Chapter XXI (The Education of Henry Adams)

Twenty Years After (1892)

ONCE more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is
meant to help young men- or such as have intelligence enough to seek
help- but it is not meant to amuse them. What one did- or did not
do- with one’s education, after getting it, need trouble the
inquirer in no way; it is a personal matter only which would confuse
him. Perhaps Henry Adams was not worth educating; most keen judges
incline to think that barely one man in a hundred owns a mind
capable of reacting to any purpose on the forces that surround him,
and fully half of these react wrongly. The object of education for
that mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and
economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the
active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it
did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles,
diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds
to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force
that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little
moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout human
history the waste of mind has been appalling, and, as this story is
meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the
teacher is the worst criminal, but the world stands behind him and
drags the student from his course. The moral is stentorian. Only the
most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have
overcome the friction or the viscosity of inertia, and these were
compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.
Fit or unfit, Henry Adams stopped his own education in 1871, and
began to apply it for practical uses, like his neighbors. At the end
of twenty years, he found that he had finished, and could sum up the
result. He had no complaint to make against man or woman. They had all
treated him kindly; he had never met with ill-will, ill-temper, or
even ill-manners, or known a quarrel. He had never seen serious
dishonesty or ingratitude. He had found a readiness in the young to
respond to suggestion that seemed to him far beyond all he had
reason to expect. Considering the stock complaints against the
world, he could not understand why he had nothing to complain of.
During these twenty years he had done as much work, in quantity, as
his neighbors wanted; more than they would ever stop to look at, and
more than his share. Merely in print, he thought altogether ridiculous
the number of volumes he counted on the shelves of public libraries.
He had no notion whether they served a useful purpose; he had worked
in the dark; but so had most of his friends, even the artists, none of
whom held any lofty opinion of their success in raising the
standards of society, or felt profound respect for the methods or
manners of their time, at home or abroad, but all of whom had tried,
in a way, to hold the standard up. The effort had been, for the
older generation, exhausting, as one could see in the Hunts; but the
generation after 1870 made more figure, not in proportion to public
wealth or in the census, but in their own self-assertion. A fair
number of the men who were born in the thirties had won names-
Phillips Brooks; Bret Harte; Henry James; H. H. Richardson; John La
Farge; and the list might be made fairly long if it were worth
while; but from their school had sprung others, like Augustus St.
Gaudens, McKim, Stanford White, and scores born in the forties, who
counted as force even in the mental inertia of sixty or eighty million
people. Among all these Clarence King, John Hay, and Henry Adams had
led modest existences, trying to fill in the social gaps of a class
which, as yet, showed but thin ranks and little cohesion. The
combination offered no very glittering prizes, but they pursued it for
twenty years with as much patience and effort as though it led to fame
or power, until, at last, Henry Adams thought his own duties
sufficiently performed and his account with society settled. He had
enjoyed his life amazingly, and would not have exchanged it for any
other that came in his way; he was, or thought he was, perfectly
satisfied with it; but for reasons that had nothing to do with
education, he was tired; his nervous energy ran low; and, like a horse
that wears out, he quitted the race-course, left the stable, and
sought pastures as far as possible from the old. Education had ended
in 1871; life was complete in 1890; the rest mattered so little!
As had happened so often, he found himself in London when the
question of return imposed its verdict on him after much fruitless
effort to rest elsewhere. The time was the month of January, 1892;
he was alone, in hospital, in the gloom of midwinter. He was close
on his fifty-fourth birthday, and Pall Mall had forgotten him as
completely as it had forgotten his elders. He had not seen London
for a dozen years, and was rather amused to have only a bed for a
world and a familiar black fog for horizon. The coal-fire smelt
homelike; the fog had a fruity taste of youth; anything was better
than being turned out into the wastes of Wigmore Street. He could
always amuse himself by living over his youth, and driving once more
down Oxford Street in 1858, with life before him to imagine far less
amusing than it had turned out to be.
