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The Virgin And The Carburetor

June 2024
12min read

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

Test-driving automobiles, Henry Adams discovered in June 1904, was “shattering to one’s nerves.” Trying out a Hotchkiss for purchase “scared my hair green. Truly it is a new world that I live in,” he continued, “though its spots are old. … The pace we go is quite vertiginous. Only men under forty are fit for it.” He was sixty-six, born in Boston in 1838, when railroads were replacing canals. Shortly before his death in 1918, with airplanes performing loops above his Washington house, he found himself “in a new universe of winged bipeds.” The grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great-grandson of John Adams, he grew up, as he wrote in his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams , not doubting that “a system of society which had lasted since Adam would outlast one Adams more.” The family tradition of statesmanship foundered, however, in the morass of late-nineteenth-century politics. In the fourth generation not one of the Adamses achieved political distinction. Henry Adams portrayed himself in the Education as a failure, unfit by heritage and training to cope with the rapid changes of his time. From childhood he felt called upon to uphold the family name; as a young man he dreamed of exerting national leadership, “not only in politics, but in literature, in law, in society, and throughout the whole social organism of the country. A national school of our own generation.” That dream was not realized, but his achievements as a historian, social critic, and literary artist have secured him a place next to Henry James and Mark Twain among the American authors of his generation.

Wanting to see cathedrals in remote places, Adams took the plunge in July 1904 and bought the automobile of kings and Rothschilds, a Mercedes.

Adams’s chronicle of his automobiling adventures in his letters, mainly from 1901 to 1907, not only gives an amusing view of the rigors of motoring at its dawn but adds a dimension to the two cultural symbols for which the author is most celebrated: the dynamo and the Virgin. These he expounded most fully in Mont-SaintMichel and Chartres (1904) and the Education (1907). In his earlier works, from his shrewd political novel Democracy (1880) to his masterly ninevolume History of the United States (1885–91), he probed soft spots in the American democratic system. The gold crisis of 1893 helped convince him that that system was rotten. A self-styled “professional wanderer” searching in time and space for the true way, he increasingly came to believe that modern industrial society was on a suicide track. His idea of the Virgin was one response to alienation. A tour of Norman churches in 1895 kindling his passion for medieval art, he conceived of the thirteenth century as unified through the spiritual force of the Virgin. The dynamo, the soulless multiplicity of his own age, he extrapolated from his encounter with the great generators at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Adams’s affair with the auto involves both notions: the state-of-the-art machine in the service of visits to the Virgin’s medieval domains.

Adams, who began in 1899 to live half of each year in Paris, was on the scene when the automobile arrived. At the turn of the century, Paris was the auto capital of Europe. The first of the national automobile clubs was founded there in 1895, which was also the year of the first long-distance race, from Paris to Bordeaux and back. Taken up initially by sportsmen, the auto rapidly became more generally the plaything of the rich. Until about 1905 motoring was a diversion, amusing and infuriating, but not a serious means of transportation.

“The machine is altogether too uncertain for a time engagement. The simple, archaic mule is far superior in that respect. He will, if he likes, get you to dinner. The auto will not.” This was Adams’s report on his first auto, which he ran briefly in the summer of 1901 and which he “abandoned” because it “abandoned” him whenever he used it. “I must either have a big racing machine of twenty horsepower, or not try to leave Paris. Eight-horse power is not nearly enough.” He experimented with an electric model in 1903 that proved useful for errands and airings in Paris —on one occasion he packed into it “three babies, two nurses and one mother—but operating on batteries that had to be frequently recharged, it was limited to city use. Wanting to see cathedrals in remote places, Adams took the plunge in July 1904 and bought the automobile of kings and Rothschilds, a Mercedes.

The irony that the worshiper of the creative power of the Virgin would be propelled over country roads by an eighteen-horsepower dynamo did not escape him. “I buy it in order that I may live at peace in the twelfth-century, and go to church regularly in a romanesque cathedral every Sunday, and on the Virgin’s fêtes . To get to Chartres, or from it, without a miracle would do no one any good. I am sure the Virgin will like to be with me. It’s just the sort of thing she most enjoyed. You are probably too modern for it. One has to be exceedingly firstcrusade to feel an auto deeply. The Archangels alone ran them then, but they ran them hard.”

