The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Summary and Analysis Chapter XXXII - Vis Nova

Summary

Adams has spent most of the last third of his book dealing with new science; to the reader's benefit, he is also concerned with international politics. Here, the author uses the term vis nova (new force) to describe not only scientific advance but also the new role of the United States in the international scene. Returning from Paris, Henry is in for a shock: "On January 6, 1904, he reached Washington, where the contrast of atmosphere astonished him, for he had never before seen his country think as a world power." As if to remind the reader of the importance of history, Henry returns to the topic of Chapter XXX, the Russo-Japanese War, and Secretary of State Hay's interest in keeping China's doors open. As Jean Gooder points out, Adams is friendly with Russia's Count Cassini; but his sympathies lie with the Japanese. If Russia's "inertia" moves it into a controlling position in Southeast Asia, Henry fears, China may be closed to the West for a long time. Japan is no innocent bystander; its military rivalry with China and Korea is traditional and will last at least another forty years. But Adams agrees with Hay that it is in the West's best interest to keep Russia out. The Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902 puts Japan in a better position to confront Russia because of the support of England. Adams welcomes the success of the Open Door policy; he agrees with Hay that the West needs improved trade with China. The policy, says Adams, is Hay's "last great triumph." Henry's dear friend and neighbor will die on July 1, 1905.

Henry witnesses the scientific aspect of vis nova at the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, timed to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase (actually 1803). Ever the New Englander, Adams finds the Midwest reeking with smoke and crawling with dirty suburbs: "Evidently, cleanliness was not to be the birthmark of the new American." St. Louis, he concludes, is "a third-rate town of half-a-million people without history, education, unity or art." But he is impressed by the overwhelming pageantry produced by electricity: "The world had never witnessed so marvelous a phantasm . . . a glow half so astonishing . . . long lines of white palaces, exquisitely lighted by thousands on thousands of electric candles, soft, rich, shadowy, palpable." This is the third exposition (Chicago, Paris) that has overwhelmed Henry with the burgeoning force of science. To understand his awe, one needs only to live briefly in a world without electricity. As he approaches his seventieth year, Adams feels pressed for time. He feels he must "account to himself for himself somehow" and "invent a formula of his own for his universe." Adams claims he is not looking for absolute truth but merely "a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it." The spool will be his "Dynamic Theory of History."

Glossary

disconcerted frustrated, confused, or embarrassed.

iniquity wickedness; lack of righteousness or justice.

Fête Dieu (French) God's Festival; the Feast of Corpus Christi, a festival celebrated on the Thursday or Sunday after Trinity Sunday, in honor of the Eucharist.

seneschal a steward or major-domo (chief steward) in the household of a medieval noble.

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