Monday, June 7, 2010


Henry Brooks Adam
From the Harvard College Class of 1858 album
Images from the collections of the
Massachusetts Historical Society

No American historian of the nineteenth century has so enchanted, irritated, and impressed his contemporaries and successors as Henry Brooks Adams. He was and is his country's greatest historian, and its most elusive. His achievement was various: he helped to fashion and define the school of "scientific" history, so that his History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1884-1891) is a work of stamina and grace that may, with some indulgence, be mentioned in the same breath with Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; he was among the first and best of American medievalists, and his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) is an unpretending and quirky combination of travel literature, intellectual history, and architectural celebration; his autobiography, philosophical dissertation, and memoir, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), is the most compelling and intractable of American fin-de-si├Ęcle writings.

Adams Family Reunion, 1927
From Gwinnett Album at

BACK ROW: Jessie Ramey, Odessia (Yancey) Adams, Henry Adams, Homer Adams, Spurgeon Hayes, Shock Adams, Leon Adams Rochell Adams, William D. Adams, Virgil Hayes, Ethel (Hughes) Adams, John Henry Adams, Lillie Mae Adams, Lula Mae Adams, Claude Millard Rowe.

MIDDLE ROW: Grace Ramey, Mattie (Adams) Ramey, Hattie (Adams) Hayes, Henry Harrison Adams, Ollie Ola (Moore) Adams, Harvey Hayes, Virginia Hayes, Martha (Wages) Adams, James Harvey Adams, Maggie Lee (Adams) Rowe, Millard Rowe.

FRONT ROW: Clifford Adams, Louis Henry Ramey, Elbert Ramey, Annie Ree Adams, Robert Adams, Ollie Mae Adams, Grady Ramey.


Born in Massachusetts in 1838, Henry Adams was descended from a long line of distinguished American statesmen. His great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams had both served as president of the United States, and his father, Charles Francis Adams, was a congressman and diplomat. His childhood instilled in him a belief in the virtues of public duty and political service, and as a youth he had little reason to doubt that he, too, would advance to national public office as an adult.
(Source Historian, writer)

The Educationof Henry Adams

The Education is much more a record of Adams's introspection than of his deeds. It is an extended meditation on the social, technological, political, and intellectual changes that occurred over Adams's lifetime. Adams concluded that his traditional education failed to help him come to terms with these rapid changes; hence his need for self-education. The organizing thread of the book is how the "proper" schooling and other aspects of his youth, was time wasted; thus his search for self-education through experiences, friendships, and reading.
Many aspects of the contemporary world emerged during the half-century between the Civil War and World War I, a half-century coinciding with Adams's adult life. An important theme of The Education is its author's bewilderment and concern at the rapid advance in science and technology over the course of his lifetime, sometimes now called Second Industrial Revolution but incarnated in his term "dynamo." The Education mentions the recent discovery of x-rays and radioactivity, and shows a familiarity with radio waves in his citation of Marconi and Branly. Adams purchased an automobile as early as 1902, in order to make better use of a summer in France researching Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. He correctly predicted that the 20th century would see even more explosive changes. Adams repeatedly laments that his formal education, grounded in the classics, history, and literature, as was then the fashion, did not give him the scientific and mathematical knowledge needed to grasp the scientific breakthroughs of the 1890s and 1900s.
Two aspects set The Education apart from the common run of autobiographies. First, it is narrated in the third person; second, it is frequently sarcastic and humorously self-critical.
The Education repeatedly mentions two long-standing friends of Adams, the scientific explorer of the Far West, Clarence King, and the American diplomat, John Milton Hay.
The Education does not discuss Adams's marriage, and the illness and 1885 suicide of his wife, Clover; it skips twenty years from 1872 to 1892. Adams, splendidily reflective and self-critical in so many other ways, did not articulate what, if anything, he had learned from these sobering experiences. But he did, in fact, speak to his marriage in indirect ways. For example, he lamented how the memorial he had constructed for his wife had become something of a tourist attraction. More generally, it is clear that his outlook changed after her death.
Henry Adams' life story is rooted in the American political aristocracy that emerged from the American Revolution. He was the grandson of the American President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President and Founding Father John Adams. His father, Charles Francis Adams, had served as ambassador to the United Kingdom during the American Civil War, and had been elected to the United States House of Representatives. His brother Brooks Adams was also a historian and social critic of note. Henry Adams had received the finest formal education available in America, enjoying many other advantages as well. It is this social context that makes The Education so important. But the trappings of success did not mean much to a restless individualist such as Adams. Rather than take advantage of his patrician name, he sized up this and other advantages and found them wanting.
The "Chartres" was finished and privately printed in 1904. The "Education" proved to be more difficult. The point on which the author failed to please himself, and could get no light from readers or friends, was the usual one of literary form. Probably he saw it in advance, for he used to say, half in jest, that his great ambition was to complete St. Augustine's "Confessions," but that St. Augustine, like a great artist, had worked from multiplicity to unity, while he, like a small one, had to reverse the method and work back from unity to multiplicity. The scheme became unmanageable as he approached his end.
Probably he was, in fact, trying only to work into it his favorite theory of history, which now fills the last three or four chapters of the "Education," and he could not satisfy himself with his workmanship. At all events, he was still pondering over the problem in 1910, when he tried to deal with it in another way which might be more intelligible to students. He printed a small volume called "A Letter to American Teachers," which he sent to his associates in the American Historical Association, hoping to provoke some response. Before he could satisfy himself even on this minor point, a severe illness in the spring of 1912 put an end to his literary activity forever.
The matter soon passed beyond his control. In 1913 the Institute of Architects published the "Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres." Already the "Education" had become almost as well known as the "Chartres," and was freely quoted by every book whose author requested it. The author could no longer withdraw either volume; he could no longer rewrite either, and he could not publish that which he thought unprepared and unfinished, although in his opinion the other was historically purposeless without its sequel. In the end, he preferred to leave the "Education" unpublished, avowedly incomplete, trusting that it might quietly fade from memory. According to his theory of history..... the teacher was at best helpless, and, in the immediate future, silence next to good-temper was the mark of sense. After midsummer, 1914, the rule was made absolute.
The Massachusetts Historical Society now publishes the "Education" as it was printed in 1907, with only such marginal corrections as the author made, and it does this, not in opposition to the author's judgment, but only to put both volumes equally within reach of students who have occasion to consult them.
(EDITOR'S PREFACE, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by HENRY CABOT LODGE, September, 1918 at Project Gutenberg Etext of The Education of Henry Adams)

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