{CH_XXI ^paragraph 5}
The future attracted him less. Lying there for a week he
reflected on what he could do next. He had just come up from the South
Seas with John La Farge, who had reluctantly crawled away towards
New York to resume the grinding routine of studio-work at an age
when life runs low. Adams would rather, as choice, have gone back to
the east, if it were only to sleep forever in the trade-winds under
the southern stars, wandering over the dark purple ocean, with its
purple sense of solitude and void. Not that he liked the sensation,
but that it was the most unearthly he had felt. He had not yet
happened on Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay,” but he knew the poetry
before he knew the poem, like millions of wanderers, who have
perhaps alone felt the world exactly as it is. Nothing attracted him
less than the idea of beginning a new education. The old one had
been poor enough; any new one could only add to its faults. Life had
been cut in halves, and the old half had passed away, education and
all, leaving no stock to graft on.
The new world he faced in Paris and London seemed to him fantastic.
Willing to admit it real in the sense of having some kind of existence
outside his own mind, he could not admit it reasonable. In Paris,
his heart sank to mere pulp before the dismal ballets at the Grand
Opera and the eternal vaudeville at the old Palais Royal; but,
except for them, his own Paris of the Second Empire was as extinct
as that of the first Napoleon. At the galleries and exhibitions, he
was racked by the effort of art to be original, and when one day,
after much reflection, John La Farge asked whether there might not
still be room for something simple in art, Adams shook his head. As he
saw the world, it was no longer simple and could not express itself
simply. It should express what it was; and this was something that
neither Adams nor La Farge understood.
Under the first blast of this furnace-heat, the light seemed fairly
to go out. He felt nothing in common with the world as it promised
to be. He was ready to quit it, and the easiest path led back to the
east; but he could not venture alone, and the rarest of animals is a
companion. He must return to America to get one. Perhaps, while
waiting, he might write more history, and on the chance as a last
resource, he gave orders for copying everything he could reach in
archives, but this was mere habit. He went home as a horse goes back
to his stable, because he knew nowhere else to go.
Home was Washington. As soon as Grant’s administration ended, in
1877, and Evarts became Secretary of State, Adams went back there,
partly to write history, but chiefly because his seven years of
laborious banishment, in Boston, convinced him that, as far as he
had a function in life, it was as stable-companion to statesmen,
whether they liked it or not. At about the same time, old George
Bancroft did the same thing, and presently John Hay came on to be
Assistant Secretary of State for Mr. Evarts, and stayed there to write
the “Life” of Lincoln. In 1884 Adams joined him in employing
Richardson to build them adjoining houses on La Fayette Square. As far
as Adams had a home this was it. To the house on La Fayette Square
he must turn, for he had no other status- no position in the world.
Never did he make a decision more reluctantly than this of going
back to his manger. His father and mother were dead. All his family
led settled lives of their own. Except for two or three friends in
Washington, who were themselves uncertain of stay, no one cared
whether he came or went, and he cared least. There was nothing to care
about. Every one was busy; nearly every one seemed contented. Since
1871 nothing had ruffled the surface of the American world, and even
the progress of Europe in her sideway track to dis-Europeaning herself
had ceased to be violent.
{CH_XXI ^paragraph 10}
After a dreary January in Paris, at last when no excuse could be
persuaded to offer itself for further delay, he crossed the channel
and passed a week with his old friend, Milnes Gaskell, at Thornes,
in Yorkshire, while the westerly gales raved a warning against going
home. Yorkshire in January is not an island in the South Seas. It
has few points of resemblance to Tahiti; not many to Fiji or Samoa;
but, as so often before, it was a rest between past and future, and
Adams was grateful for it.
At last, on February 3, he drove, after a fashion, down the Irish
Channel, on board the Teutonic. He had not crossed the Atlantic for
a dozen years, and had never seen an ocean steamer of the new type. He
had seen nothing new of any sort, or much changed in France or
England. The railways made quicker time, but were no more comfortable.
