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April 30, 1999
TOP NONFICTION BOOKS: A MESSAGE FROM TWO OLD MEN
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
Consider an old man, a distinguished American writer, deeply embittered by personal loss, writing his memoirs in the first years of this century.
Behind him stretches the Victorian era and everything that preceded it; he has seen the coming of the railroads and the telegraph, the telephone and the electric light, the war between the states and the rise of a unified Germany. The first automobiles are squawking along on the dirt streets beyond his library window.
In front of him yawns our century, a time that he foresees will be filled with science miracle and science horror, global wars, perhaps space flight and the triumphant conquest of nature.
He writes and writes, into the night, recording all of his failed hopes, his swelling despair, and his perverse satisfaction at not having to see the next act of the human drama.
Actually you're looking at two old American men in the early years of this century. One of them you know very well - he goes by the name of Mark Twain, and he is, of course, then as now, the much-beloved author of novels that memorialize American childhood.
The other old man you may not know as well. His name is Henry Adams.
The Modern Library, in its list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books written in English in the 20th century, puts "The Education of Henry Adams" at No. 1. "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" comes in at No. 43. Proportionately, that's a lot of weight given to our embittered old American writers at the turn of the century.
Twain was a self-made and self-educated man who came from a mud-soaked village on the banks of the Mississippi. Adams, on the other hand, grew up at the apex of New England society, the grandson of one U.S. president and the great-grandson of another. The latter would be John Adams, who was not merely the second American chief executive, but, like Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, a Founding Father, a man who was literally present at the creation of modern liberal government.
That was Adams' family tree. He was (though he denied it) a Brahmin of the Brahmins, educated at Harvard, where he also held a professorship, the author of immense histories of American politics and diplomacy, the intimate of presidents, artists, architects, and sages.
The world at that time was not so large - the two men, Twain and Adams, moved in much the same circles. Both of them saw Henry James whenever he was in the country. Both were lionized by the wealthy and cultured in whatever American city they appeared, from San Francisco to Boston. And both, at the height of their powers and fame, saw the women they loved sink beneath the weight of madness, illness, death.
In a very true sense, the fruit of Twain's grief is his autobiography, an experimental, self-indulgent, ground-breaking book that wouldn't be published till after his death. In a sense just as true, the upshot of Adams' grief is a regular Bruckner symphony of American prose, a strangely self-effacing yet clear-sighted and evocative third-person memoir that he wrote for the eyes of his friends and would only reluctantly allow to be published after he was felled by a stroke.
While Twain in his "Autobiography" writes obsessively about his losses - the death of his wife and two of his daughters - Adams takes infinite pains in his "Education" to avoid not only any mention of the suicide of his wife, Clover Adams, but any mention of her at all. He brings the story of his lifelong search for insight into human history right up to the point where the pair are about to meet, then skips to a time following her death. A person who knew no better would come away from the book assuming he had never married.
It is one of literature's great feats of reticence, because the entire narrative is suffused in every syllable with his loss, his sadness, his frustration, his guilt and his anger at his wife for her violence. All those emotions pour into his perceptions of his age. Yet she is nowhere even alluded to, except very indirectly. It's as though Beethoven had written a piano concerto with the direction that the piano should be stationed outside the concert hall.
Adams, a student of great writing working at the height of his powers, produced a memoir that could scarcely be improved upon by the most wise and discriminating of editors. Twain, by contrast, produced a topsy-turvy pile of handwritten and typewritten pages and even phonograph records (he may be the first writer to use Edison's technology to dictate his material) that a later biographer named Bernard DeVoto had to spend years whipping into publishable shape.
Among other topics, Twain wrote of his deeply-held belief that writing was an irrational activity - he felt that words came from something he was among the first to call "the unconscious." The less he meddled with the words, he thought, the truer the tale.
Both of these old men had covered the globe, traveling widely in Europe, the Holy Land, even the islands of the Pacific. Twain had sought gold, then work as a journalist, then, as a famous author, big lecture fees; Adams had sought the wellsprings of history and, in later years, the glimmerings of the future at the World's Fairs that were springing up everywhere as showcases and clearinghouses for new technology.
To Adams, the electric dynamo was identical to the medieval Virgin Mary - an inexplicable source of mysterious energy, accepted and utilized by humans on pure faith. He littered his writing table with magnets and compasses in hopes that the direction civilization was traveling in would reveal itself to him.
Twain, on the other hand, was past caring. Cruelly deprived by illness and mischance of his beloved women, he saw the entire universe as a meaningless magic show. And that's where the two old men parted company.
Having finished his "Education," Adams would go on - even in his increasingly feeble last years - to write "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres," an essay on medieval culture and religion as filled with joy and awe as it is with hurt and doubt. Twain labored long on "The Mysterious Stranger," a disturbingly abortive tale of a cosmic visitor who teaches the central character that life is nothing but illusion and heartbreak.
If Twain’s is the world we actually got in our century, Adams' is the one we're still looking for in the next.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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