- Historic Sites
“Speculators In Theories”: Henry and Brooks Adams
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
They seldom met, for Brooks got on Henry’s nerves. When they did, Henry would sometimes ejaculate: “Brooks, do go upstairs awhile; you tire my mind”—referring to his inconsecutive trait. But in letters they opened fresh realms to each other. Mr. Beringause publishes a really magnificent epistle of Brooks’s describing his emotions at a Mass accidentally heard in 1895 in the Gothic cathedral of Le Mans. “I disgraced myself,” wrote Brooks. “I felt for half an hour as I know the men must have felt who stained those windows and built those arches. I really and truly did believe the miracle.” This anticipates one strain in Henry’s Mont-Saint-Michel . Both men took long philosophical views of history, as eager to find universal laws as Hegel, and as pessimistic as Winwood Reade. Both, with pre-Toynbeean simplicity, tried to apply scientific concepts to historical interpretation, and both believed that one age was ending, and a darker new age supervening.
To students of modern politics, Brooks Adams is the more interesting. It is not astonishing that two of his books have lately been reprinted—his America’s Economic Supremacy and his Law of Civilization and Decay. When he turned to free silver and the idea of state-planning for the future, Theodore Roosevelt privately denounced him as intellectually dishonest and “a little unhinged”; but when he took imperialistic views of America’s future, urging the nation to prepare to rescue civilization, Roosevelt applauded him. Brooks held that survival in the world battle is the reward only of those lands which stay armed, organized, and courageous. He demanded a greater centralization of authority in America to meet the crisis. Western Europe, he wrote long before the First World War, is sinking in decay; China offers the great problem of the future; and America and Russia will be the two great antagonists for power. We must be ready for a grim test.
His ideas in The Law of Civilization and Decay are the most vital part of Brooks’s thought, and despite eccentric elements are truly remarkable for the time (1895). Adopting a materialistic explanation of history, he described how the center of trade (and power) had moved westward from the Middle East to Italy, thence to Holland, on to England, and finally across the Atlantic. Cycles, in his opinion, governed the destiny of man; nations rose and fell. His explanation of the cycles is, as Mr. Beringause observes, full of errors, but full also of vitality—it “coruscated with ideas.” The jurist Holmes wrote Sir Frederick Pollock that it was “about the most (immediately) interesting history I ever read.” One of its faults, characteristic of Brooks, is that it delivers ideas with too little coherence; and frequently these ideas are not truly original, but drawn from the thought of the time. Mr. Beringause, meaning to praise, says that the book anticipated Max Weber on the Reformation, Haushofer on geophysics, Spengler on ebb and flow, Beard on economic influences in law, and Veblen on technology. This is really an indictment of the odds-and-ends character of the volume. Yet even today it will provoke anybody to thought.
“Brooks,” wrote Henry to Mrs. Don Cameron, “is too brutal, too blatant, too emphatic, and too intensely set on one line at a time to please any large number of people.” Henry, so much abler and subtler, was also more adroit. In his lifetime he pleased, perplexed, and excited his own circles; since his death his half-irritated, half-fascinated audience has grown steadily. Those interested in history, letters, and art will find Miss Stevenson’s study not only full in its presentation of biographical fact, but rewarding in its critical judgments and psychological insights. America has had greater spirits than Henry Adams, but none more intensely searching. It has had finer minds, but no intellect freer, lonelier, more devoted to a grasp of realities. Reading this book, we are carried to the austere vantage point where he brooded, ever questing, ever dissatisfied, over the destinies of man.
What Miss Stevenson sees clearly is that the tragedy of Henry’s life, giving edge to his mind and depth to his meditation, was in a sense the making of that life. He was always, after 1885, in pain; existence was always a battle. Once so charming, Adams grew rather repellent. His morbidity became a system; his cutting tongue made enemies; his sneering pessimism, a mask for despair, impressed many as a pose. He became truly convinced that somewhere just ahead of mankind lay a terrible and final disaster; for he did not see with Thornton Wilder that mankind has always struggled from catastrophe to catastrophe by the skin of its teeth. We have had our disaster, and have moved to new tasks and rewards. Adams, fascinated by the contrast between the Thirteenth and Twentieth Centuries, wrote equally moving prayers to the Virgin and the Dynamo; and all his later writing, as Miss Stevenson says, “was an attempt to fill in the abyss between these opposites.” Where did it bring him?