American Lit, 1915-Present (2005)

24 Feb 2005
Henry Adams on Mechanism and Modernism

The Education of Henry Adams was a Pulizer Prize-winning autobiography, published in 19198 by a historian/novelist from the prominent Adams family (he was the great-grandson of U.S. President John Adams and the grandson of President John Quincy Adams).

I'm not assigning the whole book, just asking you to consider the excerpt below.

In this selection, from the chapter devoted to the year 1900, "The Dynamo and the Virgin," Adams recalls visiting the Great Exhibition in Paris (sort of a World's Fair) with a scientist friend.

As a humanist and historian, Adams cannot comprehend all the scientific truths he encounters. The new powers represented by the dynamo (the part of a generator that converts revolving motion into electrical current) and being explored in the atom boggle his mind. The only thing in human history that he sees as coming close to the power of the machine is the power of The Virgin -- the symbol of feminine power, as represented in Christianity by The Virgin Mary. He is not a Catholic, and only nominally a Christian, but he still sees power in that particular feminine principle, as represented in previous cultures by the goddess Venus.

While the Romans created temples for Venus, and medieval Christians built grand cathedrals in honor of Mary -- tremendous works of artistic and architectural beauty, which took tremendous resources to create and maintain, and were the symbols of progress and prosperity.

But he sees nothing in contemporary American society that celebrates the power of the feminine... in its place, he feels, Americans have fallen under the spell of machines.

The Education of Henry Adams --

To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed, and barely murmuring -- scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth further for respect of power -- while it would not wake the baby lying close against its frame. Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force. Among the thousand symbols of ultimate energy the dynamo was not so human as some, but it was the most expressive.

Yet the dynamo, next to the steam-engine, was the most familiar of exhibits. For Adams's objects its value lay chiefly in its occult mechanism. Between the dynamo in the gallery of machines and the engine-house outside, the break of continuity amounted to abysmal fracture for a historian's objects. No more relation could he discover between the steam and the electric current than between the Cross and the cathedral. The forces were interchangeable if not reversible, but he could see only an absolute fiat in electricity as in faith. Langley could not help him. Indeed, Langley seemed to be worried by the same trouble, for he constantly repeated that the new forces were anarchical, and especially that he was not responsible for the new rays, that were little short of parricidal in their wicked spirit towards science. His own rays, with which he had doubled the solar spectrum, were altogether harmless and beneficent; but Radium denied its God -- or, what was to Langley the same thing, denied the truths of his Science. The force was wholly new.


The historian was thus reduced to his last resources. Clearly if he was bound to reduce all these forces to a common value, this common value could have no measure but that of their attraction on his own mind. He must treat them as they had been felt; as convertible, reversible, interchangeable attractions on thought. He made up his mind to venture it; he would risk translating rays into faith. Such a reversible process would vastly amuse a chemist, but the chemist could not deny that he, or some of his fellow physicists, could feel the force of both. When Adams was a boy in Boston, the best chemist in the place had probably never heard of Venus except by way of scandal, or of the Virgin except as idolatry; neither had he heard of dynamos or automobiles or radium; yet his mind was ready to feel the force of all, though the rays were unborn and the women were dead.

Here opened another totally new education, which promised to be by far the most hazardous of all. The knife-edge along which he must crawl, like Sir Lancelot in the twelfth century, divided two kingdoms of force which had nothing in common but attraction. They were as different as a magnet is from gravitation, supposing one knew what a magnet was, or gravitation, or love. The force of the Virgin was still felt at Lourdes, and seemed to be as potent as X-rays; but in America neither Venus nor Virgin ever had value as force -- at most as sentiment. No American had ever been truly afraid of either.