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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
“He supposed that the absurd theory of a social contract was the logical result of the old orthodox church, that there was a contract between God and man, and that man should bear certain obligations and lead a life in harmony with the divine contract. As for himself he was an anarchist; he avowed it openly and wished that he might be let alone. The State was a robber without conscience or reason and particularly absurd and illogical in its methods.
“This was all thoroughly characteristic in its burlesque humor. He loves to speak in paradoxes and indulge in these fancies. One of his favorite theories maintains that Chinese civilization is the highest the world has ever known. I think I have never heard this from him, but one or two others have mentioned it. His monologues of this kind are of course only jeu d’esprit.
“Just about this time breakfast was announced. Fearing lest he might not care for company I got up to go; but he remarked, ‘No, no; stay to breakfast of course. My friends always come so that we may talk at breakfast.’
“According to my notions, he lives in the most perfect but not the greatest luxury that I have anywhere seen. There was not a sign of display, but everything is rich, artistic and in perfect taste. There was a large bouquet of flowers on the table and a vase of gorgeous American beauty roses on a stand at one side of the dining room. …
“The subject of robbery and confiscation suggested to me to ask Mr. Adams’ opinion about the policy of the French government in relation to the Catholic church, as he lives in Paris more than half of each year. It was the first step in the policy of the socialists to get possession of property. … He laughed in his very unemphatic way—which might be described as an audible smile—and said that the next step for the socialists was to get the property of the Bourgeoisie.… He was altogether opposed to the socialistic scheme, for it was thoroughly apparent where it was to lead.”
Adams seemed in an unusually talkative mood and Bancroft, always eager to hear his opinions, introduced one subject after another. Adams predicted “that there was no resisting Germany if she pursued her course carefully and awaited her opportunities,” and discussed the career of Alexander Hamilton.
“We left that subject and also the table at about the same time. He asked me if I smoked and pointed to the cigars and cigarettes on a polished table and told me to help myself, which I did. He seems not to smoke.
“I inquired about his eyes, which I noticed were considerably inflamed. … ‘O! I have very agreeable conversations with Dr. Wilmer, occasionally, but I do not know whether he has found out what is the matter with my eyes, if anything. I used to be bothered a great deal with rheumatism or gout, and perhaps this is only the result of my indigestion, or my rheumatism may be working out through my eyes. What I need is to find a physician for my brain. My mind is all going to the dogs and wandering about the streets. I have long been expecting that I should suddenly find that it was out of working order and that I should go walking about aimlessly or be knocked down by a truck or fall in an apoplectic attack. Something like that is of course the usual order of things and we should expect it, although we should like to avoid it if possible.’
“I have long been waiting for a good opportunity to ask him to let me read his autobiography, which he calls The Education of Henry Adams. It is two or three years since I first heard of printed copies being in the hands of some of his friends. He does not give away the copies but lends them with the request that they be returned with criticisms. He exclaimed, ‘I supposed that I had given you a copy.’ Then he looked about in the drawers of his writing desk and drew out a large quarto volume with the remark that this was the only one he had at hand, and it was his own copy in which he had made some notes, but I was very welcome to take it; and he put it down on the table before me. … He stated that his condition in lending a copy was that each reader should contribute at least one marginal criticism. As a rule he had found it difficult to get criticisms. …
“As we were coming down the stairs I made some remark about the luxury of being able to have one’s book printed privately. He said that he had made up his mind never to give another dollar to publishers; that having his books printed this way was a form of indulgence which he could afford because he had no other expensive vices to spend his surplus on—not caring for drinking or cards or women. Then his few words about publishers indicated clearly that he had anything but a high opinion of them. ‘I will have nothing to do with them or their ways; I have resolved never to give them another dollar because I think they are a bad lot; all except one—and I always decline to name that one,’ he added with a slight chuckle.”
During the next three years, Bancroft saw Adams occasionally and continued to record his conversations. In May, 1914, while vacationing in Europe, he traveled to Paris where he found Adams “thoroughly convinced that the war soon would be general.” Adams was 74 then and no mellower for the passage of years. He complained, as Bancroft faithfully recorded, “about how inconsiderate it was of the nations of Europe to disturb his peace.”