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.”

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.”

“My one solid comfort,” Adams declared in May 1908, “is to have got rid of my automobile.” Disposal of the serious problems created by the automobile, which “has exploded all our nineteenth century commodities,” would not be that simple. “Our roads are little more than the old mule-tracks of the Romans. Every great city is now constructing a three-tier system: —underground; ground-level; and high-level, electric railways; and already this is insufficient.” At least in France there were good roads. “In America,” Adams wrote, “we must create them.” Moreover, “in the face of mechanical, rapid transport,—the automobile,—society has totally broken down everywhere. The roads in the country need quadrupling. In cities—like New York, the problem seems insoluble”: proper roads there would cost “some thousands of millions.” Yet, replying to an English friend who had written him about road problems in Yorkshire, Adams offered what seems to us now a futuristic solution: “the tier road. Widening will not serve. You must have tiers: —two—three—four—five, or as many as you please. The automobile must have its own roads, not on grade. … For a country like Yorkshire, one such tier road, to take off some of the most dangerous pressure, is not a violent proposal. Two, crossing the city at the angles of incidence (of traffic) would not be unmanageable. The cost ought to be figurable to a shilling. The railways have done it for half a century. With an iron-pier elevated road for mechanical transport—still more with two, running transversely over the main highways,—Yorkshire would lead the world.”

The environmental problem also concerned Adams. “On the whole, the devil is fairly harmless except in the mechanical business. Cities are now growing uninhabitable everywhere. The noise and wear are impossible. Paris is as bad as any. New York is already abandoned by everyone who can escape.” This in response to his correspondent’s complaint about the ruination of London motor omnibuses, “cracking ceilings and drowning conversation, & depreciating property.” Adams had similar doubts when he watched a trial flight of the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1906. “If he succeeds today, as I think he will, we had better all expire at once. Life will be impossible in the country as it now is in the city.”

Adams speculated that “this running fifty-million horsepower night and day, winter and summer, at rapidly growing velocities, must end in running infinite power at infinite velocity in a given number of years, or exhausting the power itself. … we have upset the equilibrium of nature, and … nature has got to turn on us, as it does in every explosion, combustion or disease. Logically the planet itself should at last explode or burn up.” His personal solution was to “fall back on my twelfth century and worship the Virgin. Sometimes I think this the most logical thing man ever did. Certainly it was the most sympathetic.”

Adams’s conclusion: “The power we develop is too great for our minds to direct. A pneu bursts, and we go into a wall.”

Despite his apocalyptic prophecies, Adams was devastated when his nightmares came true in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic . He was booked to sail for Europe on April 20, on its return voyage. “Society sees for the first time a glimpse of itself running on its ice-berg. … The whole fabric of the nineteenth century is foundering and all our friends with it. … Only in history as a fairy tale, does one like to see civilisation founder, and to hear the cries of the drowning. …The sum and triumph of civilisation, guaranteed to be safe and perfect, our greatest achievement, sinks at a touch, and drowns us, while nature jeers at us for our folly.”

Ten days after the sinking, on April 24, his nerves strained by the catastrophe, Adams suffered a stroke. Recovering surprisingly well, he was able to return to France in 1913. He and his companions spent the summer of 1914 at the Château de Coubertin in the Cheuvreuse Valley, which they explored in a hired automobile, “running about from Bon Bon [Château de Bombon] to Chartres, and losing ourselves in mazes of roads.” But the outbreak of war in August brought an end to their touring. The bells calling up reservists, in the Adams biographer Ernest Samuels’s words, “were sounding the end of the world; it was the final Q.E.D. of all his demonstrations.” “We are done, —my civilisation and I,” he wrote from Washington in November of 1914.

Adams’s automobile adventures were over. In his last years he went for a drive every morning with Aileen Tone, his “adopted” niece and companion, in a victoria (a horse-drawn carriage so called after the queen) to Rock Creek Park, where they would then walk “far out into the dense briars and pines.” His evening bastion against the dynamo was listening to Aileen Tone singing medieval songs. Châtelain, Vidame, and Conon, the trouvères, he had said in 1914, “keep me alive. They can always talk and say something to the purpose.” Otherwise “the whole show is—what do they call it now, a movie?”

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