The scale was the same. The Channel service was hardly improved
since 1858, or so little as to make no impression. Europe seemed to
have been stationary for twenty years. To a man who had been
stationary like Europe, the Teutonic was a marvel. That he should be
able to eat his dinner through a week of howling winter gales was a
miracle. That he should have a deck stateroom, with fresh air, and
read all night, if he chose, by electric light, was matter for more
wonder than life had yet supplied, in its old forms. Wonder may be
double- even treble. Adams’s wonder ran off into figures. As the
Niagara was to the Teutonic- as 1860 was to 1890- so the Teutonic
and 1890 must be to the next term- and then? Apparently the question
concerned only America. Western Europe offered no such conundrum.
There one might double scale and speed indefinitely without passing
Fate was kind on that voyage. Rudyard Kipling, on his wedding
trip to America, thanks to the mediation of Henry James, dashed over
the passenger his exuberant fountain of gaiety and wit- as though
playing a garden hose on a thirsty and faded begonia. Kipling could
never know what peace of mind he gave, for he could hardly ever need
it himself so much; and yet, in the full delight of his endless fun
and variety, one felt the old conundrum repeat itself. Somehow,
somewhere, Kipling and the American were not one, but two, and could
not be glued together. The American felt that the defect, if defect it
were, was in himself; he had felt it when he was with Swinburne,
and, again, with Robert Louis Stevenson, even under the palms of
Vailima; but he did not carry self-abasement to the point of
thinking himself singular. Whatever the defect might be, it was
American; it belonged to the type; it lived in the blood. Whatever the
quality be that held him apart, it was English; it lived also in the
blood; one felt it little if at all, with Celts, and one yearned
reciprocally among Fiji cannibals. Clarence King used to say that it
was due to discord between the wave-lengths of the man-atoms; but
the theory offered difficulties in measurement. Perhaps, after all, it
was only that genius soars; but this theory, too, had its dark
corners. All through life, one had seen the American on his literary
knees to the European; and all through many lives back for some two
centuries, one had seen the European snub or patronize the American;
not always intentionally, but effectually. It was in the nature of
things. Kipling neither snubbed nor patronized; he was all gaiety
and good-nature; but he would have been first to feel what one
meant. Genius has to pay itself that unwilling self-respect.
Towards the middle of February, 1892, Adams found himself again
in Washington. In Paris and London he had seen nothing to make a
return to life worth while; in Washington he saw plenty of reasons for
staying dead. Changes had taken place there; improvements had been
made; with time- much time- the city might become habitable
according to some fashionable standard; but all one’s friends had died
or disappeared several times over, leaving one almost as strange as in
Boston or London. Slowly, a certain society had built itself up
about the Government; houses had been opened and there was much
dining; much calling; much leaving of cards; but a solitary man
counted for less than in 1868. Society seemed hardly more at home than
he. Both Executive and Congress held it aloof. No one in society
seemed to have the ear of anybody in Government. No one in
Government knew any reason for consulting any one in society. The
world had ceased to be wholly political, but politics had become
less social. A survivor of the Civil War- like George Bancroft, or
John Hay- tried to keep footing, but without brilliant success. They
were free to say or do what they liked, but no one took much notice of
anything said or done.
