Acts of Life

The nearly lifelong friendship of Henry Adams and Henry James, both now accepted as writers of towening stature, was one of the most engaging yet contrary relationships in our literary history. And to experience it—in the correspondence that George Monteiro has now splendidly edited—is to come to know what Adams called the "type bourgeois-bostonien." In old age Adams had nothing but disdain for the achievements of this type—himself, James, William Wetmore Ston, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Sumner, Bronson Alcott, and James Russell Lowell. All of us, he told James in 1903, "were in actual fact only one mind and nature; the individual was a facet of Boston. We knew each other to the last nervous centre, and feared each other's knowledge." What they knew, Adams thought, was that Harvard and Unitarianism had kept them shallow; and out of this Boston matrix had arisen their profound ignorance, their introspective self-distrust, and the nervous self-consciousness that vitiated them all.

Of course, Henry James did everything possible to avoid being thought a bourgeois Bostonian, as his satirical novel The Bostonians (1886) makes plain. To Adams, the expatriate James was impersonating, in his straitened way, the bearing of an English earl; yet he produced a library of brilliant fiction that beggars most other Boston literary accomplishments—Adams's excepted.

James had...

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