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Henry Adams and the American Scene, Part I

John Raymond profiles a man whose forbears had fought to win the Republic. Henry Adams, however, witnessed and testified to the birth of a nation.

France was a land, England was a people, but America having about it still the quality of the idea, was harder to utter—it was the graves at Shiloh, and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart...

Scott Fitzgerald’s epitaph on the America of his youth may properly stand at the entrance to a re-discussion of Henry Brooks Adams. Although Adams was always a formidable phrase-maker, he studied, perhaps painfully, for most of his life, to avoid willingness of the heart—as his great autobiography of ideas, composed in relative old age, The Education of Henry Adams (1908), sufficiently demonstrates.

Nevertheless, during his eighty years (1838-1918), Adams’s experience, his largely destructive thought and his connections—these last a particularly important, perhaps the determining factor in the formation of his personality—subsume the American scene during the most critical period of the national destiny. His forbears had fought to win the Republic. He witnessed, and testified to, the birth of a nation.

He did this apparently dispassionately, yet with an undercurrent of revulsion. He was, as he is always reminding us in The Education, an eighteenth-century man, the heir of the Puritan, Bostonian, Philadelphian and Virginian Revolution, a late-comer and an anachronism, doomed to survive into the dollar-besotted era of the 1870’s and 80’s, the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant and the time of the Gold Fraud scandals. The banks and the railroads, so he proclaimed, had finally hammered the phaetons and the carriage-ways, to and from Mount Vernon and Monticello, out of existence. The ghost phaetons—of his matrilineal Virginia, and his paternal Boston and Quincy—would continue to haunt him for the rest of his days.

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