Henry Adams liked to say that his pedigree and eighteenth-century upbringing had hobbled him in the races of the twentieth century. The scion of not just one but two Presidents of the United States–the second, John Adams, who helped formulate the principles of the Constitution, and the sixth, John Quincy Adams, who drafted the Monroe Doctrine–he had, as a young man, given every indication of being destined for an equally visible career of public service. During the Civil War, he was an indispensable aid to his father during the latter’s tenure as Minister to England. In the 1870s and 1880s, he inhabited a Richardsonian mansion on Washington Square and, with his wife, Marion ‘Clover’ Adams, hosted one of the most luminous salons of the era. Presidents and notables of various persuasions eagerly scurried across the square to tap his knowledge, which was far more prodigious than anyone else’s. Not one President, however, offered him employment.

Perhaps they recognized a snob when they saw one. One journalist of the 1870s wrote that he was like a begonia, his foliage showy and irrelevant. The epithet hit Adams hard. Had he become outmoded? For the next thirty years–years of frenetic intellectual output–Adams pondered the question. Too astute to refute the charge, he ultimately took to trumpeting his irrelevancy, grandiosely interpreting his apparent failure to effect change as part of a larger paradigm shift in values. The world of his forefathers, based on the revolutionary ideals of the Constitution and of Truth, Duty and Freedom, was clearly defunct. The new world, dominated by what he called “goldbugs” and power-hungry capitalists, had stamped out the class into which he was born. Money had replaced principles in determining policy. In such an environment, an Adams could not help but be as “antiquated as a mollusk from the Silurian period.”

Of course, this self-serving pose of aristocratic disdain was not endearing to Adams’s contemporaries; it helped secure him a reputation as a rather hopeless blue-blooded aesthete. Even Henry James, the friend of his youth, wrote in a much-quoted letter that Adams was burdened by an “irresponsible self-conscious [e]xtravagant pessimism, the fruit not wholly unnatural…of a disappointed and ineffectual personal career.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked that Adams wanted power “handed to him on a silver platter” and, when it wasn’t, narcissistically proceeded to turn everything to “dust and ashes.” The fact that most of Adams’s predictions (for example, that the Occidental world would very likely blow itself up in 1917 or thereabouts, that scientists would chase power into the atom some decades after, resulting in nuclear conflagration) were uncannily correct has not changed this viewpoint.

The third installment of Edward Chalfant’s new biography forces a radical revision of this view. Thanks to unprecedented access to various archival sources, including the Worthington Chauncey Ford Papers at the New York Public Library, and to various additions to the Letters, Chalfant reveals the startling extent of Adams’s political activity. It appears that Adams deliberately chose to act behind the scenes and that most of his political work was in fact anonymous. That he would have liked to be offered power on a silver platter is undoubtedly true. That he might have refused the platter is a possibility. He was, after all, plagued by that triumvirate of characteristics that define so many who aspire to greatness: ambivalence, insecurity and ambition.

Adams was not a partisan politician; but Chalfant’s biography makes it clear that he was nonetheless deeply and personally enmeshed, by virtue of pedigree as well as inclination, in the fate of the United States and its Constitution. He wrote about the past, but it was to understand the future. By 1891, when Chalfant begins the third volume, Adams’s output had already been prodigious by any standards. In the 1870s and ’80s he churned out biographies of Albert Gallatin (1879), John Randolph (1882) and a nine-volume History of the United States (1889-91). He also penned two novels, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884), the former a bestselling satire of Washington politics; significantly, both were published anonymously. Adams taught medieval history at Harvard, edited the North American Review and reported on national affairs. In 1885 his wife, brilliant but manic-depressive, committed suicide, which ended what by all accounts had been a highly successful union. Haunted by her death, he restlessly traveled to various exotic places, including the South Seas, and wrote about them.

At the turn of the century, Adams was working on what would become two American classics: Mont Saint Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907). Seeming to shun popular literary fame, he privately printed 100 copies of each to distribute to his friends; Chalfant has carefully ferreted out who was favored (mostly nieces) and who slighted (his brothers, a few senators). It is worth remembering that the Education has endured the critical climates and vicissitudes of a century whose atrocities it predicted. A phenomenal bestseller in the years after Adams’s death in 1918, in 1999 it was ranked No. 1 on the American Modern Library’s list of the century’s 100 most important nonfiction books written in English. Edmund Morris, a member of the board, concedes that in the Education Adams’s wit can be abrasive, but Morris cites as factors in the selection Adams’s intellectual omniscience (which can’t do other than educate us!) and his courageous modernity, which ventured to exchange a medieval Virgin for a dynamo as the ultimate symbol of power. Adams was too rational to be religious, but he was quite sure that the dynamo’s despotic reign in the twentieth century was anything but therapeutic.

