Only the most devoted students of Henry Adams are likely to have bought and read the six-volume Complete Letters that Harvard University Press produced between 1982 and 1988. More’s the pity, since it was an excellent work of scholarship disclosing an American epistolary artist of the highest order. But the editor and biographer, Ernest Samuels, has now given us a manageable one-volume selection of 240 letters spanning the 60-year period from 1858-1918 And what a collection it is—nearly every one a gem.

Adams’s correspondents included his famous family, of course, but many other recipients likewise had a recognized place in the literary, political, scientific, and social life of his time—including Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Milnes Gaskell, Henry Cabot Lodge, John Hay, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles W. Eliot, William and Henry James, Elizabeth Cameron, and Theodore Roosevelt. But even if some of the recipients were not themselves luminaries of the great world, Adams’s letters are so full of shrewd and entertaining comments on important personalities and developments in his time that we cannot do without a single one of them. And, needless to say, the collection offers an unfolding autobiography, of sorts, of one of the most brilliant and complicated men of his time.

Descending as he did from a line of American Presidents, Henry Adams expected that his father. Congressman Charles Francis Adams, would likewise ascend to the White House. And who could doubt that he himself might in due course follow? The theme of The Education of Henry Adams, privately published in 1907, was to be the failure of his education in politics, law, science, literature, and society to prepare him for the life of his time. But in 1858, at age 20, he wrote to his brother that he had “a theory that an educated and reasonably able man can make his mark if he chooses. . . . But if I know myself, I can’t fail.” The family chaffed with him about a life in politics; and he chaffed back in telling his mother in 1860 that “As for having the Presidency in view I hardly think it’s desirable with the present occupant’s fate before one’s eyes [a hostile Congress was investigating President Buchanan’s ‘abuse’ of federal patronage]; I aspire to the leadership in the lower House and the Departments.” Yet he knew himself to be most adapted to “literary pursuits,” and given his family’s importance, he decided at the beginning that what he had to write would have historical significance. In an 1860 letter to his brother—written from Washington, where he was serving as private secretary to his father—he remarks:

I propose to write you this winter a series of private letters to show how things look. I fairly confess that I want to have a record of this winter on file, and though I have no ambition nor hope to become a Horace Walpole, I still would like to think that a century or two hence when everything else about us is forgotten, my letters might still be read and quoted as a memorial of manners and habits at the time of the great secession of 1860. At the same time you will be glad to hear all the gossip and to me it will supply the place of a Journal.

The allusion to Walpole is not insignificant. Taken together, Adams’s nearly 3,000 letters are the mirror of his age, a compendium of gossip, and the equivalent of a journal recording his impressions of friends and family, political and social developments, travels, and travails. Because he expected them to be published, the letters of this child of the Puritans are not as intimate as those of other writers like James Joyce or Henry James. But reading between the lines—in the light of others’ memoirs. The Education, his histories, and the novels Democracy and Esther—Adams’s account of political life in the London embassy during the Civil War, of his wife’s social brilliance in Grant’s Washington, of his South Sea travels, of his long platonic widower’s relationship with Elizabeth Cameron (the wife of a senator)—these give the volume a deeply personal as well as historical dimension.

What is surprising to discover is that the famous irony and self-deprecation were there from the very beginning. In 1863 he tells his brother Charles Francis that all of his readings in science and philosophy confirm his belief in “our own impotence and ignorance. In this amusement, I find, if not consolation, at least some sort of mental titillation.” Later he responds to William James’s argument for free will by remarking to him that “A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred million. What then? . . . Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can’t prove even that we are.”

After his beloved wife Clover committed suicide in 1885, Adams was thereafter silent about the matter. He told Lord Curzon in 1906 that “I cannot talk of her. . . . Some visions are too radiant for words. When they fade, they leave life colorless. I do not understand how we bear such suffering as we do when we lose them; but we have to be silent, for no expression approaches the pain.” Adams thereafter launched on worldwide wanderings. His letters to Elizabeth Cameron are rich in descriptions, reflections, and observations about the South Seas, European society, and American life beyond the muddy Beltway. Wealthy and famous, he was always the object of matchmakers, but as he told Lucy Baxter in 1890,

You all abominate second marriages, yet you all conspire to bring them about. I receive admonitions constantly on the subject, and am aware that my friends take an active interest in selecting a victim to sacrifice to my selfishness. I do not care to interfere with their search. My only precaution is to show a pronounced attachment to married women; so as to preclude any attachment that could cause a rumor or other ties. It would be useless and impossible to argue the matter, or to give reasons for preferring solitude soul to solitude à deux; but the reasons are sufficiently strong, and if I ever should act in a contrary sense, it would be because I should have begun to lose my will, and was in the first stages of imbecility. Just now my only wish is to escape from the dangers that remain in life with the least possible noise and suffering.

In fact, he called the period after 1885 his “posthumous” existence and never remarried.

It was doubtless a blow to Adams that the nation never drafted him for President by acclamation. Yet the letters to his friend John Hay, Secretary of State under Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, show his vicarious sense of political power and are rich in ruminations touching the imperial ambitions of Russia, Germany, France, and England. But with Hay’s death in 1905, he remarked that “I’ve no longer any concern in politics.” Gradually this historian sunk himself in the Middle Ages, so he prepared Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904). Still, as he told Anne Palmer Fell in 1901, “though I am glad to be through with it, and to have no more responsibility for the universe, I find it still very amusing to look at, from a front box. The spectacle does not lose its interest. Far from it! What a fascinating melodrama it is, when one has time to think; and what do the Kaiser and the Czar and Edward VII and Pierpont Morgan think of it? I presume that Marian can tell you, since she was born to it. As I was born in the year 1138, I don’t catch on.”

The Education was meant to focus what he thought of the meaningless spectacle of life in his time; and, to Henry James, he called the autobiography “a mere shield of protection in the grave. I advise you to take your own life in the same way, in order to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs.” However “suicidal” the writing of autobiography may be, the letters of Henry Adams give us the living man; and, for all the irritations of his continuous irony, he is well worth knowing in this correspondence.


[Henry Adams: Selected Letters, Edited by Ernest Samuels (Cambridge: Harvard University Press) 612 pp., $29.95]