The Virgin and the Carburetor

By Winner, Viola Hopkins | American Heritage, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

The Virgin and the Carburetor


Winner, Viola Hopkins, American Heritage


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.

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-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and the Education (1907). In his earlier works, from his shrewd political novel Democracy (1880) to his masterly nine-volume 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. …

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