Chalfant’s biography repeatedly insists on the radical disjunction between the “Henry Adams” of the Education and Henry Adams the historical figure. The Adams of the Education is ineffectual, indecisive, reclusive, pessimistic, neurasthenic, an eighteenth-century creature adrift in a twentieth-century “multiverse.” Henry James may have helped secure Adams’s reputation, but Adams also did his part to look begonia-like. In the new multiverse, the forces unleashed by science act autonomously, and “Adams” is described as a charged absence devoid of any kind of agency: “Forces grasped his wrists and flung him about as if he had hold of a live wire or a runaway automobile.” This Adams is reduced to the role of neurasthenic spectator to his own demise: a forerunner in many ways of the poststructuralist self of literary critics.

For Chalfant, this Adams does not hold much interest; it is merely a mask designed to serve a particular didactic purpose: to show the inability of an education based on causality, accumulated knowledge and moral principle to fit a man for the new world. Chalfant is far more interested in the historical Adams than in the existential one. And the historical Adams was every bit as intent on improving the world as his forefathers, however Sisyphean the task–hence the title of Chalfant’s book. On the domestic front, for instance, Adams desperately wanted the United States to be something other than a nation of “goldbugs.” To this end, he enlisted his neighbor, Senator James Donald Cameron, and wrote three speeches that Cameron then docilely delivered in his own name to the Senate. In this case the world listened but did not act: Adams, hoping to wrest power from Wall Street, argued for silver in the wake of the 1893 financial panic; the world stayed with the gold standard.

Chalfant also shows that Adams worked tirelessly and more successfully for Cuban independence from Spain, and indeed fought European imperialism on all fronts. He was greatly distressed by the US occupation of the Philippines, feeling that it was counter to the principle of the self-determination of peoples. Cuban and Philippine emissaries clandestinely visited him to seek advice. Adams also spent a great deal of time in Tahiti researching just how much European diseases, zealous missionaries and English aggression had desiccated a culture that no imperialist “care[d] to know”: In 1769 there were 200,000 Tahitians; in 1803, 5,000. Adams had to know all, and so, between 1893 and 1901, wrote and revised a history of Tahiti titled Memoirs of Marau Taaroa. Among other things, it outlined the devastation wrought by Captain Cook’s imposition of English notions of kingship on the native tribes. In the course of his research, Adams himself became Tahitian when his friend, an ex-chiefess, named him her “adoptive son.” Clearly flattered, he also felt this identity as “real,” insists Chalfant; perhaps it felt as real as his Adams pedigree, and a good deal less burdensome. At once colonizer and colonized, insider and outsider, white Brahmin and South Sea native, Adams seemed increasingly to relish stretching the boundaries of selfhood. Indeed, rather than being antiquated, in the last third of his life he begins to seem daringly modern, especially when, in his book on Tahiti, he speaks in the first person as a Tahitian woman!

Throughout the 1890s and beyond, Adams also monitored the growth and ascendancy of US monetary power (providing the Bureau of Statistics with precise figures), watched with gleeful interest and then growing alarm the retraction of England, foresaw the problem presented by Germany’s desire to expand and pondered the solid mass of Russian inertia–which he predicted would one day collide head-on with the United States. The culmination of his freelance political career came in 1898, when his closest friend, John Hay, agreed to take the position of Secretary of State under President McKinley–but only if Adams shared the responsibility. Chalfant writes:

[Adams] had made it an object to become America’s leading politician in his time. The means he chose was political service without the official holding of office, in combination with secrecy, anonymity, pretended uninvolvement, and even feigned non-existence. The result had been successes far beyond what could have seemed likely even to him, culminating in work as sharer with Hay in the management of the country’s foreign affairs.

The two men, who both occupied houses on Washington Square, took a daily two-hour stroll, much of it spent discussing how to bypass Congress. The result was the China open-door policy and the North Atlantic free-trade treaty, with which Adams hoped to build a vast “defensive” system linking the United States, England, France and at least the western part of Germany in order to counter Russia and contain German military aspirations. In these years, Adams was like a chess grandmaster, clandestinely giving advice not only to Hay but to a potpourri of foreign ministers (to England’s Cecil Spring Rice, for instance, on Germany) in the hopes of forging an equilibrium that would avert catastrophe. As Chalfant is eager to point out, such activity in itself belies the portrait of Adams as “irresponsible extravagant pessimist.”

The exigencies of trying to equilibrate the world’s powers had by 1905 completely broken Hay’s health; he died that year. Aside from the ever-energetic Teddy Roosevelt, who was, in Adams’s inimitable phrase, “pure act” (i.e., untroubled by the vicissitudes of thought), Adams’s friends seemed to be breaking down en masse. Though devastated by Hay’s death, Adams himself was remarkably robust as he entered his seventh decade, gallivanting across continents and time periods, disappearing into the twelfth century just when he seemed to be manning the valves of power in the twentieth, seeing everyone who was anyone and rescuing his myriad “nieces” (his wife’s nieces, his own and a growing herd of adopted ones) from nervous breakdowns. “My nieces do nothing but get married and break down,” he wrote a friend in 1906. He took them on therapeutic tours of the Virgin’s cathedrals, taught them medieval history, shared his insights on world events and speculated on the future. Chalfant is highly attuned to the tenderness that motivated Adams’s efforts on their behalf. The nieces, for their part, were clearly devoted to their wry, erudite, vastly entertaining self-appointed uncle and tour guide.

