Henry Adams’s letters are among the best in the language. They are, in Alfred Kazin’s words, “magnificent, his most spontaneous and freest literary works.” With the completion of this edition, they may well be judged his most significant achievement. “The letters are not a gloss on a life’s work; in a real sense they are his life’s work,” the reviewer for American Literature stated.
We encounter Adams in 1892 at a turning point in his career, at the beginning of the period in which his leading ideas would be crystallized and his major literary works take shape. He had survived the shock of his wife’s suicide and had completed his great History of the Jefferson era, and after his long journey in the South Seas his frustrated passion for Elizabeth Cameron had begun to calm. His wanderlust now took him to the Carolinas and the Rockies, to Mexico, Cuba, Egypt, the Near East, Greece, Italy, central Europe, Russia, and the North Cape. His interest came increasingly to center on the geopolitical present and the medieval past. Prompted by the Panic of 1893, he began an intensive study of the new finance capitalism and the imperial power it created; by the end of the decade he was beginning to foresee the shift of global dominance from Britain to the United States and Russia. Meanwhile a tour of the churches and abbeys of Normandy fired his imagination and led to the absorption in the art and culture of medieval France that would bear fruit in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.
At his home on Lafayette Square, across from the White House, he became an informal adviser to statesmen, John Hay and Theodore Roosevelt among them. Out of his friendly association with scientists and his own study of science came his conviction that the dynamo and radium were bringing a revolution in physics. His germinating ideas about science, technology, and economic power were conveyed in his letters over many years before they were formulated into The Education of Henry Adams, his “Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity.”
The Adams who emerges from the letters is far more complex, contradictory, and human than the protagonist of the Education. He writes to women, Mrs. Cameron above all, about politics, economics, and science as well as social news and palace gossip, just as he writes to men about art as well as power. The multiplicity of his interests, his sharp perceptions, eye for telling detail, and passion for generalization, together with his irony and wit, make his letters the engrossing record of an extraordinary life-in-progress and an incomparable commentary upon his age.
Adams was one of the great letter writers of the English language. Proof is now offered in [this] major publishing event.
Henry Adams has become ‘an indispensable figure in American thought’ during the 60 years, 1858–1918, covered by his correspondence. No mind more richly furnished and widely ranging appeared among his American contemporaries. Treasures of The Letters depend on what the reader is seeking. If it is autobiography, there is far more of that here than in The Education of Henry Adams… If it is the period and its drama of events, here was a reporter with a box seat and inside information. If it should be the life of the mind, Adams read everything of consequence and usually knew the authors. His picture of transatlantic society is filled out by foreign correspondence and residence abroad about half the time. Seekers for the exotic will find nothing richer in travel literature than his diary—letters from the long stay in the South Pacific islands. And the universal taste for love letters is served by the long withheld or doctored letters to Elizabeth Cameron, the beautiful young wife of the senator from Pennsylvania.
This magnificent edition of letters deserves several reviews—as a monumental scholarly achievement, as an illuminating contribution to American history, as a brilliant example of the art of letter writing, and most of all as an extraordinary personal record of an eminent American, the grandson of one president and great-grandson of another… In all, a colossal achievement.
To say that one awaits the concluding volumes of these letters with greedy impatience is to understate the case.
Adams’s letters…reveal an elegant style, a supple intelligence, and a remarkable capacity for observation… His accounts of Samoan life (1890–91) are amazingly precise and sensitive evocations of an alien culture. The letters also show Adams’s sustained capacity for loyalty, tenderness, and warmth toward family and friends. His playful letters to children are particularly touching; they express a sensibility that is almost entirely suppressed in his Education.
Henry Adams’s mind was one of the most interesting, in its foibles as well as in its power, in American intellectual history; one of the most complex, restless, wide-ranging, and supple. And the letters enable one to follow the development of his mind from phase to phase as, of course, none of his books nor even all his books taken together quite do. Only a reader of the letters will quite realize how great was the variety of ideas to which at one time or another Adams turned his mind, or with what agility and boldness his mind played over most of them. Now it is the shallow careerism of Alexander Hamilton, now the particular place of sex in Japanese life, now the vulgar mercantile quality of the architecture of the Valois and Touraine. He glances at Anglo-Saxon poetry, and his quick, offhand remarks might have come from a literary critic of genius; he animadverts on the evolution of finance capital, and seems to have given most of his life to the problem; he finds himself reflecting on the un-self-consciousness of his father and that whole generation of New Englanders, and suggests in half a dozen sentences a sustained and searching essay in psychological history… His letters of travel owe half their power to his ingrained habit of going beyond the mere surface of things, the mere look of foreignness and picturesqueness, and making the difficult effort of social and psychological understanding. It is what the best travel-writers do, of course, but how many have Henry Adams’s acuteness, his malleability, his freedom from the formulated and the preconceived?
Adams is one of the best letter-writers in the language. Whether he is describing the South Seas or the Arctic Circle, a book just read or an idea just conceived, he brings to them all an idiosyncratic and witty alertness that makes one more than ready to forgive his pose of despair.
- Belknap Press
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