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Chats With Henry Adams
Never before published, Frederic Bancroft’s diary jottings give an intimate picture of a great historian at his leisure
December 1955 | Volume 7, Issue 1
“I had often wished that I could get him to tell me about his own literary methods and points of view. Now I found it not at all difficult to draw him out. He said that he had found that what would make thirty or forty printed pages was about all his mind could turn over and put into proper shape at one time. As to whether he revised much, he answered: ‘I doubt if there is a chapter in my history that I have written less than four or five times.’”
Adams was away from Washington until January, 1911. Soon after his return he wrote Bancroft extending an invitation to lunch “when you feel yourself bored and wish to get away. …”
“For twenty minutes,” Bancroft recorded, “we talked about ailments and their oddities. He said that he had had several which left him after a time. He was less odd than usual in his opinions, but still odd in many of them. He seemed much fuller in the face than last Spring. His eyes seemed to be much inflamed or were very red where the eye lashes grow. John Quincy Adams’ were said to be the same.
“He said that few long histories were worth reading fully; that Gibbon was the great exception and that he had re-read it when he had found himself under favorable circumstances. It was the greatest picture of a thousand years and very concise, in comparison with present day writing.
“The luncheon was announced at precisely 12 and we were alone. We had: milk soup, wild duck, rice, peas, sweet potatoes, apple pie, nuts, chocolate creams and coffee. Water was the beverage and he drank two or three glasses but ate lightly.
“When we took up the Civil War, it was evident that his memory was clear enough as to the things which he had known well. … Something—perhaps my question as to whether anyone could have avoided the War—caused Henry Adams to remark: ‘It is there that I disagree with my brother Charles and Theodore Roosevelt. I think that Lee should have been hanged. It was all the worse that he was a good man and a fine character and acted conscientiously. These facts have nothing to do with the case and should not have been allowed to interfere with just penalties. It’s always the good men who do the most harm in the world. Lee and Davis were both good men but were different from nearly all the others and were almost Puritan in their goodness. It was undoubtedly the women of Lee’s family who influenced Lee. Lee’s daughter is still bitter.’ When I led in conversation Adams did not seem to be familiar with my points. … He seemed rather indifferent to new points in my opinions and probably cared but little for his own. …
“We were at table just an hour. I remained ten minutes longer. Adams’ manners are odd as nearly all say. I stood up for a minute or two after luncheon, thinking that he would suggest that I take a seat or give some sign as to his wishes. It was indifferent to him what I might do, just as it was as to where I should sit at the table. I had waited to be told, but he merely said, ‘Sit wherever you wish.’”
Adams was in Washington for the next four months but Bancroft, although infrequently encountering him at the home of Charles Francis Adams, Jr., did not have an occasion to talk to him. On a bright warm morning in April, 1911, remembering that Adams had given him an invitation to call on him any time, Bancroft strolled to 1607 H Street and rang the bell.
“I found by inquiry that he had no company, was not specially busy and that it would be all right to stop. I found him at his desk where he seems always to be sitting. In his quaint way, which could be disconcerting if one were not familiar with it, he looked up without any special cordiality even of facial expression and remarked: ‘You interrupt me right in the midst of my being engaged in a very annoying business; I am paying my taxes.’ By that time I was near the chair where one is expected to sit. He then got up and slowly offered me his hand, and sat down. Understanding his humor I expressed my regret that my interruption could not be so permanent as entirely to cut off the necessity for his completing his task. He smiled and then began with one of his quaint and always interesting monologues, about in these words, although I can only give the gist:
“ ‘It is a most outrageous and barbarous system of taxation which the government has. Every year it comes and tacks on a little more and expects one to come down and swear if the levy is not correct. It is all a system of robbery. It proceeds upon the theory that somehow I am a party to a contract to allow it to rob me as it sees fit. I have nothing to do with it; I have never entered into such a contract and wish that the government would take what it pleases and let me alone. Then I would draw my check and that would be the end of it. One morning a year I devote to my taxes and this is the morning.’
“I recalled Thoreau’s theory that the greatest luxury in life was to have one’s entire freedom, and to be so situated that when one needed a few articles or a little money to pay for one’s board one might stop and work in someone’s garden or do an odd job. My intention was to add a humorous touch … but I soon perceived that to this aristocrat, living in luxury and having a surplus at that, there was nothing humorous in Thoreau’s conception of life. So I discreetly abandoned my little fancy. In due time, Henry Adams continued his monologue without being diverted.