Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

That’s an odd title for an autobiography, isn’t it? But it does say something both about the writer and the style in which it was written. Written entirely in the third person (more on that later), Henry Adams completed this book — a sort of mixture between memoir and theoretical historical musing — and distributed only to close friends and family. It was posthumously published to outstanding reviews and is now considered the number 1 non-fiction book of the 20th century by the New York Times’ Modern Library.

Henry Adams was born in February 1838 and was the son of Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams; grandson of John Adams). With the extraordinary luck of being born into such a politically and intellectually important American family, Adams was assured of being at the center or, at the very least, the close periphery of the workings of the American government in the mid-19th century. After completing his formal education at Harvard College and the University of Berlin, Adams became his father’s private secretary during his time as diplomat to Britain during the American Civil War — a time particularly difficult for the relations between Britain and the US. He later spent time as a professor of Medieval History at Harvard College and would become a particularly important American historian and intellectual.

The Education is written in the third person which is certainly quite odd. One might take this to be an indication of false-modesty — certainly Adams was very accomplished and widely regarded as one of the most important American intellectual forces of the 19th century — but this style creates a sense of objectivity for the reader in the memories related. As Donald Hall points out in the Marine Books 2000 edition introduction, Adams does not use “I” once, and this helps provide, at times, an extra dose of self-effacing humor when relating his personal missteps.

I am not sure how I came to own this book but it has been sitting on one of my shelves for several years without ever being opened. On a whim, between working on a paper and eating dinner, I cracked open the book and scanned the index. Some of the references piqued my interest and I found myself reading the introduction (provided by Donald Hall in the Mariner Books edition), then the editor’s preface, and the author’s preface). Before I knew it, I had read through most of Henry Adams’ early years.

Adams is an extraordinary writer. At various moments throughout the book, he recalls moments in his life in beautiful prose. Strangely, these passages are not always recording important or life-changing moments in his life. Adams may simply be relaying a new location he is exploring for the first time. On making his way to Berlin to study law, after completing his degree at Harvard College in 1858, he passes through England:

Then came the journey up to London through Birmingham and the Black District, another lesson, which needed much more to be rightly felt. The plunge into darkness lurid with flames; the sense of unknown horror in this weird gloom which then existed nowhere else, and never had existed before, except in volcanic craters; the violent contrast between this dense, smoky, penetrable darkness, and the soft green charm that one glided into, as one emerged — the revelation of an unknown society of the pit — made a boy uncomfortable, though he had no idea that Karl Marx was standing there waiting for him, and that sooner or later the process of education would have to deal with Karl Marx much more than with Professor Bowen of Harvard College or his Satanic free-trade majesty John Stuart Mill. The Black District was a practical education, but it was infinitely far in the distance. The boy ran away from it, as he ran away from everything he disliked.

The primary thread of this book is indeed his education. Throughout, Adams refers to the educating value (or lack thereof) of his experiences. Some of these reflections are particularly startling. During the years he spent in England as his father’s private secretary, Adams points out repeatedly, during a number of diplomatic and political crises, how many of the primary actors were simply ignorant of the facts. Only in his later years, while writing his Education, is Adams able to fully realize how even at the top circles of government some simply do not have all the facts to make adequate decisions.

During his early years, Adams was frustrated by his attempts at education but the vigor of youth drove him on. Later, in his twilight years, his education still seeming incomplete to him (for he still did not understand why world events unfolded the way they did), he writes more despairingly about his continuing attempts to explain the world. Perhaps it is ironic that such a learned man as Adams — who was born into an elite family, had an elite formal education, traveled more extensively than any one born in 1838 could have hoped for, and spent many years of his life within the inner circle of many top political figures in the 19th century — would write of his life’s education as a failure. But my impression is that this was no false modesty. Throughout the book, Adams attempts to reflect on events and give an explanation only to be rebuffed again and again as he later finds out the truth.

Although I am not as familiar as I would like to be with western history during Adams’ time, this book was certainly interesting not only as a history of events during his years, but a stirring and sincere account of a man’s life who, without the power to change the world, sought to understand.

To conclude this entry, I will end with how Adams thought it best to end. Two life-long friendships Adams kept during his life was those with John Hay (Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt) and Clarence King (First Director of the USGS). Adams concludes his Education on a beautiful yet somber note about the importance these friendships had on his life:

[O]ne warm evening in early July, as Adams was strolling down to dine under the trees at Armenonville, he learned that Hay was dead. He expected it; on Hay’s account, he was even satisfied to have his friend die, as we would all die if we could, in full fame, at home and abroad, universally regretted, and wielding his power to the last. One had seen scores of emperors and heroes fade into cheap obscurity even when alive; and now; at least; one had not that to fear for one’s friend. It was not even the suddenness of the shock, or the sense of void, that threw Adams into the depths of Hamlet’s Shakespearean silence in the full flare of Paris frivolity in its favorite haunt where worldly vanity reach its most futile climax in human history; it was only the quiet summons to follow — the assent to dismissal. It was time to go. The three friends had begun life together; and the last of the three had no motive — no attraction — to carry it on after the others had gone. Education had ended for all three, and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed. Perhaps some day — say 1938, their centenary — they might be allowed to return together for a holiday,k to the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.


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