Henry Adams

In chapter five of Now, Voyager, we find Jerry Durrance staying up late in his cabin on the cruise ship. He has just written a letter to his wife, and another letter to his daughter Tina. Jerry has brought a book along for the voyage

He put on his glasses, opened Henry Adams, found the place where he had left off on page 203. These words flashed up at him from the beginning of the next paragraph. Thus he found himself launched on waters he had never meant to sail.

The phrase fits in with Jerry's budding relationship with Charlotte Vale.

The Education of Henry Adams turns out to be a remarkable commentary. Henry Adams, of Quincy, Mass., the grandson of John Quincy Adams, thinks of himself as an eighteenth-century boy growing up in a rapidly-changing nineteenth-century world. He identifies the competing forces and factions of State Street [the business and financial side] and Beacon Hill [the government side] dominating the landscape.

The phrase Thus he found himself launched on waters he had never meant to sail appears in the part of Henry Adams describing Henry’s time in England, 1861-1865:

The Education of Henry Adams

Chap VIII. Diplomacy (1861)

Hardly a week passed when the newspapers announced that President Lincoln had selected [Henry’s father] Charles Adams as his Minister to England. Mr. Adams thought himself entitled to the services of Henry as private secretary. Henry packed. Ridiculous as he knew himself to be in this new role, he was less ridiculous than his betters. He was at least no public official, like the thousands of improvised secretaries and generals who crowded their jealousies and intrigues on the President.

As for the private secretary himself, he was, like all Bostonians, instinctively English. He could not conceive of the idea of a hostile England.

Henry’s duties as private secretary required him to know everybody and go with his father and mother everywhere they needed an escort.

Any winter in London is a severe trial; but the month of December 1861 in Mansfield Street would have gorged a glutton of doom.

A Reuters telegram came announcing the seizure of Mason and Slidell from a British mail steamer—the Trent Affair.

Of course the Legation [the American embassy in London] itself was home, and, under such pressure, life in it could be nothing but united. All the inmates made common cause. One lived but was merely flayed alive.

[Foreign Secretary] Earl Russell could not hold Mr. [Charles] Adams apart [from society]. He was indistinguishable from a Londoner.

[Monkton Milnes:] In Parliament he made speeches, chiefly criticized as too good for the place and too high for the audience. Socially, he was one of two or three men who went everywhere, knew everybody, talked of everything, and had the ear of Ministers. He was a man of the world and loved the contacts —perhaps the collisions—of society.

Chap IX. Foes or Friends (1862)

[At the Legation] Not work, but the play exhausted. The effort of facing a hostile society was bad enough, but that of facing friends was worse. After terrific disasters like the seven days before Richmond and the second Bull Run, friends needed support; a tone of bluff would have been fatal, for the average mind sees quickest through a bluff; nothing answers but candor; yet private secretaries never feel candid, however much they feel the reverse, and therefore they must affect candor; not always a simple act when one is exasperated, furious, bitter, and choking with tears over the blunders and incapacity of one's Government.

[British public sentiment] For if Mr. Lincoln were not what they said he was—what were they? Not merely the idols [Carlyle] fell, but also the habit of faith. If Carlyle too was a fraud, what were his scholars and school?

[social life] Lady Palmerston—Saturday evening reviews, they were called—had great vogue. Cambridge House was the best, and perhaps the only political house in London, and its success was due to Lady Palmerston. Lord Palmerston’s laugh as he stood at the door receiving his guests . . . The laugh was singular, mechanical, wooden, and did not seem to disturb his features. "Ha! ...Ha! ...Ha!" Each was a slow, deliberate ejaculation, and all were in the same tone, as though he meant to say: “Yes! ...Yes! ...Yes!" by way of assurance. It was a laugh of 1810 and the Congress of Vienna. Adams would have much liked to stop a moment and ask whether William Pitt and the Duke of Wellington had laughed so; Adams passed from this person to that, finally dropping into the hands of some literary accident.

[Weekend at Monkton Milnes’] In due course this party of five men sat down to dinner with the usual club manners of ladyless dinner-tables, easy and formal at the same time. [One guest’s impression of Algernon Swinburne] “He’s a cross between the devil and the Duke of Argyll!” Adams, who lost his balance of mind at first in trying to imagine that Swinburne was a natural product of Oxford, as muffins and pork-pies of London, . . . The idea that one has actually met a real genius dawns slowly on a Boston mind, but it made entry at last. Swinburne tested him then and there by one of his favorite tests—Victor Hugo. French poetry is at best severe exercise for foreigners; it requires extraordinary knowledge of the language and rare refinement of the ear to appreciate. Keenly mortified by the dullness of his own senses and instincts, he [Adams] knew he was no companion for Swinburne.

The three young men returned to London, and each went his own way. Adams’ interest in making friends was something desperate, but the “London season,” Milnes used to say, “is a season for making acquaintances and losing friends”; there was no intimate life.

Chap XIII. The Perfection of Human Society (1864)

[Henry was trying to get started in English society. He was not much in demand. English society was an amorphous thing anyway — unable to get your hands on it or define it. Royalty did not play much of a role in 1860 – 1865.]

If there was a well-dressed lady present, she was either American or “fast”. The English were not very stylish. Manners sometimes coarse. [Luminaries, in Adams’ book, included Tennyson, Dickens, Darwin, Browning, Bishop Wilberforce.]

[Henry Adams] conceived that the perfection of human society required that a man should enter a drawing-room where he was a total stranger, and place himself on the hearth-rug, his back to the fire, with an air of expectant benevolence, without curiosity, much as though he had dropped in on a charity concert, kindly disposed to applaud the performers, and to overlook mistakes.

. . . the habit of going from one strange company to another . . . England was a social kingdom whose social coinage had no currency elsewhere. Thus he found himself launched on waters where he had never meant to sail, and floating along a stream which carried him far from his port.

Yorkshire. A distinct strain, not of London. And it was in this Yorkshire literary circle that [finally provided friends!] The intimacy then begun with James Milnes Gaskell [a cousin of Monckton Milnes] and his circle of undergraduate friends, just about to enter the world.


While these chapters about his time in England form the heart of his biography, Henry Adams also has some surprising things to say about his college years at Harvard. That will be the subject of our next blog.

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