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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.: Henry Adams anticipated today’s world in his “speculations about the shape of things to come”

Schlesinger at a 2004 Library of America
event celebrating the publication of the
LOA edition of Studs Lonigan.
Photo by Star Black.
Born ninety-six years ago, on October 15, the eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. was an unfailingly supportive advisor and friend of The Library of America right up until his death in February 2007. A prolific writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, Schlesinger served as special assistant to President John F. Kennedy. During his tenure at the White House, he discussed with President Kennedy the need for a comprehensive, authoritative edition of American writing, such as The Library of America would later become. He was a longtime member of the LOA Board of Advisors.

A decade ago, on April 8, 2002, Schlesinger was one of six prominent writers who delivered a few remarks at the twentieth-anniversary celebration of The Library of America, which took place at the The Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Joining him on the stage were Gail Buckley, Michael Cunningham, Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, and Wendy Wasserstein. The presenters were asked to speak about writers from the LOA series for whom they feel a special affinity. Schlesinger chose Henry Adams, and his remarks appear below.

* * *
What a glorious moment this is! I can remember when The Library of America was only a gleam in the eye of Edmund Wilson—and here it stands today, a cultural triumph as brilliantly and securely established as the Pleiades series in France, a marvelous boon to the reeducation of the American people.

I think few would be more admiring of this achievement than the Library author I have thought to speak about tonight—the great historian and mordant social commentator Henry Adams (1838–1918).

His Education led all the rest when a panel mobilized by the Modern Library voted for the greatest non-fiction book written in English during the twentieth century. And Adams would feel as querulously at home in the twenty-first century, much of which he anticipated in his obsessed speculations about the shape of things to come.

He was a modern, indeed a post-modern, man in many of his concerns. About the role of women, for example, “The American always ostentatiously ignored sex, and American history mentioned hardly the name of a woman. . . . American art, like the American language and American education, was as far as possible sexless.” Yet, Adams said, without understanding the movement of sex, history was “mere pedantry.”

He was early in spotting the revolution underway. “The woman had been set free. . . . In every city, town, and farmhouse, were myriads of new types—or type-writers—telephone and telegraph-girls, shop-clerks, factory hands, running into millions on millions, and, as classes, unknown to themselves as to historians. . . . All these new women had been created since 1840; all were to show their meaning before 1940.” He almost predicted Rosie the Riveter.

Julia Ward Howe was the only woman member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters at the start of the twentieth century. “If we put Julia Ward Howe on our membership lists,” Adams wrote the Academy’s secretary, “. . . I do not see how we justify omitting Edith Wharton.” Adams protested in vain. The author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” was too much of a patriotic saint, and Edith Wharton, alas, wrote novels about divorce. For years after Mrs. Howe’s death in 1910, the old guard succeeded in keeping women out. Edith Wharton was not elected to the Academy until 1930, a long twenty years after Henry Adam’s protest.

Adams was also prescient in his concern over the concentration of private economic power. As he commented when large corporations first began to afflict and undermine our democracy, the Erie Railroad, he said, had “proved itself able to override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check. The belief is common in America that the day is at hand when corporations far greater than Erie . . . will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.”

He continued gloomily, “Under the American form of society no authority exists capable of effective resistance. The national government, in order to deal with the corporation, must assume powers refused to it by its fundamental law—and even then is exposed to the chance of forming an absolute government which sooner or later is likely to fall into the hands it is struggling to escape.”

Some years later he defined what he called McKinleyism as “the system of combinations, consolidations, trusts, realized at home, realizable abroad.” He would not be in the slightest surprised by the dismantlement by the Reagan and Bush administrations of effective restraints on corporate power—McKinleyism in spades.

But what especially establishes Adams’s postmodern character are his technological anticipations. He was obsessed by the acceleration of history. “The world did not double or treble its movement between 1800 and 1900,” Adams wrote in 1909, “but, measured by any standard . . . the tension and vibration and volume and so-called progression of society were fully a thousand times greater in 1900 than in 1800; —the force had doubled ten times over, and the speed, when measured by electrical standards as in telegraphy, approached infinity, and had annihilated both space and time.” Nothing, Adams thought, could slow the technological juggernaut. “The law of acceleration . . . cannot be supposed to relax its energy to suit the convenience of man.”

Adams’s law of acceleration now hurtles us into a new age. The shift from a factory-based to a computer-based economy is more dynamic—and more traumatic—even than our great-grandparents’ shift from a farm-based to a factory-based economy. The Industrial Revolution extended over generations and gave time for human and institutional adjustment. The Computer Revolution is far swifter, more concentrated, more drastic in its impact.

Henry Adams’s old contrast between the Virgin and the Dynamo is fulfilled today in the replacement of the Dynamo by the Computer. In 1909 Adams foresaw the dissolution of what he called the Mechanical Phase into the Electric Phase, to be followed by the Ethereal Phase, which, he predicted, would last till about 2025. Maybe the Internet represents the transition from the Electric to the Ethereal Phase.

Nor was Adams unaware of the catastrophic possibilities of his Law of Acceleration. On April 11, 1862, almost 140 years ago today, a few days after the battle of Shiloh, while the Monitor and the Merrimack, pioneer ironclads, were maneuvering around Newport News, Henry Adams wrote, “I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of man. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control. Some day science shall have the existence of mankind in its power, and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.”

All I can do is to say: read Henry Adams!

Previously on Reader’s Almanac
Elmore Leonard: John Steinbeck “set me free”

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