A presidential election was to take place in November, and no one
showed much interest in the result. The two candidates were singular
persons, of whom it was the common saying that one of them had no
friends; the other, only enemies. Calvin Brice, who was at that time
altogether the wittiest and cleverest member of the Senate, was in the
habit of describing Mr. Cleveland in glowing terms and at great
length, as one of the loftiest natures and noblest characters of
ancient or modern time; “but,” he concluded, “in future I prefer to
look on at his proceedings from the safe summit of some neighboring
hill.” The same remark applied to Mr. Harrison. In this respect,
they were the greatest of Presidents, for, whatever harm they might do
their enemies, was as nothing when compared to the mortality they
inflicted on their friends. Men fled them as though they had the
evil eye. To the American people, the two candidates and the two
parties were so evenly balanced that the scales showed hardly a
perceptible difference. Mr. Harrison was an excellent President, a man
of ability and force; perhaps the best President the Republican
Party had put forward since Lincoln’s death; yet, on the whole,
Adams felt a shade of preference for President Cleveland, not so
much personally as because the Democrats represented to him the last
remnants of the eighteenth century; the survivors of Hosea Biglow’s
Cornwallis; the sole remaining protestants against a banker’s
Olympus which had become, for five-and-twenty years, more and more
despotic over Esop’s frog-empire. One might no longer croak except
to vote for King Log, or- failing storks- for Grover Cleveland; and
even then could not be sure where King Banker lurked behind. The
costly education in politics had led to political torpor. Every one
did not share it. Clarence King and John Hay were loyal Republicans
who never for a moment conceived that there could be merit in other
ideals. With King, the feeling was chiefly love of archaic races;
sympathy with the negro and Indian and corresponding dislike of
their enemies; but with Hay, party loyalty became a phase of being,
a little like the loyalty of a highly cultivated churchman to his
Church. He saw all the failings of the party, and still more keenly
those of the partisans; but he could not live outside. To Adams a
Western Democrat or a Western Republican, a city Democrat or a city
Republican, a W. C. Whitney or a J. G. Blaine, were actually the
same man, as far as their usefulness to the objects of King, Hay, or
Adams was concerned. They graded themselves as friends or enemies, not
as Republicans or Democrats. To Hay, the difference was that of
being respectable or not.
{CH_XXI ^paragraph 15}
Since 1879, King, Hay and Adams had been inseparable. Step by step,
they had gone on in the closest sympathy, rather shunning than
inviting public position, until, in 1892, none of them held any post
at all. With great effort, in Hayes’s administration, all King’s
friends, including Abram Hewitt and Carl Schurz, had carried the
bill for uniting the Surveys and had placed King at the head of the
Bureau; but King waited only to organize the service, and then
resigned, in order to seek his private fortune in the West. Hay, after
serving as Assistant Secretary of State under Secretary Evarts
during a part of Hayes’s administration, then also insisted on going
out, in order to write with Nicolay the “Life” of Lincoln. Adams had
held no office, and when his friends asked the reason, he could not go
into long explanations, but preferred to answer simply that no
President had ever invited him to fill one. The reason was good, and
was also conveniently true, but left open an awkward doubt of his
morals or capacity. Why had no President ever cared to employ him? The
question needed a volume of intricate explanation. There never was a
day when he would have refused to perform any duty that the Government
imposed on him, but the American Government never to his knowledge
imposed duties. The point was never raised with regard to him, or to
any one else. The Government required candidates to offer; the
business of the Executive began and ended with the consent or
refusal to confer. The social formula carried this passive attitude
a shade further. Any public man who may for years have used some other
man’s house as his own, when promoted to a position of patronage
commonly feels himself obliged to inquire, directly or indirectly,
whether his friend wants anything; which is equivalent to a civil
act of divorce, since he feels awkward in the old relation. The
handsomest formula, in an impartial choice, was the grandly
courteous Southern phrase of Lamar: “Of course Mr. Adams knows that
anything in my power is at his service.” A la disposicion de Usted!
The form must have been correct since it released both parties. He was
right; Mr. Adams did know all about it; a bow and a conventional smile
closed the subject forever, and every one felt flattered.
Such an intimate, promoted to power, was always lost. His duties
and cares absorbed him and affected his balance of mind. Unless his
friend served some political purpose, friendship was an effort. Men
who neither wrote for newspapers nor made campaign speeches, who
rarely subscribed to the campaign fund, and who entered the White
House as seldom as possible, placed themselves outside the sphere of
usefulness, and did so with entirely adequate knowledge of what they
were doing. They never expected the President to ask for their
services, and saw no reason why he should do so. As for Henry Adams,
in fifty years that he knew Washington, no one would have been more
surprised than himself had any President ever asked him to perform
so much of a service as to cross the square. Only Texan Congressmen
imagined that the President needed their services in some remote
consulate after worrying him for months to find one.
In Washington this law or custom is universally understood, and
no one’s character necessarily suffered because he held no office.
