Michael O'Brien.  Henry Adams and the Southern Question.  Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005.  199 pages.  ISBN 0-8203-2711-5.  Reviewed by Phillip C. Richardson, Jr., for the Journal of Southern Religion.
In this slim, elegantly written volume, Michael O'Brien has produced a work sure to please intellectual historians as well as literary critics.  Henry Adams has long been known for his supposed slur against the South.  In his preface, O'Brien quotes the infamous lines: “Strictly, the Southerner had no mind; he had temperament.  He was not a scholar; he had no intellectual training; he could not analyze an idea, and he could not even conceive of admitting two” (xi).  But the meaning which these words had for Adams was much more complicated than they appear at first glance.  Thus, over the course of four chapters, O'Brien narrates the changing role that the South played in Adams's thought and writing.  In making his claims, O'Brien draws from Adams's fictional works, histories, letters, and memoirs, and he carefully fleshes out his analysis by incorporating the findings of other historians and literary critics regarding Adams, American literature, and American history.  A perusal of his footnotes reveals a remarkable eclecticism of mind to be admired by all scholars of the South.

". . . though [Adams] enjoyed living in the Southern clime of the Chesapeake, he had little intercourse with southerners or southern thought. "  


In the first chapter O'Brien attempts to sketch Adams's thinking about the South as a young man.  The young Adams, a moderate antislavery man, hoped to engender a gradual emancipation of slavery by educating the South, for in his mind education gave New England its moral superiority.  Further, Adams believed slavery contrary to the spirit of Christianity.  Even Adams, however, could not claim to be a full-blooded New Englander.  He acknowledged his own “ancestral tie to the South,” which he inherited by way of his grandmother, a woman of half-Maryland and half-English stock who lived quite a peripatetic life (17). This young Adams also liked living in Washington because he found New England's harsh winters too brutish for his particular tastes.  And though he enjoyed living in the Southern clime of the Chesapeake, he had little intercourse with southerners or southern thought.  To the core of his thinking about the South during these formative years ran his stringent nationalism.

A trip through Europe to complete his education also proved decisive for shaping Adams's thought.  In keeping with a common Romantic typology, Adams believed southern Europe to be a land of freedom from the oppression of more northerly European states.  “There began to form in his mind,” writes O'Brien, “to the point where it became an instinct, that to move south was to move towards freedom and away from responsibility.  The north was winter and chill and duty; the south was spring and flowers and renewal” (19).  But the freedom of the south emerged as a severe dialectic: “Darkness and light, the two things went together; the lightness of feeling coupled with the darkness of vice” (18).  O'Brien asserts, though, that Adams “was slow to apply it [the typology] to the American South”; only in the 1870s did he “move towards using this language on and about the American scene” (19-20).  By this time, Adams had emerged from a great turning point in his understanding of the South: he had poured over his grandmother Louisa's extensive manuscripts in 1869 with a mind to publish a selection of her diaries and correspondence.  Adams thereafter acknowledged “her offering a link with the South” (20).  Adams linked her Maryland blood to her own feelings of alienation from the culture of New England.  She spent many of her later years in Washington, and in truth felt a much closer tie to the nation's capital than she did to either her father's or her husband's home states.  Ancestral ties or not, Louisa generally took an equidistant position towards both New England and the South, maintaining the moderate line.  Adams read her thoughts upon political and sectional discord, and as his own thinking on such matters took shape, some of her positions reappeared superimposed upon his own scholarship.

In chapter 2, O'Brien dedicates himself to unraveling the significance of Adams's move to Washington in 1877.  Adams chose Washington because it “was growing, vibrant, fluid, malleable” (47).  The nation's capital at this time, O'Brien reminds readers, was “demographically a southern place” (51).  Southerners, white and black, constituted a majority of Washington's population, and a few of the former cultivated close friendships with the Adamses, while a few of the latter worked as servants in the Adams household for extended periods of time.  The city had much to recommend it to Adams's peculiar inclinations: Washington had mild winters, close ties to his family lineage, and was the center of American political life.  The move to the nation's capital had profound implications for his thinking about things southern.  By making his home in Washington, Adams came “for the first time, into sustained intimacy with Southerners” (59).  The Adamses did not choose to rub elbows with just any Southrons; rather, they allowed into their social circle only the most charming.  And in this, political positions mattered little.  In fact, O'Brien suggests that the Adamses displayed something of “political amorality” in their choice of southern companions (65).  O'Brien does not overstate the significance of these connections, for he emphatically declares that the Adamses moved in a large social circle, and only a small number of southerners made the approach towards the intimate center.  Nevertheless, these southern connections profoundly shaped Adams's understanding of the South, because he “began to see Southerners as real people, with histories and problems, not just as demonic abstractions of the Slave Power.  This was the social equivalent of the intellectual process that Adams was undergoing in these years.  By deciding to write about the early republic, he was obliged to understand Southerners” (72).

