It's a pity: Robert Sayre has so many suggestive things to say about American autobiography as reflected in Franklin, Henry Adams, and Henry James, and such a snuffling, scholarly style that one often puts down the book more in sorrow than in anger. So much careful consideration, research, even revelation, and no charm at all. There is gratitude, however; after the last page folds one does feel one has learned something- in fact, a great deal. The three figures are explored as exemplars of the American experience; Franklin conveyed the outer, Adams and James the inner, or more to the point, Franklin was the voice of civic conscience, Adams and James the viewers of consciousness, a 19th century concern which has become a 20th century industry. Thus these essays look backwards and forwards, and one of Professor Sayre's feats-and it's not a mean one- is cannily connecting the Philadelphia Patriot's cracker- barrel universalism with the Bostonians' aristocratic disillusionments. The burden of the book lies with the latter, with Adams' loss of historical control and his need to resume control, to produce order out of chaos, and with James' more youthful, social, descriptive journey into self-discovery and worldly relatedness. Their friendship, by the way, is splendidly illuminated.