Mar 14, 2007

A Winters Discovery Finds New Admirers -- At Last!

Yvor Winters didn’t actually “discover” Henry Adams’s History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, but he was the only major literary critic I know of to pay any attention to the work or to judge it as a great work of prose in the decades after Adams’s History lapsed nearly into oblivion. No literary critic I know of has even thought to address such questions as whether histories are works of literary art or which histories should be appraised as the very finest works of “artistic“ history that we have. Moreover, few were the historians, as far as I have studied the matter, who paid much attention to Adams’s History during the period of Winters’s career (not to mention afterward) or evaluated it as one of the great works of history. Rather, Adams’s History had been almost wholly forgotten -- “undiscovered” as it were -- until Winters first wrote of it in 1943. Winters’s evaluation, nonetheless, was that it was one of the greatest works of prose literature ever written in English, a claim which he made in his long essay that is mostly censorious toward Adams, “Henry Adams, or the Creation of Confusion,” from the book The Anatomy of Nonsense (1943), which was reprinted in In Defense of Reason (1947). I have read Adams’s History, in case you’re wondering as you read the rest of this post.

In his essay on Adams, Winters, following his oft-used taxonomic method, went through in about ten pages his summary of the great works of history written in English, considered as expository prose literature, and offered a number of trenchant and mildly provocative judgments and observations. His brief overview is inspiring and revolutionary, perhaps mostly by implication -- and sadly it’s much too short. Winters never returned to the subject of history as art to expand significantly upon this one discussion. He should have written a book on the matter.

He did discuss history as a literary art form, with great insight into the nature of history as literature, on one more occasion: his essay “Problems for the Modern Critic of Literature” (reprinted in The Function of Criticism), in which he compared history to fiction as part of his radical examination of the artistic value of different literary genres. In that essay he made a relatively unusual claim about any work of literature, even for him: Winters called Adams’s History “very great.” It appears that by the 1950s Winters had grown to judge the History even more highly than he had a decade before and had begun to think of it as better than every other work of English-language history besides Macauley’s History of England. But he never offered any case for making this more exalted claim about the History, nor, as I mentioned, did he ever expand or refine his discussion of the great histories as literary art after the Adams essay. This is an area in which a Wintersian critic could do some good and very important work: devising, expanding, and making cases for the selections for a Winters Canon of the great works of historical literary art.

The specific new admirer of Henry Adams’s History is Gary Wills, one of America’s finest popular scholars and best nonfiction writers. The History concerns itself with the political development of the American Republic during a short period of its national adolescence, from 1800 to 1816. A dozen years ago, the History was issued in a beautiful Library of America edition. I went out right away and picked up the two volumes and read them through. In 2005, Wills released an erudite study of the History, which I will come back to in a moment. The latest news, from late in 2006, came from the New York Review of Books publishing imprint, which released a book of important passages from the History, which was originally published in nine volumes in the late 19th century and was out of print for a couple decades (though available in most university libraries, where I first obtained it). The NYRB book-long collation is entitled The Jeffersonian Transformation: Passages from the "History". The NYRB’s promotion contains some information on its new book.

The “Introduction” to this collation was written by Garry Wills. I have posted an illuminating and nicely turned excerpt from the “Introduction” as the first comment to this post.

I have looked over the NYRB book, and it appears to be a useful selection. For those new to the rigors and pleasures of Adams’s History, which is very little known, this collation should serve as a good companion to Adams's History itself.

Though this new book might foster some discussion, absent for the last 60 years, on Adams’s work on the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, I have little hope that it will inspire deeper discussion of history as a literary art -- not even among critics who have interests in or sympathies with Winters. For not even among that tiny group has there been any discussion of, or any attempt at an assessment of, Winters’s theories concerning history as an art form. I am pondering why this has happened. In the meantime, I will post my provisional assessment of Adams’s History on this blog next week. In time, I hope we will find occasion to return both to Adams’s History in greater depth and even to the broad subject of history as literary art on this blog.

Finally, I wish to note that Will’s book on Adams was the subject of a fine review essay, “The Unread Masterpiece,” in the New York Review of Books by one of America’s finest historians, Edmund S. Morgan (see the 11/17/05 issue of the NYRB; the essay is not available on line except by subscription). Morgan considered Wills’s assessment of the main themes of the History a little off the mark and exaggerated. Wills soon after wrote a brief letter, published in the 12/15/05 issue of the NYRB, in defense of his interpretation of Adams. This letter and a bit more are available at the NYRB site.

