Adams was stunned when, in 1885, is wife of 13 years, Marian Hooper, committed suicide. Distraught, he arranged for the sculpture of a mysterious, cloaked woman to be placed upon her grave. The union had produced no children, and Adams never remarried. After his wife’s death, Adams began a period of restless wandering. He travelled the glove from the South Sea Island to the Middle East. Gradually the circuit narrowed to winters in Washington and summers in Paris.
Though Adams referred to his existence during this period as that of a “cave-dweller,” his life was quite the opposite. From the 1870s until his last years, intellectuals gravitated to his home to discuss art, science, politics and literature. Among them were the British diplomat Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice, the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. His closest friends were the geologist Clarence King and the painter John La Farge. Adams, King and La Farge were inseparable. Their letters remain a rich source of information on everything from gossip to the most current trends of thought.
While in France, Adams pushed further into the recesses of history in search of “a fixed point . . . from which he might measure motion down to his own time.” That point became medieval Christendom in the 13th century. In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (printed privately, 1904; published, 1913) he described the medieval world view as reflected in its cathedrals. These buildings, he believed, expressed “an emotion, the deepest man ever felt—the struggle of his own littleness to grasp the infinite.” Adams’ attraction to the Middle Ages lay in the era’s ideological unity; a coherence expressed in Catholicism and symbolized by the Virgin Mary.
The Education of Henry Adams (printed privately, 1907) was companion volume to Chartres. The Education remains Adams’ best known work and one of the most distinguished of all autobiographies. In contrast to Chartres, the Education centered upon the 29th-century universe of multiplicity, particularly the exploding world of science and technology. In opposition to the medieval Virgin, Adams saw a new godhead—the dynamo—symbol of modern history’s anarchic energies. The Education recorded his failure to understand the centrifugal forces of contemporary life. The book traced Adams’ confrontations with reality as he moved from the custom-bound world of his birth into the modern, existential universe in which certainties had vanished. The Education was published posthumously in 1918. – (C.McH.)