew mightily, his introduction to that heady region coming in 1861 when he accompanied his father, who had been appointed Lincoln's Minister to Great Britain, to London as his private secretary – an extraordinary opportunity for a youth of twenty-three. In the course of a long life he came to know virtually everybody of significance in America, Britain and much of Europe. He travelled all over the world with an appetite for geographical experience which would be uncommon even in the age of jet travel, but which in Adams's day was remarkable.

Yet notwithstanding all these assets of bequest and subsequent acquisition, the great theme of The Education of Henry Adams is the inadequacy of Adams's intellectual equipment, and the consequent impercipience which (as he sees it) ran steadily throughout his life. "Education" is here then being used in a special and broad sense. Adams is unsparing in his criticisms of his formal education, particularly that he received at Harvard (excoriation of Harvard was something of an Adams family habit, notwithstanding their long connection with the university – Adams himself would for seven years (1870-77) work there as an assistant professor of history). But his deeper interest is in the level of his intellectual unpreparedness for the experiences with which the nineteenth century would inundate him. A child (as he himself often put it) of the eighteenth century who survived into the twentieth, his habitual stance before life was one of bemused dismay – dismay at both what life revealed of itself, and what his response to that revelation obliged him to acknowledge in himself. Despite then what to twenty-first century eyes looks like Adams extraordinary reticence about his inner life, The Education of Henry Adams can fairly be called a self-unsparing book.

Adams's experiences in London during the years 1861-64 formed the keynote of his life. Although Britain professed neutrality in the American Civil War, Adams sensed strong Confederate sympathy amongst the ruling British ιlite, and his portraits of Palmerston, Russell and in particular of Gladstone (whom he persuasively charges with moral duplicity) are amongst the most vivid passages of the book, at least for an English reader. Adams was at a loss to understand how a nation which had abolished slavery could support Jefferson Davis, and much of his narrative of these years is taken up with his anguished attempts to grasp, not the motives of British policy (he was even then not so unworldly that he could not appreciate that the weakening of a potential rival power was a rational objective of realpolitik), but rather the contortions of personality which would allow men such as Lord John Russell to pursue such a policy while yet never relinquishing their claims to be regarded as honest. Here Adams is at his most Jamesian, his prose poised between the horrified understanding that this "was not a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder" (p. 420, Oxford World's Classics edition) and the comic dramatisation of his own haplessness before the assembled Gilbert Osmonds of the British political class.

Adams's experience of the American Civil War not only set the agenda for his relation to his own times, it also presented itself to him as an aspect of what he saw as the abiding theme of human history, namely the relationship of unity to diversity (p. 363):

Any schoolboy could see that man as a force must be measured by motion, from a fixed point. Psychology helped here by suggesting a unit – the point of history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe. Eight or ten years of study had led Adams to think he might use the century 1150-1250, expressed in Amiens Cathedral and the works of Thomas Aquinas, as the unit from which he might measure motion down to his own time, without assuming anything as true or untrue, except relation. The movement might be studied at once in philosophy and mechanics. Setting himself to the task, he began a volume which he mentally knew as Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres: a Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity. From that point he proposed to fix a position for himself, which he could label: The Education of Henry Adams: a Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity. With the help of these two points of relation, he hoped to project his lines forward and backward indefinitely, subject to correction from anyone who should know better.
The defeat of the Confederate states had seemed to Adams to announce a triumph of unity of plurality, but appearances were once more endlessly deceptive. As the Union's fortunes in the Civil War began to turn in the summer of 1863, and when the catastrophes of the two battles of Bull Run were reversed at Gettysburg by Meade's defeat of Lee, Adams sensed a far deeper, more subterranean shift (pp. 144-45):
At moment's one's breath came quick. One began to dream the sensation of wielding unmeasured power. The sense came, like vertigo, for an instant, and passed, leaving the brain a little dazed, doubtful, shy. … Such development of power was unknown.
The Union's victory was the key to unlocking America's industrial might, and it was this future which Adams felt in the instant of the summer of 1863 (p. 341):
The throb of fifty or a hundred million steam horse-power, doubling every ten years, and already more despotic than all the horses that ever lived, and all the riders they ever carried, drowned rhyme and reason.
Its impact startles, dismays, and enthralled Adams as he docked in New York in November 1904 (p. 415):
The outline of the city became frantic in its effort to explain something that defied meaning. Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky. The city had the air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control. Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet yielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid.
With this coefficient of acceleration, what hopes for education? (p. 414)
To educate – oneself to begin with – had been the effort of one's life for sixty years; and the difficulties of education had gone on doubling with the coal-output, until the prospect of waiting another ten years, in order to face a seventh doubling of complexities, allured one's imagination but slightly.
To the startled eyes of the elderly Henry Adams, the remorseless onward rush of nascent American capitalism posed only threats of increasing magnitude to those slender remains of social cohesion which he could discern to be still in place at the end of the nineteenth century.

