The question was recently raised (prompted, no doubt, by that damn Modern Library list! You know the one I mean, listing the best works of fiction and nonfiction written in the 20th century! The list that gave an unholy second life to Zuleika Dobson!): is by Henry Adams The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams really that good? Does it really deserve its ranking on that list – and many others – as the single greatest work of 20th century nonfiction?
That bagatelle term ‘nonfiction’ seems at first impossibly vague – surely all of human artistic endeavor apart from the piddling kingdoms of fiction and poetry can be considered nonfiction? But whether or not such infamous lists intend to invoke it, there is a category of nonfiction works in the 20th century that almost have to be called that and nothing else, so passionate are they in blurring the very outlines of what they are. We’ve talked about some of them here at Stevereads (Rats, Lice, and History, for instance, and Swampwalker’s Journal); they’re never quite an exact fit with the ostensible category to which they belong, and calling them by that category inevitably reduces them (the way referring to Shakespeare as “an Elizabethan playwright,” though technically correct, would feel almost insulting).
A full list of the greatest of such works, if strictly construed, would not be long – and each item on it would be guaranteed to bristle with the ability to alter your reading landscape in the course of two or three afternoons of feverish reading.
That list would include Herbert Muller’s 1952 The Uses of the Past, a weirdly detailed and ultimately uplifting quasi-history of the world’s great civilizations; it would include Dale Van Every’s incandescently angry 1966 indictment of the United States government’s treatment of American Indians, Disinherited; it would include Italian Days, Barbara Grizzuti Harison’s beautiful, gimlet-eyed 1989 meditation on Italy.
Even a short version of that list would have to include George Kennan’s slim but fiercely memorable 1951 book American Diplomacy, 1900-1950; it would include the spry and funny A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958) by Eric Newby; it would include Norman Dixon’s scathing 1976 On the Psychology of Military Incompetence; it would include Carlo Ginzburg’s powerfully subversive I Benandanti (the only English translation is titled The Night Battles).
There would have to be room on that list for Paul Colinvaux’s slim 1979 masterpiece Why Big Fierce Animals Are Rare, and Elias Canetti’s disarmingly insightful 1960 Crowds and Power, and M.F.K. Fisher’s elegant, eloquent 1954 compilation, The Art of Eating.
Our list would have to include all these books and more besides, but we started out today talking about the best, and despite the many and varied strengths of all the books listed above and all the titles that would appear on an unabridged version of that list, they aren’t the best. The top slots for the 20th Century go elsewhere.
One of them of course goes to Rebecca West’s epic, immensely absorbing 1941 Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which is billed as a travelogue-history of Yugoslavia and is so in exactly the same way that ‘Hamlet’ is about a dysfunctional family. All the dark heartaches of the newborn century are shaped into the dark corridors and musty train compartments that make up West’s masterpiece – readers will come out of it knowing quite a bit about Yugoslavia (and the entirety of Eastern Europe), yes, but their hearts will have been harrowed too.
A small rung above West’s book would be T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his seductive and often overpowering liar’s-memoir of the 1916 Arab Revolt against the Ottomans (the book has an impossibly convoluted textual history, but we can say 1922 and the Hell with it). Again, that technical description doesn’t begin to convey the power and the epic strangeness of the book, which is brightly incantatory and reads like a cross between Winston Churchill and The Arabian Nights.
Next would come Adams. His initial 1907 private printing of The Education of Henry Adams was distributed to a small 40-something group of his friends and well-wishers, all of whom instantly recognized its strange, neurotic genius and towering literary virtuosity. Larger printings followed, of course, and the work took its place in the canon of indispensable American writings, but I worry sometimes that such an canonization leads inevitably to the kind of wariness Jeff felt. No book could deserve that wariness less: despite being a self-righteous prig and ranting coot, Adams managed to craft one of the single most inviting books ever written by an American. Virtually every page of The Education shimmers with apothegms, as in this passage describing Henry Cabot Lodge’s Boston:
No doubt the Bostonian had always been noted for a certain chronic irritability – a sort of Bostonitis – which, in its primitive Puritan forms, seemed due to knowing too much of his neighbors, and thinking too much of himself. Many years earlier William M. Evarts had pointed out to Adams the impossibility of uniting New England behind a New England leader. The trait led to good ends – such as admiration of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington – but the virtue was exacting; for New England standards were various, scarcely reconcilable with each other, and constantly multiplying in number, until balance between them threatened to become impossible.
The Education of Henry Adams is very nearly the best of these odd-sortment 20th Century masterworks, but it isn’t the best. That distinction goes to Virginia Woolf, whose 1928 essay A Room of One’s Own is the single best piece of nonfiction the century produced. Its conceit is deceptively simple (Woolf milks this for all it’s worth): the occasion of giving a talk to the female students of Cambridge on the topic of women and literature. In assessing this topic, Woolf comes quickly to her playfully shocking mundane conclusion: a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write fiction.
But that’s just the lure; the prize, the essay itself, is nothing less than the ur-text of protest against the world’s oldest and most entrenched discrimination, against women from the dawn of time onwards. Twenty centuries of this most intimate oppression may have been cracked wide open by Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman, but in A Room of One’s Own, that oppression is cut to glass shards by as big a brain and as stunning a command of prose as ever rose to the occasion, before or since. This slim book quivers with rage; its words and phrases are honed with rage; and although it transmutes in the end to a kind of torch-passing wisdom, it’s likely that quiet, precise rage that readers will remember, as in this passage where Woolf confronts the patristic historical summaries of Professor Trevelyan:
‘Yet even so,’ Professor Trevelyan concludes, ‘neither Shakespeare’s women nor those of authentic 17th-century memoirs like the Verneys and the Hutchinsons, seem wanting in personality and character.’ Certainly, if we consider it, Cleopatra must have had a way with her; Lady Macbeth, one would suppose, had a will of her own; Rosalind, one might conclude, was an attractive girl. Professor Trevelyan is speaking no more than the truth when he remarks that Shakespeare’s women do not seem wanting in personality or character. Not being a historian, one might even go further and say that women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time – Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes – the names flock to mind, nor do they recall women ‘lacking in personality and character.’ Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
You’re all most heartily urged to go out and read a copy of The Education of Henry Adams, make no mistake. But read Woolf first.