U.S. Intellectual History Blog

St. Thomas and Transatlantic Tourism: Seeing and Feeling with Henry Adams and Henry James

I’ve been thinking a little bit about a class I’m teaching again in the spring called “The U.S. Viewed from Abroad,” so I dug up and worked over some old thoughts that will probably never reach the classroom.

Viewing the American Scene[1] in 1904 after a twenty-year absence from his native country, Henry James took in Manhattan Island from the bay. The skyscrapers, he wrote, are “extravagant pins in a cushion” or yet,

growths…arisen to be ‘picked’ in time with a shears; nipped short off, by waiting fate, as soon as ‘science’ applied to gain, has put up on the table, from far up its sleeve, some more winning card. Crowned not only with no history, but with no credible possibility of time for history, they are simply the most piercing notes in that concert of the expensively provisional into which your supreme sense of New York resolves itself. (77)

This was a typical criticism of the U.S. atypically done. America the ever-rational, lacking in history, consumed with money-making (common enough), but then James works up a tailoring metaphor, setting up science as a gambler/speculator along with all of the New York stockjobbers, pulling cards from up its sleeve. It anticipated today’s hedge-fund managers. Continuing the riff, James anthropomorphized the skyscrapers, noticing that “this consciousness…of the finite, the menaced, the essentially invented state, twinkles ever, to my perception, in the thousand glassy eyes of these giants of the mere market” (77).  These scenes were no match for, say, the tower of Giotto in Florence, which, being older and comparatively windowless, seemed to James “serene in its beauty.” Its form followed the artists’ intention that it be beautiful because no one needed to see everything outside from the inside. It was a familiar Jamesian appreciation for discretion.

Trinity Church in Manhattan, wedged in and dominated by skyscrapers now appeared impotent, a “shrunken presence.” It got worse. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Trinity “aches and throbs,” so that the “felicity of simplified Gothic,” and the rest of its “charming elements” are “mercilessly deprived of their visibility” (78).


Questions like these, about beauty, sex, cultural expression and thus history, (dis)continuity, and its relation to form, also recalled the central concerns of Henry Adams in his idiosyncratic intellectual history of medieval France, Mont St. Michel and Chartres: A Study in Thirteenth Century Unity (1905).[2] Together with James, Adams made up half of a fin de siecle duo of traitorous American aesthetes. James, famously, was Theodore Roosevelt’s “miserable little snob.” Adams, less famously became Richard Rorty’s “proto-Heideggerian pessimist.” Their letters to one another zing back and forth across the Atlantic with a level of mock horror and withering irony teetering along the edge of something resembling high camp.

In his famous quasi-autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907) Adams sought unities where modernity, particularly in its grasping Yankee variety, offered the chaos of what he called the “multiverse.” Adopting the guise of the historian there, he longed for a complete conceptual statement of a cultural moment, something easier done when the Virgin dominated in the 1200s, and something that critical theorists, over 700 years later, figured entirely impossible amidst the vagaries of the culture industry. From the Adams of the Education and the James of the American Scene we get, this time from ambivalent or ambiguous Americans, a familiar set of metaphors that have long dominated Europeans’ use of the concept “America:” shallowness and superficiality, a lack of history, and what the Dutch scholar Rob Kroes has called Americans’ “blithe bricolage”: the careless splitting into bits and haphazard reassembling of traditions that took centuries to create in Europe.[3]

But both men decry Americans’ fragmented or partial sense of form while smartly playing the part of the bricoleur themselves. In the most widely read and anthologized chapter in his Education, Adams set the Virgin, the central symbol that drove European artistic creation during the late middle ages, against the Dynamo’s twentieth century generating of electricity, all aesthetic impotence, masculine force and chaos. Henry James lamented the “tragic case” of Trinity Church, “hideously threatened” by the disintegrating gaze of the “thousand glassy eyes” of the skyscrapers. Only by expressing dissolution did both men find some uneasy comfort in the cause of aesthetic unity.

The case is easier made with The American Scene and The Education than with the Henry Adams of Mont St. Michel and Chartres. In Scene, disastrous juxtapositions assaulted James from the get-go. No sooner did he round the corner of Manhattan Island in his train car on the barge when the horror revealed itself. His relatively short twenty-year absence only intensified the rupture, where things formerly in plain sight had been covered up. Trinity Church, sandwiched between skyscrapers, was an empirical fact. He saw it. With Adams, in Mont St. Michel, we cross not the bay but the pons seclorum, the bridge of the ages. He plops us down, rather blindly at first, some 850 years in the past, where “the man who wanders into the twelfth century is lost, unless he can grow prematurely young” (7).  It takes lots more imagining.

“The following pages” wrote Adams, in his preface to Mont St. Michel, “are written for nieces, who are willing for the time, to be nieces in wish.” Fathers and sons lacked the necessary distance, and nephews, he puckishly admitted, “as a social class…never read at all.” Happily, for nieces, he added, they’re likely to “carry a Kodak.” Posing as historical tour guide, Adams gave us snapshots, adopting the mantle of George Eastman and his company’s turn of the century slogan: “you press the button, we do the rest.”