Once again, an excerpt from Gary Wills’s “Introduction” to the NYRB collation of passages from Adams’s History is attached as the first comment to this post.

1 comment:

Ben Kilpela said...

Here's is the excerpt from Wills's introduction:

Copyright © 2007 by Garry Wills. All rights reserved.

Published between 1889 and 1891, these books are brilliant in method and in style. They are the nonfiction prose masterpiece of nineteenth-century America. That is the wonder -- almost the miracle.

The mystery is that his great accomplishment fell into obscurity -- it was out of print through most of the twentieth century. There was a quiet but powerful resistance to both the subject and the author. Gibbon had described the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Adams traced the rise and triumph of an American empire. It was not a story that people wanted to hear. Some denied that there was any such thing as the rise and triumph of an American empire. Others felt that, if there was such a thing, it did not occur when Adams said it did. Still
others said that if it did occur then, he was the wrong person to prove that it did.

The resistance to the History came in the form of a pincer movement, operating from two directions -- one from before the History, connected with his family, the other coming from after the History, connected with his late masterpiece, The Education of Henry Adams. The first group thinks that Henry Adams is first and always an Adams, always speaking for his family. The second group thinks that Adams is always and only the Adams of the Education, disillusioned and satirical. These two attitudes converged, for different reasons, on the same part of the History, the first six chapters of the first volume on Jefferson’s terms (which Adams called his “administrations”). These chapters provide a thick description of a single year, 1800, and they are often hailed as a pioneer work of social history. They have even been printed separately. They are the most-read part of the larger work -- often the only part read, since reading them is now simply a substitute for reading the whole History. Reading them is a kind of antidote to the rest, an apotropaic entry-point to warn people from going farther. The way people treat them reminds me of an artifact I saw in the Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s, a box with a big button that said PUSH ME. When you pushed it, the box sprang open, a hand came up from inside and pulled the lid shut again. The opening chapters of the History were made to function like that.

Those six chapters describe an America compartmentalized and backward-looking, resistant to ideas, to inventions, to experiment, and to technology. For their own reasons, those coming at the work from Adams’s earlier life seize on this section and say, “See! That is what the whole History is going to be like, an attack on the Jeffersonians who had opposed his forebears.” Those looking back from the Education say, “See! He was already the Adams of the Education, satirical about his own country.”

The great historian Richard Hofstadter said that Adams deliberately chose a low mean period of American history so he could castigate it. He describes the whole work in words that apply only to its opening—“an age of slack and derivative culture, of fumbling and small-minded statecraft, terrible parochial wrangling and treasonous schemes.” Why would he want to devote the prime of his life to trashing such a worthless object? Hofstadter said it was an act of family revenge.

Noble Cunningham, a respected biographer of Jefferson, delivered a series of lectures published as a book -- The United States in 1800: Henry Adams Revisited -- which treats the six chapters as an unfair denigration of Jefferson. But it is clear from Cunningham’s text that he never bothered to read the last four chapters of the final volume. Those chapters celebrate the different America that was produced by the intervening sixteen years. It is an America that has new unity and purpose, an America that is forward-looking, intellectually vibrant, and religiously tolerant, one that has slipped free of the old straitjackets of ideology (whether Federalist or Republican).

Many other historians and literary critics have made the same mistake as Hofstadter and Cunningham. It is a scandal that this should be so. They take the initial chapters as a preview of all the volumes that follow them, overlooking the most obvious point, that opening’s announced subject, the state of America in the year 1800 -- the year before Jefferson took office. Adams is describing the condition left behind by the Federalists, the America that John Adams was still presiding over. Henry Adams gives this as a starting point from which the Republicans are going to propel the nation. Adams is not defending his forebears. He is saying that they made a mess of things. He had already written, in his life of John Randolph, that President Adams’s unconstitutional Alien and Sedition Acts proved that “it was time that opposition should be put in power.” He proposed to teach American history at Harvard by letting his prize graduate student, Henry Cabot Lodge, expound the Federalist position, since he (Henry) had no sympathy for it. He told the students that “John Adams was a demagogue,” and called John Quincy Adams “demonic” in his family relations and opportunist in his politics. Adams’s brother Charles objected to the harsh criticism of John Quincy in the History itself, and Henry prevented his brother Brooks from publishing a biography that praised John Quincy.