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“Speculators In Theories”: Henry and Brooks Adams
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
The principal merit of both these biographies lies in presenting the evolution of the ideas of Henry and Brooks; but they also furnish portraits of two remarkable personalities. As to the relative stature of the brothers we cannot be in any doubt. Brooks, ten years the younger, always looked up worshipfully to Henry. Not only did Henry have much the more powerful and better disciplined mind, but he was also, as Ernest Samuels showed in his study of Young Henry Adams , much the more versatile. While Brooks plodded from Harvard into law and brought out no important book until 1889, Henry was founding the seminar system at his alma mater, exposing the Black Friday gangsters, editing the North American Review , exploring ethnology and political economy, writing on Anglo-Saxon law, and leaping from medieval history to American history. He was a reformer in politics, business, journalism, and academic life; at twenty-five a philosopher—“a full-blown fatalist.” Despite his retiring ways—“You like roughness and strength,” he wrote his business-minded brother Charles Francis, Jr.: “I like taste and dexterity”—he seemed on the highroad to practical success when overtaken by a poignant domestic tragedy. His wife drank poison, and he wrote: “Fate at last has smashed the life out of me.”
Henry Adams: A Biography , by Elizabeth Stevenson. The Macmillan Co. 432 pp. $5.75.
Brooks Adams: A Biography , by Arthur F. Beringause. Alfred A. Knopf. 416 pp. $6.
Yet Brooks Adams, too, was a man of remarkable gifts. He had all the Adams oddities to excess. Mr. Beringause quotes an early exchange which shows what an odd family it was. Brooks, about ten: “Momma, do people need marry to have children?” Mrs. Charles Francis Adams, dryly: “Sometimes.” Brooks early established his position as a social pest, though the tolerant Henry protested that he was “really a first-rate little fellow, apart from his questions.” One life-long defect was the inconsecutive quality of his mind. While his mother complained because he “screams, & laughs, & rants, & twists, & jumps, & worries about so,” his father, the eminent minister to England, grieved because he was completely inattentive and endlessly talkative. When he broke out with boils, one compensation appeared. “Poor Brooks is much exercised,” his father wrote, “and for a wonder has become taciturn.” Of college he was contemptuous. “We go on grubbing in just the same stupid, pigheaded way that Harvard students have always grubbed since there was a Harvard to grub at.” In his freshman year the faculty privately voted to admonish him for copying at examinations! But he developed an intense interest in history, making to his father, a firm lover of Greco-Roman times, the “degrading confession” that he preferred the Middle Ages.
Inevitably, the two Adamses progressed intellectually in much the same way: Henry Adams a swift, unstable ocean liner; Brooks a yacht at first far in his wake, skimming here and there, but later shooting far ahead on some tacks. Both—reared on Burke, John Adams, and Tocqueville—were conservative, skeptical, and even waspish about popular rule. Brooks in his first important essay declared that liberty was “impossible,” equality was “absurd,” and fraternity was “a nauseous lie.” Both had a full supply of the good old Adams prejudices. Henry’s anti-Semitism would be more irritating if he were not also anti-British, anti-French, anti-German, anti-American, and in his last years anti-universe. Both had an incredible faculty for using their advantages of family, wealth, and brains to make themselves miserable. Two facts helped misshape their careers. Both were childless; children might have averted Henry’s private tragedy. Both were too free from the primal curse. As Brooks pointed out to Henry, their failure to make an adjustment with the world arose largely from the lack of a fixed occupation to absorb time. “Our misfortune has been that this necessary application of our energy has been denied us. We live largely on ourselves.”
But both were essentially radical in that they questioned nearly all fixed ideas and institutions. In Henry’s phrase, they became “speculators in theories.” When the panic of 1893 brought them together at Quincy to confer on the salvaging of their fortunes, they were astonished to find how fully they agreed. The Adams family had always hated Wall Street and State Street. Now Brooks became a rabid free-silverite, impatient of the halfway house of international bimetallism occupied by Lodge and Balfour; he drew Henry after him; and both contributed liberally to Bryan’s campaign fund. It is interesting to see that for some years Brooks, who had always deferred to Henry, stimulated and led him.