It's not clear that, in all his travels, Adams ever crossed the Adriatic from Italy to Dalmatia. But were his ghost to hover over Montenegro in 2005, what reflections might it prompt in the author of The Education of Henry Adams? A recurrent theme of that book is what Adams calls "the two-thousand years failure of Christianity" (p. 415) to stem the onward rush of diversity. The foreland chapels which stud the Dalmatian riviera proclaim that this is a Christian land, although this is not so much a matter of inward piety as of outward defiance of the Turks. Dalmatia has always been a riven region. Budva, wrenched apart by an earthquake in 1979, was in distant centuries a frontier town between the Eastern and Western empires. In living memory confessional division has yielded its customary harvest of death and atrocity.

But to sip beer in the harbour of Petrovac today leads to more complicated thoughts. Under the shadows of the old ferocity, a social cohesion has endured, albeit in some respects meagre and impoverished. In part, it shelters beneath the vacuous hedonism so prevalent in Europe, where the ideal of female beauty seems increasingly to be that of the porn star.

Yet amongst the abundant indigence, there are signs of emerging opulence in the form of cars and boats. It's difficult to believe that these have been paid for out of the profits from the aluminium plant in Podgorica or the shipping industries of the Bay of Kotor. Some of the cars may have been simply stolen ("Come to Montenegro – your car is here already!" is the waggish unofficial slogan of Montenegrin tourism). But there are other possibilities. In the late afternoon, an expensive yacht glides into the bay. On deck there is intent, noiseless, orderly activity with lines, floats and fenders. At dusk, as you transact a small piece of business at one of the many quayside kiosks, you may hear a quick rattle of chain, but by the time you have finished paying for your blackberry ice-cream, the bay is once more empty. After dinner, walking back to the hotel from that excellent fish restaurant where the pick of the morning catch from the owner's boat is brought to your table for you to make your selection, you catch the soft, loping slap of flippers on sand. Night is not an obvious time for scuba-diving, but no doubt it has its rewards. Sailing close to the wind of legality has been a way of life on these shores for untold centuries, and the new forms of social organisation that one can sense coming into existence today, although unlovely in some respects, nevertheless have strong points of contact with the past.

In Adams's endless battle between the historical forces of unity and multiplicity as it is presently played out in Montenegro, despite all the forces apparently making for a hurtling descent into the abyss of disintegration, the impulse to trade and exchange holds it together, just. Adams's shade, moving slowly up the coast from Bar, might have been nonplussed. Should he be astonished at the endurance of any shred of social unity after all the disruptive energies of not just the nineteenth but also the twentieth centuries had been set loose, or dismayed at the price exacted by that surprising achievement?

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford.


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Adams might concur with Adam Smith, that 'there is a lot of ruin in a nation.' This article is so interesting and so lyrically written. Many thanks. Encore.

Posted by: s masty at September 12, 2005 08:11 PM
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