February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Edited by Ernest Samuels; Harvard University Press; 612 pages.
In the period that could be described as the golden age of American letters, which rose with the Industrial Revolution and fell with the advent of television, America was blessed with being home to a species of literary animal that now seems all but extinct: the man of letters. The giants among them were men like Emerson, Howells, Holmes, Cowley, Seldes, Wilson, and, of course, Henry Adams.
These selected letters, first published in The Complete Letters of Henry Adams in six massive volumes by Harvard in the early 1980s and now edited by his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Ernest Samuels, reveal Adams’s personality as he matures from highminded Harvard graduate trying to determine what course he should set for his life to benevolent Washington sage indulging his many pretty nieces and “wish-nieces” and warning of the coming demise of civilization.
For most modern readers, perusing the letters of a past age is a humbling experience. Yet so many of the concerns that Adams’s letters voice echo our own. As Class Day Orator at his graduation from Harvard in 1858, the young Adams spoke out against the dangers of the materialism and commercialism corrupting the morality of the nation. What modern college senior has not at some point shared these sentiments? And when Adams writes to his brother, Charles Francis, Jr., expressing his doubts over the wisdom of going into the law, he sounds like any other young man contemplating defying his father’s wishes. At one point he tells his brother why he has also decided against the priesthood: ”… if I were a better man, I might feel inclined to become a clergyman. But as I’m very much a worser man, we’ll count that out.”
It is hard not to be amused by Adams’s determination to find something to do with his life. He is full of the arrogance of inexperienced youth. “Of Atlantic Monthly and Putnam and Harper,” he wrote several years before deciding to make his name with his pen, “and the men who write for money in them, my opinion is short.”
The letters follow Adams on his frequent trips abroad, starting with his maiden voyage to Germany in 1858 where he intended to study German and law for two years and which began for him a lifetime love of travel. It was, however, only after his wife’s suicide in 1885 that Adams withdrew from any pretense of a daily job and devoted himself entirely to traveling, editing, and writing. Besides reporting on his perambulations the letters also chronicle his relationships with many of the great men of his age: John Hay, Theodore Roosevelt, and William and Henry James.
The most touching letters, though, are those that Adams wrote to the beautiful Mrs. Cameron, with whom he was to maintain an ardent, if platonic, relationship until the end of his life. These letters, more than any others, touchingly reveal the humorous, sad, and lonely man that Adams became. One of the great themes of his life was that society was inexorably changing for the worse, manipulated by forces it could not control. In one of his last letters, he gloomily states that the First World War “has swept our literary class out of existence and threatens to carry our whole leisure class after it.” Of course, what Adams really saw was not the death of civilization, but rather the death of men like himself.