But I’ve always wondered why Adams put a camera in our hands (collective nieces in wish that we are). Did he surrender a bit to what E.L. Godkin once called the “chromo-civilization?” It seems more of a job for Henry James, radically empirical (in a William Jamesean sense) reporter on the scene. There’s a certain magic on the other side of the camera button, but it makes me restive and uneasy. The camera’s eye intrudes into the entirely made-up mise en scenes that Adams later set up so meticulously; it flattens the imaginative historical landscape on the other side of the bridge of the ages. Not only do photographs flatten, but they also fragment experience, substituting images for its warp and woof, making, as Roland Barthes claimed for example, “museum objects.” In a similar sense, the philosopher Nelson Goodman argues that photographs cannot faithfully copy an object because “there is no such thing as the way the world is.”

But Henry Adams’ story about his niece’s Kodak camera opened up his later reading of, and appreciation for, Thomas Aquinas. He would fix for us, at least in wish, the way the world was. The long standing philosophical debate, at its height in the Middle Ages, between nominalists and realists set the scene. Roughly, on the one hand, according to nominalists, the abstract concepts or general terms we attach to objects of sense have no reality aside from their use as names. On the other hand, according to realists, the abstract concepts or general terms we use for objects of sense have independent status or existence, and are real apart from their uses as names for objects (the classic, crude form of this is Plato’s realm of forms). The nominalist position tended to favor a certain irreducible complexity about the world, while the realist position offered some possibility for unity, translated as form and represented in various incomplete ways in the phenomenal world, especially late medieval architecture.

So while Henry James, in a kind of nominalistic way, insisted that objects speak for themselves amidst the American Scene (Trinity Church complained, “the wretched figure I am making is as little as you see my fault”) Adams imposed his own sort of realist order. Like George Eastman’s slogan, he ignored the stubborn nominalism of the world as it presented itself, embracing tour guide, if not entirely the historian’s, craft. Moderns came to find that, despite the alchemy of the developing room, Kodaks, strictly speaking, did not “do the rest.” Adams, on the other hand, did that for us. He meant to transport the reader. The business of doing so did not involve: “technical knowledge; not accurate information; not correct views either on history, art, or religion; not anything that can possibly be useful or instructive; but only a sense of what those centuries had to say, and a sympathy with their ways of saying it” (61).

Adams asked we tourists feel rather than think. Pedantry moved over for poetry. Yet, is seeing or feeling believing? We never know entirely. Adams, the tour guide and uncle, was at once the philosophical realist and the poet of the fragmentary and incomplete, the American bricoleur and cosmopolitan conservative. He alternately embraced and rejected his niece’s Kodak. Snapshots and sentiments warred with one another. The careful, meticulous balancing work in this position allowed for sparkling examples of Adams’ trademark self-deprecating wit.  The great hall in the Merveille at Mont St. Michel inspired this one: it would make “an exceedingly liberal education for anybody, tourist, or engineer, or architect, and would make the fortune of an intelligent historian, if such should happen to exist; but the last thing we ask from them is education or instruction” (42).

Sometimes he let us nieces in on the fun. This was his take on St. Thomas Aquinas’ epic scholarly output of some twenty-eight quarto volumes: “He bequeathed to the church a mass of manuscripts that tourists will never know enough to estimate except by weight” (326). In his treatment of St. Thomas, the premier architect of the “Church Intellectual,” we nieces don’t need a complete understanding; the doctor of the church became instead a target for ironic jokes.

Luckily, by poking fun at Thomas, Adams poked fun at himself. And why not? There’s something comical about imagining, for example, a situation that Adams doesn’t treat, although I wish he did: St. Thomas’ imprisonment at the hands of his family, who tried in numerous ways to lead him away from the path of his vocation. The best one was when his brothers, at their mother’s behest, tested Thomas’ chastity by sending a temptress into his cell. Thomas drove her out with a brand from the fireplace. Praying to God for integrity of mind and body, Thomas had a vision of two angels who fit him with the holy girdle of perpetual virginity. He never again experienced even the “slightest motions of concupiscence.”[4] A story like this takes on tragi-comic dimensions if we view Adams, long a widower by the time he wrote Mont St. Michel and Chartres, as a stand-in for Thomas.

I should really let Adams speak for himself. Here’s how he sets the scene for St. Thomas:

Outwardly Thomas was heavy and slow in manner, if it is true that his companions called him “the big dumb ox of Sicily”; and in fashionable or court circles he did not enjoy a reputation for an acute sense of humor.  Saint Louis’ household offers a picture not wholly clerical, least of all among the king’s brothers and sons, and perhaps the dinner table was not much more used then than now, to abrupt interjections of theology into the talk about hunting and hounds; but however it happened, Thomas one day surprised the company by solemnly announcing—“I have a decisive argument against the Manicheans!” No wit or humor could be more to the point–between two Saints that were to be, than a decisive argument against the enemies of Christ, and one greatly regrets that the rest of the conversation was not reported, unless indeed it is somewhere in the twenty-eight quarto volumes; but it probably lacked humor for courtiers. (327)

