MALCOLM COWLEY reports in The Dream of the Golden Mountains that in the early years of the Great Depression the reading public turned more and more to "magazines like The New Republic ." The same phenomenon is occurring today. In a time of multiplying difficulties for the United States, people have once again become extraordinarily anxious to understand what is going on in the world, with the result that the circulation of journals which deal in political, economic and cultural interpretation is rising. Our hunger for historical insight has also led to a surge of interest in the writings of Henry Adams. Books and articles on Adams have been appearing at a brisk clip in the past two or three years, and more are on the way.

The spiritual difference, however, between Adams and most of the magazine pundits of either the Depression era or our own time is that Adams was haunted by the thought that all his formulations of human experience were wrong. Like St. Augustine, in whose Confessions he found a model for the story of his own pilgrimage, Adams was aware that "illusions which deceive the mind through the eye" could lead the Truth-seeker badly astray. Thirteen years of Adams' life were invested in the writing of a nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison , but when the social and political upheavals of the 1980s broke upon his consciousness, he was prepared to admit that he had never understood the dynamics of American history. From this admission Adams went on to write The Education of Henry Adams , in which he unsparingly reviewed all the occasions on which he had failed to grasp the meaning of events.

When placed beside this sort of personal humility, the habitual complacency of the pundits becomes especially clear. Fifty years ago, for instance, Malcolm Cowley filled the jpages of The New Republic with a Stalinist contempt for what he was sure was a dying capitalism; yet in the memoir of the '30s which Cowley has just published he betrays no sense of shame or even embarrassment about those bygone essays. Following Henry Adams' Augustinian example would have taken a capacity for self-criticism which Cowley simply does not possess.

Some of the critics who have written at length about Adams' life and works have also found it difficult to follow his example, in the sense that they have been unable to accept the harsh judgments of his career which Adams himself propounded. William Dusinberre reminds us that in his active middle years Adams represented the very antithesis of intellectual failure, that he lived life to the full in his chosen career as a historian, that he profited both from the tradition of literary history as cultivated in England and practiced by his Boston predecessors and from the development of scientific history in Germany, and that he shaped his materials into a masterpiece which ranks with Macaulay's History of England and Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as one of the three greatest historical works written in English. That Adams later turned against his History , mocking even the care he had taken with its cartography and index, Dusinberre explains away as the consequence, first, of Adams' deep disappointment that his History had not made anything like the splash that Gibbon's and Macaulay's books had, and, secondly and more importantly, of the demoralizing grief which never left him after the suicide, in the mid-1880s, of his wife.

Other writers on Adams have long since demonstrated that Marian Hooper Adams -- called Clover by her family and friends -- was a woman of satirical with and formidable conversational power and the premier hostess in her time in Washington. But because he rests so much of his explanation as to why Adams repudiated his History on Adams' reaction to her death, Dusinberre has felt it necessary to praise Clover in new and extravagant ways. Thus he would have us believe that as a young woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1870s she had exercised a "peculiar power" over a number of young men in the neighborhood, including one who had a considerable knowledge of young ladies, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

The evidence, however, of Holmes' romantic attraction to Clover is ludicrously thin. For most of his life Holmes kept a ledger in which he recorded the names of all the books he read and the dates on which he finished them. Some time in June 1872, Holmes picked up a novel entitled Goodbye Sweetheart , and finished reading it on the 27th of the month. But because that was the very day on which Clover Hooper married Henry Adams, Dusinberre maintains that the notation, "June 27 -- Goodbye Sweetheart," is "an allusion to a poignant moment" in Holmes' emotional life. sI myself think it would be no less fanciful to infer that Holmes was saying farewell to his bachelor friend Henry rather than to his neighbor Clover, for Clover's family has a history of mental illness, and many people in Cambridge considered it to be asking for trouble to marry "one of those crazy Hoopers." But in the absence of supporting evidence for either hypothesis, it would seem advisable to settle for the simple proposition that Holmes was recording the name of a novel in his ledger and nothing more.

Yet even if all the incredible claims that Dusinberre makes for Clover could be proved true, they still would not gainsay the fact that Adams mocked his History for important intellectual reasons. The fun de siecle was a time when a host of figures in the arts became disillusioned with traditional modes of expression. The historian Henry Adams is to be understood in this context. The crises of the '90s taught Adams the limitations of fact gathering, and he therefore abandoned conventional historiography in favor of scientific metaphors, mythological symbols, and a representation of himself as an artist-victim. If he had not had historial grounds for believing his History had failed, Adams would have remained a 19th-century writer to the end of his days. But with The Education of Henry Adams he entered the lists of modern art.

No critic better understood the modernity of Adams' later work than the late R.P. Blackmur. In a series of notable essays, published between 1931 and 1955, Blackmur repeatedly praised the Education as an archetypal account of the problem of the artist in modern society. Ultimately, Blackmur decided to expand his vision of Adams into a full-length study, but was unable to complete it. Perhaps his personal identification with the man he was writing about had become too intense for him to handle.

After Blackmur's death, a manuscript of 700 pages on Adams was found among his papers, and was duly deposited in the Princeton University Library. The most finished portions of that manuscript have now been published. Unfortunately, the book proves to have no overall coherence and is further marred by the stylistic opacity which characterized much of Blackmur's later work. As a symbolic record of Blackmur's own troubled life, the book has interest. But as an essay on Henry Adams, it fails to fulfill the promise of the critic's earlier, briefer pieces.