What a time to be reading the historian and critic Henry Adams. Just last week, a Trumpist rioter was shot and killed in the Capitol. How could this happen, media talking heads opined; sacred ground has been desecrated, senators proclaimed. But Capitol Hill isn’t a stranger to violence, and Henry Adams, scion of one of America’s great political dynasties (John Adams was his great-grandfather, John Quincy Adams his grandfather), knew it.
As a child, Henry Adams worshipped family friend and anti-slavery senator, Charles Sumner. When Adams was eleven, he hung around the Massachusetts General Court gallery so as to be the first to hear that Sumner had won a seat in the Senate: “Slipping under the arms of the bystanders,” he writes in his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, “he ran home as hard as he could, and burst into the dining-room where Mr. Sumner was seated at table with the family. He enjoyed the glory of telling Sumner that he was elected; it was probably the proudest moment in the life of either.”
In 1856, five years after his electoral triumph, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act specifically and slave powers more generally on the floor of Congress. On May 22, Sumner was sitting at his desk in the Senate. Once the chamber cleared, Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery representative from South Carolina, walked up to the Massachusetts senator, declared that his state had been libeled, and promptly beat Sumner bloody with a cane. It’s worth remembering that the Capitol isn’t a church; it’s a site of power. And, as Adams writes, “Power is poison.”
Over the last year, we’ve been given the curse of living in interesting times. As related in David S. Brown’s new biography, The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams (Scribner, $30, 464 pp.), Henry Adams knew what that was like. He lived through the Civil War (during which his father was ambassador to Britain and Adams was his secretary); he lived through the industrialization and financialization of the American economy (“The world, after 1865,” he writes in The Education, “became a bankers’ world”); he knew Ulysses S. Grant (“The type was pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers”) and was frenemies with Theodore Roosevelt (“Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act”). In an essay considering the winter of 1860–61, he stretches syntax (no American wrote better long sentences than Adams did) to describe the creep, creep, creep of secession:
It was every day clearer that the danger was not imagined; that the flood of disunion feeling was advancing at fearful speed towards Washington, and threatened to overwhelm Virginia and even Maryland. And as State after State set up the standard of rebellion, and treason proclaimed itself in the Capitol and White House itself; when crowded galleries broke into violent applause over disunion speeches, and the whole city was expecting an outbreak from day to day; as it became more and more evident that the credit of the Government was tottering; its army and navy useless or nearly so; its whole frame and action hampered, weakened, broken wherever practicable, and the traitors still at its head; as all this gradually forced itself upon the minds of the leading Republicans, and they began to see the danger they ran, and to feel the tangling knots of that great net in which they were snared, they opened their eyes to their hazardous position and began to stretch their hands about them for some firm support.
The buffoonery of President Trump and the cosplay-like nature of those who stormed the Capitol have blinded many to the real danger we’re living through. Do we feel the tangling knots of that great net in which we’ve been snared? Maybe we’re starting to open our eyes.
Published in 1918, The Education of Henry Adams is a work of great irony and imaginative power, a modernist masterpiece that, like all modernist masterpieces, pressurizes experience into lasting form. In The Education, Adams is interested in many things—history, architecture, theology, gender—but he also knows that these interests don’t matter a jot until stylized, aestheticized, made meaningful: “The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modelling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best. The form is never arbitrary, but is a sort of growth like crystallization.”