July 20, 2021


Henry Adams & The Force (Mark Tooley, July 19, 2021, Providence)

When Adams shared his unpublished memoir and its search for an imagined religious ideal with close friends, John Hay's widow admonished him: "But it seemed to me that you have studied too much to find that 'Force' you are still seeking. Why, instead of all those other books, you have gone to, to find it--did you not go back to your Bible?... I have wanted, for so long to tell you this, but have not had the courage."

Adams seems not to have heeded her counsel, preferring to idealize a past that never existed instead of finding God at work in the present. He aloofly condemned the supposed decadence of modern capitalist democracy, taking for granted his own extensive hereditary riches, comforts and privileges, while ignoring the unprecedented economic empowerment of millions who benefitted from industry and technology. His religious ideal was aesthetic and abstractly moral but largely indifferent to people outside his social class, whether arriving waves of immigrants or disenfranchised black people in the South after Reconstruction. He lamented the decline of religion but ignored the resurgent popular piety that infused his time, which he barely noticed and no doubt disdained.  After all, where were its great cathedrals and artworks?

A British diplomat described Adams in 1887 after his wife's death as "queer to the last degree; cynical, vindictive, but with a constant interest in people, faithful to his friends and passionately fond of his mother.... He has no cards and never goes out."

Adams was the archetype of a certain kind of American observer who revels in supposedly constant societal decline from the perspective of snobby reserve while disdaining improvements for and the popular piety of common, less erudite people. He was an ungrateful heir to the old New England Unitarian establishment. He rejected orthodox Christianity and even Unitarianism but wanted morality and a robust religious aesthetic.  

As Mrs. Hay discerned, Henry Adams was looking for "The Force" in all the wrong places.  So many are, in every age.

Posted by at July 20, 2021 12:00 AM