“So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

Henry Adams was fond of statues. His 1904 book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres opens with Michael the Archangel “[s]tanding on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot.” Later, when Adams notes a depiction of the Virgin Mary at the great cathedral of Chartres, he takes gentle, vicarious pleasure in imagining the twelfth-century mindset behind it:

The Empress Mary is receiving you at her portal, and whether you are an impertinent child, or a foolish old peasant-woman, or an insolent prince, or a more insolent tourist, she receives you with the same dignity; in fact, she probably sees very little difference between you.

Throughout Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, Adams plays the genial tour guide for his reader, whom he cheekily casts as his own wide-eyed niece. While the other faces of Henry Adams—novelist, academic, part-time Washingtonian, scion of a great political family—are shrouded by the author himself in the interest of efficient tourism, Adams the medievalist is a chipper fellow indeed. Faced with profundity, he is effusive, reactive, opposed to every pedantry. “To overload the memory with dates is the vice of every schoolmaster and the passion of every second-rate scholar,” he informs us. “Tourists want as few dates as possible; what they want is poetry.”

More than a century after its publication, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres is still a charming, imminently quotable work, an account of what happened when one of the sharper minds of late 19th-century America beheld the marvels of medieval France. I don’t know how well known the book is today, or how well regarded it is by scholars; I imagine it’s quite out of date. I do know that here in Washington, the influence of Henry Adams is most evident not at our cathedrals or in medieval history courses, but in a man-made grove at Rock Creek Cemetery—where, as Adams predicted, tourists seek poetry in a statue.

The tale of the statue is simple enough. Adams commissioned his friend Augustus Saint-Gaudens to create it in 1886, one year after his wife, Marian Adams, committed suicide. The larger structure later served as a tomb for both Marian and Henry Adams after the latter died in 1918, but the bronze figure became a tourist attraction even before Adams had seen it for himself. According to his third-person quasi-autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, he hurried to the cemetery in 1892, as soon as he returned from Europe.

For readers who clung to the coat-tails of the avuncular tour guide of Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, the Henry Adams who visits Rock Creek Cemetery is unusually brooding and curt:

Naturally every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’ correction of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant.

Adams lets his reader infer the awkwardness of chatting with strangers who sought out the tomb of his wife:

As Adams sat there, numbers of people came, for the figure seemed to have become a tourist fashion, and all wanted to know its meaning. Most took it for a portrait-statue, and the remnant were vacant-minded in the absence of a personal guide. None felt what would have been a nursery instinct in a Hindu baby or a Japanese jinrickshaw-runner. The only exceptions were the clergy, who taught a lesson even deeper. One after another brought companions there, and, apparently fascinated by their own reflection, broke out passionately against the expression they felt in the figure of despair, of atheism, of denial. Like the others, the priest saw only what he brought. Like all great artists, St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.

Tourists to Rock Creek Cemetery still react in such strangely personal ways. During my visit there last weekend, I met a couple who had passed a few moments of sunny contemplation on the bench before the statue.

“She’s so beautiful,” the wife informed me. “She looks so hopeful—like she’s ready to cast off her shroud and fly.” When I told her about the suicide of Marian Adams, she seemed more bemused than troubled, reluctant to complicate her aesthetic experience with any newfound knowledge. Having cheerfully glanced into Saint-Gaudens’ mirror, she departed with an empty smile.

What did Adams see when he visited the cemetery? In the Education, he claims that the statue represented “the oldest idea known to human thought,” but his reader learns quickly to look past his loftier claims. The Education ignores the suicide of Marian Adams; in fact, it skips past twenty years, omitting the marriage entirely. Inclined to be silent rather than confess to sadness, Adams allows only traces of feeling to show. Perhaps his truest thoughts are better found elsewhere—in his defense of Norman architecture, for example, which, taken Adams-like and somewhat out of context, can be read as a case for the statue itself:

Young people rarely enjoy it . . . No doubt they are right, since they are young: but men and women who have lived long and are tired,—who want rest,—who have done with aspirations and ambition,—whose life has been a broken arch—feel this repose and self-restraint as they feel nothing else.

In his writing, Adams is an enigma: impressively learned, improbably modest, and always a little removed. He wanted that figure at Rock Creek Cemetery to be just as difficult to read—but each time he saw her, he hoped to discover something new. His books, although brilliant, will never reveal what he learned. To find the answer, you have to go: visit Rock Creek, sit across from that shrouded figure, and let her tell you about Henry Adams—not about his writing, wry and worldly and burning with praise for the archangel and the empress, but about the author and husband who finally ran out of words, and who counted on secrets that only a statue can tell.

4 thoughts on ““So we go inside, and we gravely read the stones…”

  1. My pleasure, Wil. I’m pretty new to Adams myself, but now that I’m more aware of his life and work, I spot references to him everywhere.

    Mark, thanks for the link! I greatly appreciate it.

    Like

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