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The Virgin And The Carburetor
When Henry Adams sought the medieval world in an automobile, this stuffiest of prophets became the first American to sing of the liberating force later celebrated by Jack Kerouac and the Beach Boys
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
In one way, going in for modern miracles of transportation was a surprising development in Adams’s life, given his acute sense of the discontinuity between his infancy and the present: “Out of a mediaeval, primitive, crawling infant of 1838, to find oneself a howling, steaming, exploding, Marconing, radiummating automobiling maniac of 1904 exceeds belief.” On the other hand, from his early studies of the geology of Sir Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin to his struggles in old age to grasp the physics of James Clerk Maxwell and Lord Kelvin, he was fascinated by the latest developments in science and technology. He took up bicycling (“or is it bicicling or byecyecling?”) when it became a fad. He followed the airplane experiments of his friend Samuel Langley and crossed the Atlantic at his first opportunity on the new turbine steamers, marveling at their speed, size, and comfort. Prone to severe seasickness, he did not feel nostalgia for the side-wheel steamers of his youth. When the auto likewise promised to offer a more convenient, flexible means of travel, Adams adopted it. “Just as I travel by rail or on an electric tram, I travel on an auto.” To another correspondent he justified it as the thing to do: “Wearily I pick myself up and mount the popular machine of the day. … Whatever happens, I must die at the head of the menagerie. … One might as well lead the way as drown in the ruck.”
Not even his fear of driving, which he expressed with typical hyperbole, kept him from going full throttle: “My eighty-nine years leap like baby kangeroos at the fright. My relief at getting out of the torture-instrument is a pleasure such as only real cowards can feel. The cruder joys of getting licked by bigger boys in childhood were nothing to it. Getting kicked by a horse was almost as pure a pleasure, but the possibilities of mutilation are greater and more varied. I hold the auto to be made for senile gangrene, and have bought one.” He decided, however, that he was too old to drive himself. His chauffeur, or rather mécanicien , consented “to go slow on crowded streets,” but keeping him occupied every day proved a burden.
“Of course my life is now autonomous with slavery,” he wrote on July 3, 1904. “I am waiting for my number, but went out yesterday [to Meaux]. I had only one contravention and half a dozen pannes [breakdowns]. ‘ Pression ’ wrong. Various dozen additions have to be made before going far; such as lamps in order, baskets, extra pneus [tires] attached, &c. About a fortnight will be necessary. My stock of profanity is greatly exercised. At noon I am going to lunch at Versailles; but tomorrow and Tuesday the machine will be at the shops.” In late July he finally got his registration number, but he discovered the auto had to go back to the “shops” after every outing. It could be counted on “about every other day.” He did not use it in Paris “unless absolutely necessary. … I treat it like a Worth gown, to be very carefully worn.” After three days in early August of “flying across the country like a mad flea,” he concluded: “As an amusement, it is amusing, but I prefer not to depend on it to travel. It combines most of the worst forms of discomfort. Its only strong point is economy. It occupies all one’s time, and one spends money on nothing else. A thousand francs goes a long way in running it; while two thousand francs hardly pays [for] one item at Mme Lanweil’s or Audrain’s [antiques dealers].”
Even when the “mushine” was in working order, comfort and mobility depended on the weather. Not having sides or hoods, “autos are like Phaëtons, and need sun, but not too much.” A run from St.-Quentin to Chantilly “was still pretty, though burning up under the long sun. Nearer Paris, along the Oise and Seine and forest of St Germain, the dust was dense and intolerable.” In April and early May 1905, it was too cold to go out in the auto. Adams concluded a gloomy letter to his friend John Hay: “This comes of brooding in a Paris attic over a useless automobile in a glacial epoch.” An excursion on August 4, 1904, turned into a biblical scourge. He was returning to Versailles from Fontainebleau in ninetydegree heat, when at four-twenty “at Villeneuve, the meanest place about Paris, our new pneu gave way, my third in two days. Probably the heat of the road, and sixty kilometers an hour, did it; but we had another half hour on the pavement.” At about six-forty, within ten minutes of Versailles, “we ran into a howling deluge. We had just time to get our water-proofs on; but nothing protects against such wind and water. We simply went through it and it through us. I was glad the machine had no hood [top], for it would have been an extra danger.” The mishaps did not end there. Flooding and breakdowns beleaguered Adams’s return from Versailles all the way to his Paris apartment. Safe at last, he concluded: “These are the triumphs of civilisation. All I can say is that, in spite of heat, delays, floods and tempest, at least I was not bored.”