Adams did not just share a secret partnership with Hay. Chalfant performs another bit of revisionist history when he insists, and rightly so, that Mrs. Cameron, estranged from her aforementioned husband, was a full albeit secret partner in the last thirty years of Adams’s life–from 1892 till his death. Confidante, friend, talented writer, acute reader of the political scene, probably co-author with Adams of the so-called Cameron reports on Cuba, Elizabeth Cameron was an equal. Critics have speculated for eons on whether the pair were lovers. Chalfant has no proof that they were or were not, despite having combed through 6,491 and more pages of correspondence that Elizabeth Cameron gave Chauncery Ford after Adams’s death in 1918. In 1894 she wrote to Adams:

I have been doing such a lot of thinking lately about you and what you have been to me. I was in the darkness of death till you led me with your gentle guidance into broad fields…. Even sorrow and trouble lessen under your light–a light so calm and still. I wonder if any man was ever so big as you.

And as usual, Adams does not reveal more than he intends, his language at once intimate yet guarded, sexually charged yet less erotic than his paeans to the Virgin or to the South Sea Woman. What Chalfant highlights is the pair’s loving interest in the minute details of each other’s lives and health. Neighbors on Washington Square (by fortuitous chance) and on the avenue du Bois de Boulogne in Paris (by design), they were, in fact, more often than not separated by an ocean, and so letters flew back and forth and account for much of what Chalfant reveals of Adams’s daily life. It was to Elizabeth Cameron that Adams sent the poems he showed no one else, to her he revealed his whereabouts when he wanted to remain otherwise out of reach.

Chalfant’s biography thus successfully destabilizes the Jamesian vision of Adams as brittle aesthete–and does so with a minimum of speculation and a maximum of evidence, both hard and circumstantial, much of it new. He does not theorize at any length about the task of biography. Rather, he amasses details from a variety of sources that inexorably build to a full-blooded portrait of his subject: a subject whom, it is clear, he greatly admires. At the same time, he does not shrink from the more unpleasant aspects of Adams’s personality: his pose of aristocratic disdain, his coy reticence (that, for instance, always led him to claim to be doing nothing when he was frantically busy on a new project) and his peevish anti-Semitism that yoked the growing materialism of American culture to the ascendancy of the Rothschilds. Chalfant is less concerned than Adams’s earlier biographer, Ernest Samuels, with the details of Adams’s grand scientific narratives of energy degradation and his mathematical formulas that, applied to history, showed the world careening toward catastrophe. Chalfant paints them as conceits designed to “annoy the complacent”; for Adams, one suspects they were also an intellectual’s attempt to arrest a seemingly deterministic trajectory by understanding where it came from and where it was going.

In any case, the end result of Chalfant’s biography is that Adams appears to have the last laugh over his contemporaries. His pedigree and intellectualism might have been as showy as the begonia’s, and he might have been peevish on the subject of money-grubbing capitalists, but he was remarkably accurate in his prognostications and, as Chalfant shows, extraordinarily powerful behind the scenes, inordinately full of life and interests, and beloved by his intimates. His myriad undercover activities are still coming to light–and will doubtless continue to do so. Adams may have “failed” to become President, but after reading Chalfant’s biography, we are left with the impression that he succeeded remarkably well at the game of life–despite the vicissitudes of his twentieth-century “multiverse.”

In the last decade of his life, he traipsed around France searching for the Virgin’s stained glass, and he continually annotated and revised his master and traveling copies of the Education. Chalfant undertook a massive search for the master copy, but it appears to have disappeared somewhere in Florence. Elizabeth Cameron, the nieces and some nephews were Adams’s intermittent companions. In his mid-70s, in the teens of this past century, he found a new motive force in the form of medieval chansons. Despite failing eyesight, he scoured the libraries of Europe for forgotten scripts and mobilized his friends to do the same. Aileen Tone, a singer and devoted companion of his last years, sang him to sleep each night with a selection of his favorite chansons to the Virgin. It was to her he gave the master copy of the Education. Occasionally, Bernhard Berenson visited, and he too listened to the songs, in presumably respectful silence. In Washington the young Eleanor Roosevelt, who also lived on the Square, visited and recorded some of Adams’s witticisms for posterity. The bevy of nieces came as well. According to Chalfant, so did a string of publishers eager for the Education that Adams still refused to relinquish to the public.

World War I, which Adams took as a personal failure and which proved his apocalyptic theories all too correct, brought on the nervous collapse that had already felled so many of his friends. Nonetheless, he wrote to Elizabeth Cameron that despite the fact that the world was now insisting on killing itself, he and she had been fortune’s beneficiaries: “It has been a wonderful picnic. We have flitted from one strange scene to another…. We have really lived and seen life. I had no idea I had so much life left in me.”