The nearly lifelong friendship of Henry Adams and Henry James, both now accepted as writers of towening stature, was one of the most engaging yet contrary relationships in our literary history. And to experience it—in the correspondence that George Monteiro has now splendidly edited—is to come to know what Adams called the “type bourgeois-bostonien.” In old age Adams had nothing but disdain for the achievements of this type—himself, James, William Wetmore Ston, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, Bronson Alcott, and James Russell Lowell. All of us, he told James in 1903, “were in actual fact only one mind and nature; the individual was a facet of Boston. We knew each other to the last nervous centre, and feared each other’s knowledge.” What they knew, Adams thought, was that Harvard and Unitarianism had kept them shallow; and out of this Boston matrix had arisen their profound ignorance, their introspective self-distrust, and the nervous self-consciousness that vitiated them all.
Of course, Henry James did everything possible to avoid being thought a bourgeois Bostonian, as his satirical novel The Bostonians (1886) makes plain. To Adams, the expatriate James was impersonating, in his straitened way, the bearing of an English earl; yet he produced a library of brilliant fiction that beggars most other Boston literary accomplishments—Adams’s excepted.
James had known Adams’s wife. Clover Hooper, before he knew Adams, and after their marriage, whenever he visited Washington or they London, he settled m at their hearth for what was perhaps the best conversation in town. Clover thought James made too free with their hospitality. She told her father in 1880 that “Mr. James . . . comes in every day at dusk & sits by our fire but is a frivolous being dining out nightly, tomorrow being an off night he has invited himself to dine with us.” Invariably they argued about the merits of life in America versus Europe. The Adamses, James told Sir John Clark, “don’t pretend to conceal (as why should they?) their preference of America to Europe, and they rather rub it in to me, as they think it a wholesome discipline for my demoralized spirit.” Yet their aversion to Europe, he thought, was invidious: “One excellent reason for their liking Washington better than London is that they are, vulgarly speaking, ‘someone’ here, and that they are nothing in your complicated kingdom.”
Yet James was enchanted with “Clover Adamses.” Clover was bright, witty, and irreverent; she secured to James “the incarnation” of his native land. Compared to Englishwomen, she was “a perfect Voltaire in petticoats.” She liked James but made it plain to the novelist that he was spending too much time in Europe. And she said about The Portrait of a Lady that, while there were nice things in it, she preferred the “big bow-wow style.” She told her father that “It’s not that [James] ‘bites off more than he can chaw,’ . . . but he chaws more than he bites off.”
Henry Adams’s literary accomplishments, in his several histories, the novels Democracy (1880), Esther (1884), and The Education (1907), put the two writers on an equal footing. But how different they were! While James found Adams’s “monotonous disappointed pessimism” difficult to take, Adams (descended from a line of Presidents) was what James confessed he would like to be: “a man of wealth and leisure, able to satisfy all his curiosities, while I am a penniless toiler.” As James toiled along, creating lords and ladies in The Princess Casamassima (1886), The Wings of the Dove (1902), and other works, the brooding Adams thought James was pretending “to belong to a world which is as extinct as Queen Elizabeth” and “already as fossil as the buffalo.”
The suicide of Clover Adams in 1885 devastated them both. But, paradoxically, as the years passed, their solitude drew James and Adams closer together—especially as, over the years, their mutual friends died off. In 1915 Adams wrote to Elizabeth Cameron that “At about three in the morning I wobble all over the supposed universe. A little indigestion starts whole flocks of strange images, and then I wonder what Henry James is thinking about, as he is my last standard of comparison.”
A basis for comparing these two writers of genius, who felt neglected in old age, is suggested by Adams’s response to James’s autobiography, Notes of a Son and Brother (1914), published when both were in their 70’s. Adams told Mrs. Cameron that “Poor Henry James thinks it all real, I believe, and actually still lives in that dreamy, stuffy Newport and Cambridge, with papa James and Charles Norton—and me! Yet why? It is a terrible dream, but not so weird as this here which is quite loony.” He must have expostulated to James in a similar vein in a letter no longer extant. James answered him on March 21, 1914, with, in my view, a magisterial statement of why he and perhaps every other artist creates. James acknowledged the “unmitigated blackness” of Adams’s state of mind: “Of course we are lone survivors, of course the past that was our lives is at the bottom of an abyss—if the abyss has any bottom; of course too there’s no use talking unless one particularly wants to.” But, James went on to say. “I still find my consciousness interesting,” and he urged Adams to cultivate the same within himself:
You sec I still, in presence of life (or of what you deny to be such), have reactions—as many as possible —& the book I sent you is a proof of them. It’s because I am that queer monster the artist, an obstinate finality, an inexhaustible sensibility. Hence the reactions—appearances, memories, many things go on playing upon it with consequences that I note & “enjoy” (grim word!) noting. It all takes doing—& I do. I believe I shall do yet again—it is still an act of life.
James, then, wouldn’t hear of Adams’s throwing in the towel. He had the generosity and acuity to remind Adams that, despite his avowed nihilism, he continued to perform these acts of life himself—in his distinctive letters, essays, and books. Unfortunately, many of their brilliant and cantankerous letters have not survived. James destroyed most of the correspondence he received in a huge bonfire late in life (people valued privacy then); and Adams destroyed Clover’s letters shortly after her death. But these mere 56 letters—29 by James, seven by Adams—are still suggestive testaments of genius, and editor Monteiro has superbly introduced and annotated them so that the whole relationship is nicely condensed in this tender and acerbic but very valuable little collection.
[The Correspondence of Henry James and Henry Adams: 1877-1914, edited by George Monteiro (Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press) 107 pp., $20.00]
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