Chats With Henry Adams

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The actual conversations of great men of the past—saving Samuel Johnson, perhaps, and a legendary Socrates—have seldom been recorded. How instructive and interesting would it be now had some posterity-conscious person recorded a conversation of Benjamin Franklin as he talked with friends at the City Tavern or Junto Club in Philadelphia, or Thomas Jefferson’s after-dinner discussions with guests at Monticello, or the conversations of Henry David Thoreau with the thinkers of Concord!So reasoned Frederic Bancroft, biographer and historian of the South, when he set his sights on Henry Adams in 1910. Already a living legend, Adams had made his home in Washington since 1877. Behind him lay his nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, his brilliant study of the civilization of the Thirteenth Century, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, and his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, now a classic in American literature and an indispensable guide to the intellectual history of the United States during the four decades after the Civil War.

It was Charles Francis Adams, Jr., who introduced Bancroft to his younger brother, Henry. Thereafter, Bancroft occasionally met him at the home of mutual friends and several times lunched or dined with him. After each encounter he rushed home and, using a shorthand system which he had devised in college, made a meticulous, sometimes verbatim, record of their conversations.

Although he had met him many years earlier, Bancroft first called on Adams on a spring morning in 1910. Believing that he needed a pretext for his visit, Bancroft, who at the time was editing the works of Carl Schurz, the famous German-American politician of the late Nineteenth Century, had written asking for an interview about Schurz.

“I called about 10 A.M. ,” Bancroft wrote in his diary, “and spent a little more than half an hour with him.

“Cordiality is not in his manner. He is pleasant, mild, quiet, without enthusiasm. He reminds me of a very small and superior watch: his tick and movements are hardly noticeable. The mental machinery does not much influence the physical machinery. He was neither cold nor warm, but easygoing to the verge of indifference. He did not offer me his hand; he only pulled a large and very low chair toward his desk as a sign for me to sit there.

“To my question as to how he was and how he had been he answered: ‘I am growing old fast. After 70 one ages rapidly and then one realizes how little is left and how little has been done …’ My complimentary remark about his having accomplished a vast amount of work before he had advanced much beyond my present age drew out no response. To my rather commonplace remark that most men had little in life but its comforts and pleasures from day to day and the fortunes and families they may have acquired, he said: ‘But nowadays one does not know how long the fortunes may last, financial crises and fires sweep them away’ [There had been a $500,000 fire in Chelsea near Boston the night previous.] Yet as to this fire, aside from the financial loss and personal suffering it might be a blessing—‘a blessing of the kind that would do Boston good, for several of the other suburbs should go in the same way …’”

 

Bancroft asked how many volumes of Schurz’s speeches he should publish. “‘Speeches are usually lies,’ Adams replied, ‘prepared for a special purpose and occasion’; but letters are usually true and almost always interesting and historically valuable. So he was almost enthusiastic about the letters and advised their publication.

“Toward the end he became more responsive. He talked more freely as I started to go and little by little let me move and finally accompanied me to the door, and said that he would be glad to see me again if he could be of any assistance to me.”

Two weeks later Bancroft met Adams at a luncheon given by John Franklin Jameson, editor of the American Historical Review.

“I was surprised and pleased when I learned that Henry Adams was to be of the party. He is always quaint, to me at least, and altogether interesting. His humor is always that of reticence almost to the point of bashfulness, except that he has no hesitancy in saying whatever he wishes to. Probably as a result of talk about archaeology, Henry Adams observed in his odd quiet way, ‘I am 2550 years old.’ This caused some of us to smile and object that we felt pretty old ourselves. Looking at me he said, ‘You are only half as old.’

“Just what he meant in either case was not quite apparent. Probably it was merely a humorous way of saying that he at seventy-two felt that he was very old in comparison with the others. At another time he said that he had found Paris is the only place to live in; the only place where one could find and do everything that one wished.

“We walked away together from the luncheon and as we neared his house he asked me to come in and sit awhile. To my suggestion that probably he wished to work, he answered that he never did any work, so I gladly stopped for half an hour.