In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951-1990

By Marcus Cunliffe | Go to book overview

15
What Was the Matter with Henry Adams?

This was done as a review for Commentary, to which I used to contribute in the 1960s, of Ernest Samuels's three-volume biography of Adams. A one- volume condensation of the Samuels biography has subsequently appeared. A few afterthoughts and details on more recent material on the Adamses are provided in the postscript to this piece.

Like a half-buried former civilization -- famous, extensive, and perplexing -- the Adams family is being uncovered for us. The evolution from generation to generation is made clearer, and the factors that link each. John begat John Quincy who begat Charles Francis who begat Henry. The papers of the first three are coming out in handsome amplitude. "Think of your forefathers! Think of your posterity!" was John Quincy Adams's injunction. They force us to do so -- to involve ourselves in their central yet idiosyncratic chronicle. They meet us halfway, for all Adamses had an eye to posterity.

Henry of the fourth generation has especially engrossed us, because he is the most interesting and tantalizing of the lot. There have been half a dozen books about him in the last decade or so, including the very good ones by William H. Jordy and J. C. Levenson. Max Baym has discussed his French interests, Henry Wasser his scientific notions. Edward N. Saveth has examined yet other aspects. But the most complete record is the trilogy by Ernest Samuels, a solid and admirable achievement which tells us as much about Henry Adams's inner and

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