Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 43

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The Education of Chaim Adams:
Learning How to Be a
Jewish American Writer
Had he been born in Jerusalem under the shadow of the Temple
and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, un­
der the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more
distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in
traces of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the cen­
tury had to offer.
— from
The education of Henry Adams
H e n r y A d am s b e g i n s
his most famous, most prophetic book
with an image of estrangement so strained, so heterogeneous,
and yet so calculated to garner our sympathy, that “metaphysical”
is the only word in our twentieth-century critical lexicon that can
do it justice . For Henry Adams, born into ou r coun try ’s
preeminent political aristocracy and the extraordinary privilege
of wealth, the usual images of alienation would not suffice: he
needed to believe that Power was as denied to him — yea, even
denied, if such were possible — as it would have been had he
stumbled out of some Christian dream of the biblical Hebrews,
wrapped in priestly robes and sporting the name “Israel Cohen.”
Nor are we surprised that Adams’ metaphors of “chosenness”
could, and did, coexist with snobbish anti-Semitic attitudes about
flesh-and-blood Jewish immigrants.
As Alfred Kazin shrewdly observes, Adams’ subject — his
obsession, if you will — in
The education of Henry Adams
(1918) is
failure: Harvard’s (where he neither “learned” anything of value
as a student nor found a suitable intellectual environment as a
faculty member): America’s (which, since the days of Andrew