The Virgin And The Carburetor


Although not even the absence of pain brought him much pleasure, Adams nevertheless gave the automobile its due when it ran “like a bird.” A “victim” of his Mercedes, he “ravaged” France, sixty miles before breakfast, ninety in the afternoon stint, hunting stained-glass windows “like hares.” He stayed at Chartres, Bourges, and Le Mans, and he dashed from Quimper to Troyes and Vézelay. At Beauvais, Gisors, and Les Andelys, “the quantity of 16th century glass is amazing, and much of it very fine indeed. The auto,” he admitted, “brings it within reach. I should never have had the patience to hunt it by rail.” Other out-of-the-way places included Brie-Comte-Robert (“beautiful Rose there, which is best 13th century”), Etampes (“a favorite clocher and flèche there”), and St.-Sulpice-de-Faviere (for “its vitrail of St. Louis and the charming church it is in”). Of the Abbey Cerisy-la-Foret and St.-Pierresur-Dives, Adams wrote, “I was repaid for all my sufferings of travel by seeing these two things which complete my 12th century pilgrimages.”

He describes “the sense of going —going—going in the open air” inducing “a sort of hypnotism or mental lethargy with swift visions of landscape and escape.”

Early on Adams also discovered the social uses of his automobile. Although the prospect of taking a New York society woman sight-seeing filled his “fragmentary remnants of heart” with “dismay and terror,” he liked to play the role of learned host to friends and even Parisian friends of friends. “The town of Montfort, which is one of the most interesting about Paris, is quite unknown to Parisians, and I acted as lord and seigneur de Montfort, as though they were Albigensians and I were old Simon.” This particular excursion was a total success, nature and machine cooperating: “It was a beautiful fresh June morning, with the poppies out and the wild roses. We did not run very fast (50 kilometres in 100 minutes), but beautifully steady, and the roads were clear and clean.” Summing up, he wrote: “The auto behaved like an angel that day, and paid its board liberally, but for the last six weeks I have certainly made it useful, and have no right to abuse it. Probably none of my company thinks twice of it or of me, and I don’t want them to, if they are too busy; but it has, as a mode of entertaining, the advantage, of giving as much,—or more,—pleasure to the entertainer as to the guests. I enjoy taking people about, without having to talk at 60 kilomètres.”

Written when automobiling was a fresh experience, Adams’s letters convey the novelty of the sensation. “I find that a gait of about 25 miles an hour on a straight country road hypnotises me as a chalk line does a hen. It becomes a hazy consciousness; a sort of dream without characters.” Elsewhere he describes “the sense of going—going—going—in the open air” inducing “a sort of hypnotism or mental lethargy with swift visions of landscape and escape.” For himself, “only a moderate speed is necessary for this purpose. … Other people require fifty and sixty to hypnotise them, and I know one man, affected with locomotor, who needs all his machine of 90 h.p. can be made to give.”

We can trace in adams’s reports a new vocabulary and consciousness in the making. “The questions of the day” were “how water gets into the essence , and sand into the carburetter, and nails into the pneus .” Automobile imagery began to permeate Adams’s style in both personal and political remarks: “The days rattle off like old automobiles.” A friend who doesn’t write “seems to think herself a species of automobile, not obliged to report her number.” A socially adept acquaintance was “a deep and pneumatic study. She reminded me of my auto . When she took me up, she carried me like a feather.” He likens Theodore Roosevelt, Czar Nicholas, and Kaiser Wilhelm to chauffeurs: they are “a gay Trinity to run the machinery of an incomprehensible future. What would induce you to hire either one of the three to drive you in your, or my, automobile?”

The letters also reflect the increasing popularity of the auto and its impact. In 1905: “Autos are like flies. Everyone has a new make.” A restaurant he frequented at Versailles “was inundated with automobiles and refused to engage me a table.” In 1906: “The tourist season has become impossible. At every centre, like Tours, Reims, Beauvais, Rouen and so forth, you find from twenty to forty automobiles every night at the only good hotel.”