Summary and Analysis
Chapter XIX - Chaos
Henry returns to London in May of 1870 expecting a relaxing vacation after submitting his key essays for publication. The peaceful order of his life is turned to chaos when he receives a telegram informing him that his sister Louisa Catherine (Adams) Kuhn (1831-1870) has been thrown from a cab and injured. Tetanus has already set in when he arrives at her home in Italy. After ten days, she dies in convulsions. Having spent the Civil War years in London, Henry has not seen a great deal of death; he is profoundly affected by it. The Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), beginning that summer, seems to echo the terrible turbulence in his soul.
Adams is reluctant to write about his personal life in the Education and rarely shows emotion. An exception is the section of this chapter concerning the death his beloved sister, the oldest of the siblings. Allowing the reader into his troubled heart, Adams produces some of the finest writing in the book. He says that his "last lesson — the sum and term of education — began" when he learned of his sister's accident. Henry immediately travels to her home in Italy, a trip of two days; she is already dying of tetanus, an acute infectious disease that can easily be avoided today by way of inoculation. The narrator poignantly observes: "He had passed through thirty years of rather varied experience without having once felt the shell of custom broken. He had never seen nature — only her surface — the sugar-coating that she shows to youth."
This is a different Henry Adams, as a man and a writer. With deep feeling, he contrasts his sister's tragic situation with her strong spirit, which still is as it was during the "careless fun of 1859" when he had visited her: "Hour by hour the muscles grew rigid, while the mind remained bright, until after ten days of fiendish torture she died in convulsions." Entering the body through even a minor wound, tetanus typically causes spasmodic contractions; rigidity of voluntary muscles, especially in the jaw, face and neck; and, if unabated, death. Adams faces the usual clichés regarding death, the "thousand commonplaces of religion and poetry" intended to "veil the horror." None suffices. He observes that death "took features altogether new to him. . . . Nature enjoyed it, played with it, the horror added to her charm, she liked the torture, and smothered her victim with caresses." He is overwhelmed by the contrast between death and the joy of life surrounding the scene, the vitality of friends, the "soft, velvet air, the humor, the courage, the sensual fullness of nature and man." He finds no spiritual ease, concluding, "God might be, as the Church said, a Substance, but he could not be a Person."
Henry seeks stability with friends in the Alps but sees in nature only chaos, anarchy, and purposeless force. The Franco-Prussian War soon imposes a further sense of disorder and ruin. Henry flees to Wenlock Abbey in England, taking refuge in the profound peace of contemplation with the few monks who live there. He then receives a letter from Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard University, inviting him to accept a position as assistant professor of history, coupled with editorship of the North American Review. With distinct personal reservations, but the overwhelming encouragement of family and friends, he accepts.
rococo a style of music, architecture or decorative art characterized by profuse and delicate ornamentation, reduced scale, lightness, and grace.
atrophy a wasting away, especially of body tissue, due to disuse or lack of nutrition.
abate to make less in amount or degree.
affiches (French) posters, placards.
tour de force (French) feat of strength; an unusually skilled creation or performance.