Once or twice upon a chapter, as you work to tell history as story, take comfort in knowing that even American sage Henry Adams sometimes had a not-great writing day. By 1878, the 40-year-old Harvard professor of medieval history was a polished scholar. Hailing from a family that wrote for the archive, he navigated easily the uncatalogued byways of an early Library of Congress. He swept up obscure state records and gathered local maps for his 9-volume History of the United States. As editor of the North American Review, Henry instructed freelancers to write “in bald style.” He sliced his private letters down to acid cultural commentary that, to the modern reader, feels meta-enough to border on code.
But for Henry, the act of life-writing—that ultra-Victorian hybrid of high biography and folksy reportage meant to sync edited letters with retouched character portraits—posed an all-new set of narrative dilemmas. As he wrote, the early Americanist battled to balance expert analysis and juicy chronicle, history and story. He did not always want to win an equilibrium; his eponymous Education (1918) exposes Henry Adams to be a delightfully unreliable narrator at best. Yet Adams’s struggle reveals how and why we choose the literary forms that we do to “show-and-tell” the nation’s past. So what can a 19th-century medievalist teach us about telling early American stories as chronicles?
“America came into being when the Middle Ages ended,” Kathleen Verduin points out in Medievalism in North America (1994). That process, she writes, awarded colonial descendants like the Adamses both a New World and the “chance for radical social and psychic change.” Arguably, it took awhile for American scholars like Henry to appreciate the connection. At Harvard, Professor Adams lectured nine hours a week to 1,100 upperclassmen, often beginning his syllabus with the rise of the (Direct) Capetian Dynasty in France, 987 A.D. Henry and his students waded through (to them, new-ish) medieval waters with strange guides: Gerald of Wales, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Hildegard of Bingen, William of Malmesbury. Henry, loathing the filiopiety that choked good history-writing (often about his family), fled full-tilt into medieval France. There he excavated a new narrative of human progress, enshrining female intellect in the church.
Part writerly gambit and part high-flying scholarly endeavor, his transition was rough. Adams’s late 19th-century historical works on early America, in particular, bear the literary wounds of his many, many intellectual edits. His subjects, his tone, his kinetic interest in showcasing people over plots: all shifted around as Henry’s gaze swiveled from modern to medieval. Turning his pen past the Puritans to vet the preindustrial soul, Adams’s approach in the 1870s to building historical narrative was, increasingly, cemented by his day job reading medieval chronicles, admiring stained glass, and hunting down jongleurs’ ditties. Little surprise, then, that the mimetic tone so beloved of medieval chroniclers seeped into Henry’s first “retirement” project after Harvard, The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879). Garry Wills, in Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005), wisely reframes Adams’s trouble in writing the biography as a common trial of the profession. As Henry toiled to copy out state papers for the Gallatin profile, his analytical perspective grew dull. His next project, an epic History of the United States, would mark a critical departure from the lockstep of research-write-repeat. What Adams needed to do first, as Wills shows, was to take a breather between steps one and two, in order to isolate and interpret his most useful findings. Otherwise, Henry’s “historical artistry” suffered. Wills writes:
“But in 1878 he lined up document after document in his Gallatin biography, then trudged dutifully alongside them in chronological order. He could not get high enough above his material to shape it meaningfully. He was, at this point, more a chronicler than an historian. He had spent six years grading student papers, reading documents with his graduate students, editing articles by other authors, and then spent two years sifting Gallatin archives. He was too mired in these numbing tasks to take control of his first book as an author rather than an editor.”
Henry Adams is, of course, in a league of his own—but how that familiar train of duties can resonate! After Gallatin, Adams changed up his narrative game. In the Education and—more effectively, I’d offer—in the companion piece, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1905), his literary voice matured. The medieval world is far from my own field of view, but we can always tug it closer to early America with a robust dose of context. I imagine that for Henry Adams and modern medievalists that it’s difficult to apply the orderliness of a somewhat scientific discipline like history (with its emphasis on documentary evidence and agents) to a world where scientific inquiry is not yet normative. Spending his days split between the French past and a new American empire teetering on war, Adams adopted a few medieval techniques to cope as he crafted history.
Here’s what I took away from the medievalist Henry Adams as narrative pointers:
1. Invite a cohort: Think like The Canterbury Tales, which works as an ensemble set-piece on morality. Introduce and identify your key subjects early on so that the reader fully invests in their histories.
2. Know your orbit: Henry’s medieval men and women (of song and page) think in a very particular way, moving from the specific to the infinite; at the center lies their church. What sits at the center of your subjects’ world, and why?
3. Keep the chaos: Mont-Saint-Michel opens with one of my favorite lines in history-writing: “The archangel loved heights.” Dan Brown-esque, perhaps, but a breezy hook that gusts up readers to heavenly heights before plunging them down (inevitably) into earthly sin. The medieval mind, as Henry describes it, thrums constantly with exuberance and fear, passion and faith.
Adams’s trademark narrative strategy, adapted to the medieval romances and artifacts upon which he must trade his tale, is suspense. Finding the mastery he lacked in Gallatin, Adams displays in Mont-Saint-Michel medieval society’s cultural order and disorder in full color. The historian’s craft of storytelling, Adams seems to hint there, is about far more than tying up loose ends. In fact, loose ends should stay in the story, and pull the history along by force. Studying how people interpreted the world, and transforming that into a book, a blog, a podcast, or a musical gives new life to history and story alike. As a tough writing day recedes in the rear view, try heading back to history through your own story. “My idea of paradise,” Henry Adams wrote to his niece in 1902, “is a perfect automobile going thirty miles an hour on a smooth road to a twelfth-century cathedral.”