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J E F F R E Y F. T H O M A S University of California, Berkeley Bret Harte and the Power of Sex Reflecting dolefully on his life and times, Henry Adams seized upon the Virgin Mary and the electric dynamo as crucial symbols of the contrast he saw between the moral unity of the Middle Ages and the soulless multiplicity of the nineteenth and twentieth cen­ turies. In “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” the twenty-fifth chapter of his autobiography, The Education ofHenry Adams, Adams discus­ sed the nature and meaning of these two symbolic forces: the Virgin, whose works he had studied reverentially at Chartres and the Louvre, and the Dynamo, which he had contemplated with awe and misgiving at the Chicago Exposition of 1893 and the Paris Exposition of 1900. In the course of his discussion, Adams com­ pared the attributes of these two great sources of power; promi­ nent among them is a quality he felt to be fundamental to the Virgin and her pagan predecessors — notably Venus — but en­ tirely lacking in the sterile dynamo: the quality of sex. It was through the female power of sex, Adams argued, that Venus and the Virgin had been effective moral forces over man­ kind. But this great female sexual energy had waned in Europe and, curiously, was quite unknown in America. Americans had never been subject to the power of Venus and the Virgin, according to Adams, because his countrymen were ashamed of sex — espe­ cially in women — and resisted its influence at all times. Adams went on to assert that recognition of the female power of sex sur­ vived in the nineteenth century only as art. But even in this area Americans rigorously kept closed their eyes and minds. Ruminating on the problem in his customary third-person posture, Adams passed a severejudgment on the honesty and courage of America’s creative artists: Adams began to ponder, asking himself whether he knew of any American artist who had ever insisted on the power of sex, as every classic had always done; but he could think only of Walt Whitman; Bret Harte, as far as the magazines would let him venture; and one or two painters, for the flesh-tones. All the rest had used sex for senti­ ment, never for force; to them Eve was a tender flower, and Herodias 92 Western American Literature an unfeminine horror. American art, like the American language and American education, was as far as possible sexless.1 As far as I have been able to discover, Henry Adams never elaborated on these brief and blunt remarks, but the passage is certainly provocative. It might reasonably be expected that the curiosity of any alert reader would be aroused, not so much by the reference to Whitman, whose appreciation ofsexual power in all its forms in his poetry is pretty well recognized, as by Adam’sinclusion of Bret Harte in his exceedingly exclusive list.2 By 1905, when Adams wrote the first draft of the Education, Harte had been dead for three years and, as far as almost all critics and students were concerned, his literary reputation had expired at least a quarter of a century earlier. He was — then as now — widely regarded as a pathetic example of a minor talent that burned itself out early and produced nothing but trivial hackwork thereafter. And yet Adams went out of his way not merely to cite Harte but to qualify carefully his citation. His praise of Harte’s writings refers to an aspect of those works that still attracts little attention. Had Adams wished merely to pay passing tribute to Harte (as he does eleswhere in the Education3), it would have been far more convenient for him to praise some well-known attribute of Harte’s stories rather than so startlingly to place him on a lonely pedestal with Walt Whitman as a daring spokesman for the power of sex. Just what Adams conceived to be an adequate literary expres­ sion of the sexual potency he identified with Venus and the Virgin cannot be precisely defined, but we can be confident that he de­ 1Henry Adams,The Education ofHenry Adams...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 91-109
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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