Education, chaos, Henry Adams


(Henry Adams at his desk. Massachusetts Historical Society via Wikipedia: photograph by Marion Hooper Adams, 1883.)

‘Said Mr Adams, of the education,
Teach? at Harvard?
Teach? It cannot be done.
and this I had from the monument’

So Ezra Pound, in the first and longest of The Pisan Cantos.[1] That ‘monument’ was the philosopher George Santayana: born in Spain, he went to the United States at the age of eight, later studied at Harvard and taught there for many years before returning to Europe for the last forty years of his long life.

‘Mr Adams’ was not the John Adams to whom Pound so frequently referred, often pairing him with Thomas Jefferson; nor the historian Brooks Adams but his elder brother Henry Adams (born 16 February 1838), also historian—and novelist, and autobiographer.

In early 1939, Pound had put together four quotations, from John Adams, Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and section 8 of the American Constitution, as an Introductory Text Book, which he asserted ‘should be taught in all American universities as the basis of a true American culture.’[2] Towards the end of that year, he called on Santayana when the latter was in Venice. As David Moody surmises, ‘Possibly feeling rather talked at as by an over-excited teacher’, he told Pound the anecdote about Henry Adams which found its way into the Cantos.[3] But Noel Stock is surely correct in saying that, while Pound seems to make the story apply to Harvard in particular, Santayana in his autobiography implies a more general statement about teaching.[4]

‘Never before had Adams been able to discern the working of law in history, which was the reason of his failure in teaching it, for chaos cannot be taught.’[5] So Adams—writing of himself in the third person, as he does throughout his book—defines the problem. Santayana looked back to that meeting in Persons and Places: ‘“So you are trying to teach philosophy at Harvard,” Mr Adams said’, adding ‘“I once tried to teach history there but it can’t be done. It isn’t really possible to teach anything.”’ Santayana commented dryly, ‘This may be true, if we give very exacting meanings to our terms; but it was not encouraging.’[6]


(Ernest and Mary Fenollosa, via )

For Pound, the main link with Henry Adams—about whom he is not particularly complimentary—is the figure of Ernest Fenollosa, whose notes and direct translations, given to Pound by Fenollosa’s widow, Mary, enabled both the Noh plays and the poems of Cathay; and whose ideas expressed in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry had a lasting influence upon Pound.

Chapter XX of Adams’ Education is headed ‘Failure (1871); Chapter XXI is headed ‘Twenty Years After (1892). In that large and gaping temporal space, Adams was married to Marion Hooper, known as ‘Clover’ (a talented amateur photographer), in 1872; she committed suicide in December 1885. In the late spring of 1886, Adams, in company with the artist John La Farge, set off westward to Japan. After a week in Tokyo, they moved to a small house, belonging to a Buddhist priest, in the hills, close to the summer villa of Ernest and Mary Fenollosa in Nikko. La Farge emerged from his stay with drawings, sketches and other material for future use—the book, An Artist’s Letters from Japan, and a printed version in the same year of a talk centred on Hokusai—but Adams seems never to have really engaged with Japan.


(Magnolia by John La Farge, 1860)

In September, Adams and La Farge sailed back across the Pacific to San Francisco. Lawrence Chisolm remarks that, ‘For Adams, return was a prelude to years of wandering, until at last, in The Education of Henry Adams, he transformed the story of his personal searches into a history of Western man.’[7]

‘His first step, on returning to Washington’, Adams wrote, ‘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’ (329). This was the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens; and that ‘bronze figure’ was a memorial to Adams’ wife Clover. Adams discusses his own, and others’, responses to the figure but doesn’t allude to the reason for its being there at all. Robert Hughes suggests that this may in fact have been one legacy of Japan: its inspiration ‘seems to have been a sixth-century wooden figure sheathed in bronze which he saw in the convent of Chugu-ji’.[8]


(Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Adams Memorial (1886-1891), Rock Creek, Washington)

Adams once noted that ‘One sees what one brings’ (387)—and he brought an extensive knowledge of artistic and religious history to the moment when ‘he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces totally new’ (382). He had seen, at the Louvre and at Chartres, what he judged ‘the highest energy ever known to man’, exercising ‘vastly more attraction over the human mind than all the steam-engines and dynamos ever dreamed of’ (384-385), yet the unprecedented speed and extent of new scientific and technological developments represented now, in 1900, ‘a new avalanche of unknown forces’ which would require ‘new mental powers to control. If this view was correct, the mind could gain nothing by flight or by fight; it must merge in its sensual multiverse, or succumb to it’ (463).

Familiar modernist concerns: speed, fragmentation, instability, multiplicity – but Adams gets in quite early.

(There was an intriguing novel called Panama by Eric Zencey, which sets Henry Adams in Paris in 1892, investigating the disappearance of a young woman connected with the Panama Canal bribery scandal. I’m slightly alarmed to see that it’s over twenty years since I read it.)


[1] The Cantos of Ezra Pound, fourth collected edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 433.

[2] Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 129; A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume II: The Epic Years 1921–1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 299.

[3] A. David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet: A Portrait of the Man and His Work: Volume III: The Tragic Years 1939-1972 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 7.

[4] Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), 478.

[5] Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918; New York: The Modern Library, 1931), 363: page numbers in brackets refer to this edition.

[6] George Santayana, Persons and Places: The Background of My Life (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1944), 234.

[7] Lawrence W. Chisolm, Fenollosa, the Far East and American Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 75.

[8] Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (London: The Harvill Press, 1997), 244.


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