The Education of Henry Adams By Henry Adams Chapter XXI - Twenty Years After

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.

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 success?

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 book-makers 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 writings.

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.

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 priest 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.

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