From a Front Boxnby James W. TuttletonnHenry Adams: Selected LettersnEdited by Ernest SamuelsnCambridge: Harvard University Press;n612 pp., $29.95nOnly the most devoted students ofnHenry Adams are likely to havenbought and read the six-volume CompletenLetters that Harvard University Press producednbetween 1982 and 1988. More’snthe pity, since it was an excellent work ofnscholarship disclosing an American epistolarynartist of the highest order. But theneditor and biographer, Ernest Samuels,nhas now given us a manageable one-volumenselection of 240 letters spanningnthe 60-year period from 1858-1918 Andnwhat a collection it is—nearly every onena gem.nAdams’s correspondents included hisnfamous family, of course, but many othernrecipients likewise had a recognizednplace in the literary, political, scientific,nand social life of his time—includingnCharles Eliot Norton, Charles MilnesnCaskell, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay,nOliver Wendell Holmes, Charies W. Eliot,nWilliam and Henry James, ElizabethnCameron, and Theodore Roosevelt. Butneven if some of the recipients were notnthemselves luminaries of the great world,nAdams’s letters are so full of shrewd andnentertaining comments on important personalitiesnand developments iri his timenthat we cannot do without a single onenof them. And, needless to say, thencollection offers an unfolding autobiography,nof sorts, of one of the most brilliantnand complicated men of his time.nDescending as he did from a line ofnAmerican Presidents, Henry Adams expectednthat his father. CongressmannCharies Francis Adams, would likewise ascendnto the White House. And whoncould doubt that he himself might in duencourse follow? The theme of The Educationnof Henry Adams, privately publishednin 1907, was to be the failure of his educationnin politics, law, science, literature,nand society to prepare him for the life ofnhis time. But in 1858, at age 20, he wrotenREVIEWSnto his brother that he had “a theory thatnan educated and reasonably able man cannmake his mark if he chooses…. But if Inknow myself, 1 can’t fail.” The familynchaffed with him about a life in politics;nand he chaffed back in telling his mothernin 1860 that “As for having the Tresidency’nin view I hardly think it’s desirablenwith the present occupant’s fate beforenone’s eyes [a hostile Congress was investigatingnPresident Buchanan’s ‘abuse’nof federal patronage]; 1 aspire to the leadershipnin the lower House and the Departments.”nYet he knew himself to benmost adapted to “literary pursuits,” andngiven his family’s importance, he decidednat the beginning that what he had to writenwould have historical significance. In ann1860 letter to his brother—written fromnWashington, where he was serving as privatensecretary to his father—he remarks:n1 propose to write you this winterna series of private letters to shownhow things look. I faidy confessnthat I want to have a record of thisnwinter on file, and though I havenno ambition nor hope to becomena Horace Walpole, I still wouldnlike to think that a century or twonhence when everything else aboutnus is forgotten, my letters mightnstill be read and quoted as anmemorial of manners and habitsnat the time of the great secessionnof 1860. At the same time younwill be glad to hear all the gossipnand to me it will supply the placenof a Journal.nThe allusion to Walpole is not insignificant.nTaken together, Adams’s neadyn3,000 letters are the mirror of his age, ancompendium of gossip, and the equivalentnof a journal recording his impressionsnof friends and family, political and socialndevelopments, travels, and travails. Becausenhe expected them to be published,nthe letters of this child of the Puritans arennot as intimate as those of other writersnlike James Joyce or Henry James. Butnreading between the lines—in the lightnof others’ memoirs. The Education, his histories,nand the novels Democracy and Esther—Adams’snaccount of political life innnnthe London embassy during the CivilnWar, of his wife’s social brilliance innCrant’s Washington, of his South Seantravels, of his long platonic widower’snrelationship with Elizabeth Cameron (thenwife of a senator)—these give the volumena deeply personal as well as historicalndimension.nWhat is surprising to discover is thatnthe famous irony and self-deprecationnwere there from the very beginning. Inn1863 he tells his brother Charies Francisnthat all of his readings in science and philosophynconfirm his belief in “our own impotencenand ignorance. In this amusement,nI find, if not consolation, at leastnsome sort of mental titillation.” Later henresponds to William James’s argument fornfree will by remarking to him that “A fewnhundred men represent the entire intellectualnactivity of the whole thirteennhundred million. What then? . . . Notnone of them has ever got so far as tontell us a single vital fact worth knowing.nWe can’t prove even that we are.”nAfter his beloved wife Clover committednsuicide in 1885, Adams was thereafternsilent about the matter. He toldnLord Curzon in 1906 that “I cannot talknof her. . . . Some visions are too radiantnfor words. When they fade, they leave lifencoloriess. I do not understand how wenbear such suffering as we do when we losenthem; but we have to be silent, for no expressionnapproaches the pain.” Adamsnthereafter launched on worldwide wanderings.nHis letters to Elizabeth Cameronnare rich in descriptions, reflections, andnobservations about the South Seas, Europeannsociety, and American life beyondnthe muddy Beltway. Wealthy andnfamous, he was always the object ofnmatchmakers, but as he told Lucy Baxternin 1890,nYou all abominate second marriages,nyet you all conspire tonbring them about. I receive admonitionsnconstantly on the subject,nand am aware that mynfriends take an active interest innselecting a victim to sacrifice tonmy selfishness. I do not care toninterfere with their search. Mynonly precaution is to show a pro-nJUNE 1992/35n