No one took office unless he wanted it; and in turn the outsider was
never asked to do work or subscribe money. Adams saw no office that he
wanted, and he gravely thought that, from his point of view, in the
long run, he was likely to be a more useful citizen without office. He
could at least act as audience, and, in those days, a Washington
audience seldom filled even a small theatre. He felt quite well
satisfied to look on, and from time to time he thought he might risk a
criticism of the players; but though he found his own position
regular, he never quite understood that of John Hay. The Republican
leaders treated Hay as one of themselves; they asked his services
and took his money with a freedom that staggered even a hardened
observer; but they never needed him in equivalent office. In
Washington Hay was the only competent man in the party for
diplomatic work. He corresponded in his powers of usefulness exactly
with Lord Granville in London, who had been for forty years the saving
grace of every Liberal administration in turn. Had usefulness to the
public service been ever a question, Hay should have had a first-class
mission under Hayes; should have been placed in the Cabinet by
Garfield, and should have been restored to it by Harrison. These
gentlemen were always using him; always invited his services, and
always took his money.
Adams’s opinion of politics and politicians, as he frankly
admitted, lacked enthusiasm, although never, in his severest temper,
did he apply to them the terms they freely applied to each other;
and he explained everything by his old explanation of Grant’s
character as more or less a general type; but what roused in his
mind more rebellion was the patience and good-nature with which Hay
allowed himself to be used. The trait was not confined to politics.
Hay seemed to like to be used, and this was one of his many charms;
but in politics this sort of good-nature demands supernatural
patience. Whatever astonishing lapses of social convention the
politicians betrayed, Hay laughed equally heartily, and told the
stories with constant amusement, at his own expense. Like most
Americans, he liked to play at making Presidents, but, unlike most, he
laughed not only at the Presidents he helped to make, but also at
himself for laughing.
One must be rich, and come from Ohio or New York, to gratify an
expensive taste like this. Other men, on both political flanks, did
the same thing, and did it well, less for selfish objects than for the
amusement of the game; but Hay alone lived in Washington and in the
centre of the Ohio influences that ruled the Republican Party during
thirty years. On the whole, these influences were respectable, and
although Adams could not, under any circumstances, have had any value,
even financially, for Ohio politicians, Hay might have much, as he
showed, if they only knew enough to appreciate him. The American
politician was occasionally an amusing object; Hay laughed, and, for
want of other resource, Adams laughed too; but perhaps it was partly
irritation at seeing how President Harrison dealt his cards that
made Adams welcome President Cleveland back to the White House.
{CH_XXI ^paragraph 20}
At all events, neither Hay nor King nor Adams had much to gain by
reelecting Mr. Harrison in 1892, or by defeating him, as far as he was
concerned; and as far as concerned Mr. Cleveland, they seemed to
have even less personal concern. The whole country, to outward
appearance, stood in much the same frame of mind. Everywhere was
slack-water. Hay himself was almost as languid and indifferent as
Adams. Neither had occupation. Both had finished their literary
work. The “Life” of Lincoln had been begun, completed, and published
hand in hand with the “History” of Jefferson and Madison, so that
between them they had written nearly all the American history there
was to write. The intermediate period needed intermediate treatment;
the gap between James Madison and Abraham Lincoln could not be
judicially filled by either of them. Both were heartily tired of the
subject, and America seemed as tired as they. What was worse, the
redeeming energy of Americans which had generally served as the
resource of minds otherwise vacant, the creation of new force, the
application of expanding power, showed signs of check. Even the year
before, in 1891, far off in the Pacific, one had met everywhere in the
East a sort of stagnation- a creeping paralysis- complaints of
shipping and producers- that spread throughout the whole southern
hemisphere. Questions of exchange and silver-production loomed
large. Credit was shaken, and a change of party government might shake
it even in Washington. The matter did not concern Adams, who had no
credit, and was always richest when the rich were poor; but it
helped to dull the vibration of society.