Before Clover Adams’ tragic suicide, the Adamses were widely known for their witheringly snobbish humor in America’s court in Washington D.C. Mrs. Grant, Henry once reported, “squinted like an isosceles triangle.” This time around, now an old man, Adams dissuaded nieces from taking on Thomas in his all his complexity. It’s a very breezy, presumably American disintegrating move. But Adams accompanied it with a tale of unity, of St. Thomas against the nominalists, locating God in the realm of sense, the prime, fixed motor of the universe. The greatest of church architects, Thomas’ system swept clear the space for the massive conceptual edifice of the Roman Catholic Church at its highest point. This foundational space appeared metaphorically in the piling up of architectural styles and forms across the centuries that Adams described in loving detail at the Church at Mont Michel and the Cathedral at Chartres. Portions of Mont St. Michel, the older, Norman church, he told us, collapsed under the weight of new construction, while no such fate befell Chartres. St. Thomas and the church architects at Chartres did good work, at least for a while.

So it’s no surprise that Adams, the widower, now the celibate, found in Gothic architecture the highest expression of humankind’s sense of beauty—dedicated in The Education to his idea of the Virgin, to woman. The gothic arch was a broken arch, and the rupture gave material strength to its slender form, it married the two parts. Ever since his wife Clover’s death, Adams lived a partial, broken life. His jokes about Thomas amounted to self-deprecation. This was the same Henry Adams who had written nine historical volumes on the Early American Republic that no one, except for Garry Wills, reads anymore. Clover Adams was also very talented photographer. She appears both in the figure of the niece in Mont St. Michel, and in the gothic arches of Chartres.

It also makes me think of the twenty-year gap in The Education of Henry Adams between 1871 and 1891, and Clover’s absence in that famous autobiography. The enemies were the nominalists, in the medieval past and in the twentieth century. Twentieth century mechanics, the modern nominalists, altogether rejected St. Thomas’ sublime realist architecture, his unities. Putting words in their mouths, Adams had them reason that:

Your inference may be sound logic but it is not proof. Actually, we know less about it than you did. All we know is the thing we can handle, and we cannot handle your fixed, intelligent prime motor. To your old ideas of forms we have added what we call Force, and we are rather further than ever from reducing the complex to unity. In fact, if you are aiming to convince me, I will tell you flatly that I know only the multiple, and have no use for unity at all. (332)

St. Thomas was alive and well, but cordoned off in the Church Intellectual, apart from the twentieth century realm of matter, energy, and chaos.  Like Henry Adams’ hackneyed, fantastical attempts at applying thermodynamic laws to history, Thomas’ fate was deeply ironic. The saint had enlivened Aristotle’s purposeful universe with the force of God’s truth, making the deity a sensible thing, as Adams puts it “a concrete fact, proved by the senses of sight and touch” (332).

Let me offer a personal anecdote as illustration. Growing up in the Catholic Church as a boy, going to Catholic School, I can remember the vaguely pantheist strains of a hymn sung at children’s mass by acoustic-guitar-strumming Dominican sisters: “God is in the winter winds that blow/ God is in the rain and in the snow/ God is in the birds that sing/ God is in everything.” Now I realize that was somebody’s twentieth century attempt to recall a premodern, enchanted world of portents and sacred objects.

Luckily, for Adams and for us, St. Thomas and the Cathedrals are still around, but nieces can only ever tour them. If Adams had his way, transporting us back to the thirteenth century, we would have some feel for unities, which, Kodak slung over our shoulder, we can only picture in some incomplete sense. The ruptures between the medieval and the modern in the end are too great a distance to travel, and they culminate in our view of perhaps the most complete statement artistic statement ever—at least for Henry Adams—the lovely form of the broken arches of Chartres Cathedral. This was Adams’ sublime medieval realist architecture, a sort of gorgeously useless tourism, informed by something like a phenomenology of the past, the historical record and poetic figures of loss and rupture.

William James loved the book Mont. St. Michel and Chartres, it “reads” he commented, “as from a man in the fresh morning of life, with a frolic power unusual to historic literature.” I think James was partly wrong about Adams and the book. On the surface it was lively, but at the level of form and figurative language, it sometimes hid darker thoughts. Adams embraced William and Henry’s dependence upon the stuff and sense of experience, which would later come to be called phenomenology. Amidst the familiar ruptures of modernity, in “the maelstrom” as Robert Richardson, William James’ biographer puts it, certain pragmatists wondered if there wasn’t some world of pure experience that might shape it all. William James thought that we lived in this world, mastering at least some of its flows and rivulets with practical skill and ends-driven activity. Henry James thought he might describe it. For William, feeling might be believing, and believing met action. For Henry Adams, such comforting thoughts were illusory, better relegated to the imaginative reconstruction of the past, great fodder for uncles on tour with their nieces in tow, Kodaks at the ready.

[1] Henry James, The American Scene (Horizon, 1967). Succeeding references in parentheses.

[2] Henry Adams, Mont St. Michel and Chartres: A Study in Thirteenth Century Unity (Penguin, 1986). Succeeding references in parentheses.

[3] See Rob Kroes, If You’ve Seen One, You’ve Seen the Mall: Europeans and American Mass Culture (Illinois, 1996).


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