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The Education of Henry Adams

The Height Of Knowledge (1902)
AMERICA has always taken tragedy lightly. Too busy to stop the activity of their
twenty-million-horse-power society, Americans ignore tragic motives that would have
overshadowed the Middle Ages; and the world learns to regard assassination as a form of
hysteria, and death as neurosis, to be treated by a rest-cure. Three hideous political
murders, that would have fattened the Eumenides with horror, have thrown scarcely a
shadow on the White House.
The year 1901 was a year of tragedy that seemed to Hay to centre on himself. First
came, in summer, the accidental death of his son, Del Hay. Close on the tragedy of his
son, followed that of his chief, "all the more hideous that we were so sure of his
recovery." The world turned suddenly into a graveyard. "I have acquired the funeral
habit." "Nicolay is dying. I went to see him yesterday, and he did not know me." Among
the letters of condolence showered upon him was one from Clarence King at Pasadena,
"heart-breaking in grace and tenderness -- the old King manner"; and King himself
"simply waiting till nature and the foe have done their struggle." The tragedy of King
impressed him intensely: "There you have it in the face!" he said -- "the best and brightest
man of his generation, with talents immeasurably beyond any of his contemporaries; with
industry that has often sickened me to witness it; with everything in his favor but blind
luck; hounded by disaster from his cradle, with none of the joy of life to which he was
entitled, dying at last, with nameless suffering alone and uncared-for, in a California
tavern. Ca vous amuse, la vie?"
The first summons that met Adams, before he had even landed on the pier at New York,
December 29, was to Clarence King's funeral, and from the funeral service he had no
gayer road to travel than that which led to Washington, where a revolution had occurred
that must in any case have made the men of his age instantly old, but which, besides
hurrying to the front the generation that till then he had regarded as boys, could not fail to
break the social ties that had till then held them all together.
Ca vous amuse, la vie? Honestly, the lessons of education were becoming too trite. Hay
himself, probably for the first time, felt half glad that Roosevelt should want him to stay
in office, if only to save himself the trouble of quitting; but to Adams all was pure loss.
On that side, his education had been finished at school. His friends in power were lost,
and he knew life too well to risk total wreck by trying to save them.
As far as concerned Roosevelt, the chance was hopeless. To them at sixty-three,
Roosevelt at forty-three could not be taken seriously in his old character, and could not be
recovered in his new one. Power when wielded by abnormal energy is the most serious of
facts, and all Roosevelt's friends know that his restless and combative energy was more
than abnormal. Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety,
showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter -- the quality that
mediaeval theology assigned to God -- he was pure act. With him wielding unmeasured
power with immeasurable energy, in the White House, the relation of age to youth -- of
teacher to pupil -- was altogether out of place; and no other was possible. Even Hay's
 
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