However they studied it, the balance of profit and loss, on the
last twenty years, for the three friends, King, Hay, and Adams, was
exceedingly obscure in 1892. They had lost twenty years, but what
had they gained? They often discussed the question. Hay had a singular
faculty for remembering faces, and would break off suddenly the thread
of his talk, as he looked out of the window on La Fayette Square, to
notice an old corps commander or admiral of the Civil War, tottering
along to the club for his cards or his cocktail: “There is old Dash
who broke the rebel lines at Blankburg! Think of his having been a
thunderbolt of war!” Or what drew Adams’s closer attention: “There
goes old Boutwell gambolling like the gambolling kid!” There they
went! Men who had swayed the course of empire as well as the course of
Hay, King, and Adams, less valued than the ephemeral Congressman
behind them, who could not have told whether the general was a
Boutwell or Boutwell a general. Theirs was the highest known
success, and one asked what it was worth to them. Apart from
personal vanity, what would they sell it for? Would any one of them,
from President downwards, refuse ten thousand a year in place of all
the consideration he received from the world on account of his
Yet consideration had value, and at that time Adams enjoyed
lecturing Augustus St. Gaudens, in hours of depression, on its
economics: “Honestly you must admit that even if you don’t pay your
expenses you get a certain amount of advantage from doing the best
work. Very likely some of the really successful Americans would be
willing you should come to dinner sometimes, if you did not come too
often, while they would think twice about Hay, and would never stand
me.” The forgotten statesman had no value at all; the general and
admiral not much; the historian but little; on the whole, the artist
stood best, and of course, wealth rested outside the question, since
it was acting as judge; but, in the last resort, the judge certainly
admitted that consideration had some value as an asset, though
hardly as much as ten- or five- thousand a year.
Hay and Adams had the advantage of looking out of their windows
on the antiquities of La Fayette Square, with the sense of having
all that any one had; all that the world had to offer; all that they
wanted in life, including their names on scores of title-pages and
in one or two biographical dictionaries; but this had nothing to do
with consideration, and they knew no more than Boutwell or St. Gaudens
whether to call it success. Hay had passed ten years in writing the
“Life” of Lincoln, and perhaps President Lincoln was the better for
it, but what Hay got from it was not so easy to see, except the
privilege of seeing popular bookmakers steal from his book and cover
the theft by abusing the author. Adams had given ten or a dozen
years to Jefferson and Madison, with expenses which, in any mercantile
business, could hardly have been reckoned at less than a hundred
thousand dollars, on a salary of five thousand a year; and when he
asked what return he got from this expenditure, rather more
extravagant in proportion to his means than a racing-stable, he
could see none whatever. Such works never return money. Even Frank
Parkman never printed a first edition of his relatively cheap and
popular volumes, numbering more than seven hundred copies, until quite
at the end of his life. A thousand copies of a book that cost twenty
dollars or more was as much as any author could expect; two thousand
copies was a visionary estimate unless it were canvassed for
subscription. As far as Adams knew, he had but three serious
readers- Abram Hewitt, Wayne McVeagh, and Hay himself. He was amply
satisfied with their consideration, and could dispense with that of
the other fifty-nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand,
nine hundred and ninety-seven; but neither he nor Hay was better off
in any other respect, and their chief title to consideration was their
right to look out of their windows on great men, alive or dead, in
La Fayette Square, a privilege which had nothing to do with their
The world was always good-natured; civil; glad to be amused;
open-armed to any one who amused it; patient with every one who did
not insist on putting himself in its way, or costing it money; but
this was not consideration, still less power in any of its concrete
forms, and applied as well or better to a comic actor. Certainly a
rare soprano or tenor voice earned infinitely more applause as it gave
infinitely more pleasure, even in America; but one does what one can
with one’s means, and casting up one’s balance sheet, one expects only
a reasonable return on one’s capital. Hay and Adams had risked nothing
and never played for high stakes. King had followed the ambitious
course. He had played for many millions. He had more than once come
close to a great success, but the result was still in doubt, and
meanwhile he was passing the best years of his life underground. For
companionship he was mostly lost.