Chapter 3 examines Adams's perspective of the South during the middle years of his career.  Throughout the 1880s, O'Brien writes, “the South mattered deeply to Adams” (112).  His nationalism influenced his perspective, from which he “narrated American history as a mix of regionalism and nationalism,” because “an American story required a historian to identify this dialectic between the regional and the national” (87).  For Adams the most important test of America's meaning came during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, putting him at odds with historians like his brother Charles, who typically regarded the history of New England as the true history of the nation.  By focusing on America in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, “the meaning of the American experience was compressed within a few scant years, and, given the Southern dominance during these years, the arbitration of that meaning was peculiarly given into the hands of Southerners” (106).  However, Adams contrasted the principle southern characters of these years with those of the South during the late antebellum era.  In both his history and his fiction Adams limned a portrait of declension among southern leaders, as he charted the dismal intertwining of the venerable ideal of states' rights with the poison of the proslavery argument.  By emphasizing the abuses attendant upon the rise of the Slave Power, Adams argued “that there was a declension from the South of George Washington to that of Jefferson Davis, and hence Adams accepted that the cultural moments of 1800 and 1860 were profoundly different.  He would not erase slavery from 1860, but he was willing to obscure it in 1800” (112). 

The final chapter interrogates Adams's thinking about the South in his later, more mature years.  The late Adams was peculiarly given to travel, partially to exotic locales of “southern” climates.  As already mentioned, Adams embraced Romantic notions about the “South,” believing southern destinations “lighter,” freer locales.  The American South, then, emerged in Adams's mind “as a landscape alone, as an emotion and not a thought” (122).  As a result it became “unnecessary for him to seek a knowledge of Southern culture” (122).  He viewed the region as “preindustrial” and “outside the domain of science and industry” (125-126).

O'Brien views Adams's two great works of these years—Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams—as an intended pair with interlocking themes.  In each book, Adams sought to emphasize the necessity of intertwining both heart and head.  In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, he dissected the culture of medieval Europe; he located the intellect of Europe in the north and the heart farther south.  He cast Mont-Saint-Michel “as . . . the analogue of New England,” and Chartres stood for the south, in the generic Romantic sense of southerly places.  What he emphasized, however, was that through Thomas Aquinas, medieval Europe forged a synthesis of intellect and emotion, of masculinity and femininity—a unity that stabilized culture.  But his Education tested this principle in modern America but found no possibility for a new synthesis of the two opposing principles.  What Adams desired was the “androgyny” he found in the medieval synthesis.  In his reckoning of modern America, Boston figured as the nation's mind, while he sketched the “South as the feminine side of American culture” (132).  In modern America, O'Brien insinuates, Adams despaired over the prospects of achieving a synthesis of intellect and emotion, of the masculine and the feminine.

Just before closing the book, O'Brien examines the ways that various southern intellectuals appropriated Adams's supposed slur against the South.  Certainly antebellum southern intellectuals would have railed against such a slur—most southern elites of that generation believed in a balance of feeling and thought.  Somewhat surprisingly, he finds that some modern southerners embraced Adams's remarks as testimony to the region's virtues, Allen Tate and Richard Weaver amongst them.  These conservative southerners found in the Old South a virtuous counterpoint to industrialized modernity, noting that the antebellum South's strength “resided in an instinctual tenacity, a stress upon living over thinking-about-living, and that this habit found its best expression in ‘religiousness'” (145).   Some boosters of the “New South” could accept Adams's judgment because they hoped Southerners would imitate ideas found in the North.  Following the horrors of World War I, Adams's words spoke particularly to modernist southern writers who found moribund the cold rationalism of modernity.  To them, Adams's depiction of a feeling rather than a thinking South sounded like a “cultural asset” rather than a criticism: “Adams's cultural power came to reside in his offering the South a role in intellectual modernism, which valued the heart, but cared less for the head” (150-151).  But, then, O'Brien insists that Adams too had meant “more than a slur” when he described the South: he also believed that the heart was needed to balance the intellect, seeing the ravages of a world too much the reflection of sterile reasoning.  Further, Adams's assertions have been a powerful force shaping the way southerners think about themselves: “A great issue of Southern culture since Adams . . . has been whether, in consenting to represent the heart of American culture, Southerners did not overly slight the value of the head” (152).

O'Brien's short book does not seek merely to fill a historiographical niche; rather, he argues for a greater understanding of the importance of the South in Henry Adams's thinking, and, secondarily, he suggests some of the ways that Adams in turn shaped the way the South has been understood.  The text may not be long, but neither is it short on interpretation: O'Brien deftly weaves intricate details into complex chapters that defy attempts to reduce them to simple arguments.  Readers looking for a greater understanding of the South should look instead to O'Brien's Conjectures of Order (2004); those seeking a fuller understanding of the region's impact upon one of the nation's great literary minds will find much to delight them in O'Brien's treatment of Adams.  O'Brien has produced another fine study that reveals why he is one of the premier names in American intellectual history.

Phillip C. Richardson, Jr., University of South Carolina


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