This essay treats a question addressed by many readers of Henry Adams: How should we understand his response to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant? Though some critics suggest that Adams's reaction is misguided, petty, or even irrational, analysis of his postwar writings indicates that his critique of Grant rests upon a diagnosis of a shift in the temporality of politics following the US Civil War. Taking Grant as exemplary of this more thoroughgoing historical transformation, Adams examines the intertwining within the administration of two seemingly contrary politicotemporal imaginaries: a stagnant time of political repetition—associated here with a Weberian rationalization and disenchantment of the world—and an anarchic time of disorienting economic growth—the volatile temporality of capitalist creative destruction, here captured by Paul Valéry's notion of “unpredictability.” In contrast to both these senses of political temporality, Adams represents the persistent absence of a time of intelligently directed social change. Articulating the period's shifting relationship between time and politics thus defines a consequential problematic that illuminates the deeper historical significance of Adams's critique. Further, by locating in these early writings inchoate concerns that, more fully elaborated, also inform his later works, the essay emphasizes a consistent line of development within Adams's thought and sets the stage for its reassessment taken as a developing whole. Finally, with an eye toward resurgent considerations of politics and time in the present moment, the essay closes by suggesting how Adams's oeuvre, so reconceived, might speak to these contemporary concerns.
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Stephen Carter; Our “Most Signal” Failure: Henry Adams, Ulysses S. Grant, and the Transformation of Political Temporality. boundary 2 1 May 2017; 44 (2): 187–212. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/01903659-3826681
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