{CH_XXI ^paragraph 25}
Thus, in 1892, neither Hay, King, nor Adams knew whether they had
attained success, or how to estimate it, or what to call it; and the
American people seemed to have no clearer idea than they. Indeed,
the American people had no idea at all; they were wandering in a
wilderness much more sandy than the Hebrews had ever trodden about
Sinai; they had neither serpents nor golden calves to worship. They
had lost the sense of worship; for the idea that they worshipped money
seemed a delusion. Worship of money was an old-world trait; a
healthy appetite akin to worship of the Gods, or to worship of power
in any concrete shape; but the American wasted money more recklessly
than any one ever did before; he spent more to less purpose than any
extravagant court aristocracy; he had no sense of relative values, and
knew not what to do with his money when he got it, except use it to
make more, or throw it away. Probably, since human society began, it
had seen no such curious spectacle as the houses of the San
Francisco millionaires on Nob Hill. Except for the railway system, the
enormous wealth taken out of the ground since 1840, had disappeared.
West of the Alleghenies, the whole country might have been swept
clean, and could have been replaced in better form within one or two
years. The American mind had less respect for money than the
European or Asiatic mind, and bore its loss more easily; but it had
been deflected by its pursuit till it could turn in no other
direction. It shunned, distrusted, disliked, the dangerous
attraction of ideals, and stood alone in history for its ignorance
of the past.
Personal contact brought this American trait close to Adams’s
notice. His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to
the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St.
Gaudens had made for him in his absence. Naturally every detail
interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of
light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of
St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the
spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the
figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say,
he never once thought of questioning what it meant. He supposed its
meaning to be the one commonplace about it- the oldest idea known to
human thought, He knew that if he asked an Asiatic its meaning, not
a man, woman, or child from Cairo to Kamtchatka would have needed more
than a glance to reply. From the Egyptian Sphinx to the Kamakura
Daibuts; from Prometheus to Christ; from Michael Angelo to Shelley,
art had wrought on this eternal figure almost as though it had nothing
else to say. The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in
the response of the observer. As Adams sat there, numbers of people
came, for the figure seemed to have become a tourist fashion, and
all wanted to know its meaning. Most took it for a portrait-statue,
and the remnant were vacant-minded in the absence of a personal guide.
None felt what would have been a nursery-instinct to a Hindu baby or a
Japanese jinricksha-runner. The only exceptions were the clergy, who
taught a lesson even deeper. One after another brought companions
there, and, apparently fascinated by their own reflection, broke out
passionately against the expression they felt in the figure of
despair, of atheism, of denial. Like the others, the priest saw only
what he brought. Like all great artists, St. Gaudens held up the
mirror and no more. The American layman had lost sight of ideals;
the American priests had lost sight of faith. Both were more
American than the old, half-witted soldiers who denounced the wasting,
on a mere grave, of money which should have been given for drink.
Landed, lost, and forgotten, in the centre of this vast plain of
self-content, Adams could see but one active interest, to which all
others were subservient, and which absorbed the energies of some sixty
million people to the exclusion of every other force, real or
imaginary. The power of the railway system had enormously increased
since 1870. Already the coal output of 160,000,000 tons closely
approached the 180,000,000 of the British Empire, and one held one’s
breath at the nearness of what one had never expected to see, the
crossing of courses, and the lead of American energies. The moment was
deeply exciting to a historian, but the railway system itself
interested one less than in 1868, since it offered less chance for
future profit. Adams had been born with the railway system; had
grown up with it; had been over pretty nearly every mile of it with
curious eyes, and knew as much about it as his neighbors; but not
there could he look for a new education. Incomplete though it was, the
system seemed on the whole to satisfy the wants of society better than
any other part of the social machine, and society was content with its
creation, for the time, and with itself for creating it. Nothing new
was to be done or learned there, and the world hurried on to its
telephones, bicycles, and electric trams. At past fifty, Adams
solemnly and painfully learned to ride the bicycle.
Nothing else occurred to him as a means of new life. Nothing else
offered itself, however carefully he sought. He looked for no
change. He lingered in Washington till near July without noticing a
new idea. Then he went back to England to pass his summer on the
Deeside. In October he returned to Washington and there awaited the
reelection of Mr. Cleveland, which led to no deeper thought than
that of taking up some small notes that happened to be outstanding. He
had seen enough of the world to be a coward, and above all he had an
uneasy distrust of bankers. Even dead men allow themselves a few
narrow prejudices.