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The Education of Henry Adams : An Autobiography ()

World Magazine Top 100 of the Century

    You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization
    needs is more "drive," or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or "creativity." In sort of ghastly simplicity
    we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them
    virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate
    and bid the geldings be fruitful.
        -C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

It may not be possible to like Henry Adams, but it is certainly possible to empathize with him.  A grandson and great grandson of Presidents, the bar was set impossibly high for him at birth.  The closest thing we have to him today is probably Ted Kennedy, and look at what an utter hash he's made out of his life.  The problems of Henry Adams were, presumably, of a different order, mostly having to do with the feeling that he could not understand the modern Industrial world, but his general feeling of having failed to achieve as much as his ancestors likely contributed, as did the unexpected suicide of his wife.

Meanwhile, he need not have felt this inadequacy so sorely.  He was an accomplished writer : his History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (which I've not read) is considered one of the first great American history texts; Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres A Study of Thirteenth Century Unity is still read and respected; and Democracy (see Orrin's review) remains one of the best political novels of Washington, DC.  But it is The Education on which his modern reputation rests, and quite a reputation it is.  This third person autobiography was a phenomenal bestseller when it was published, posthumously, and was named the number one book on the Modern Library list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century.  That is a record of accomplishment to rival just about any writer.

As for the book, it's easy to see why it is so highly regarded, particularly among cultural elites, but it is also badly flawed; and its flaws are by and large those that made the 20th century one of the bloodiest and most turbulent in human history.  The greatness of the book, besides the magnificent style, really lies in the degree to which it captures the quandary of the modern intellectual.  Its weakness lies in its utter failure to address that quandary.

Adams must be one of the few men to ever inhabit three centuries.  Thanks to his family, he was raised as something of an 18th century man.  The bulk of his life was spent in the 19th century, somewhat uncomfortably thanks to that upbringing.  And he lived far enough into the 20th century to find himself completely baffled.   It must be recalled that while not all of the Founders were Christian, they were at least Deists.  That is they believed that the Universe was a place of order and that it had been designed by an intelligent being, perhaps not too much different than ourselves.  But during Adams's lifetime men like Lyell, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and the physicists like Einstein, propounded theories, scientific or at least cloaked in the guise of science, which taken together denied the necessity often even the existence of God, and suggested that life was not an orderly process at all, but rather one of randomness and chance, governed, if at all, by implacable forces, totally beyond the control of any being.  The generations of modern intellectuals who reveled in the death of God--tragically and incorrectly perceiving in his demise a new birth of freedom for mankind--looked up from the corpse and realized that there was nothing--no set of ideals, no unifying purpose, no laws of human behavior, no sense of human destiny--to take His place.  If God was truly dead, what was there for Man to have faith in ?

Adams, among the most perceptive and most articulate of the earliest generation for whom this crisis of faith was the defining feature of existence, expresses the sense of loss beautifully.  In the best known chapter of the book, The Dynamo and the Virgin, he takes these two figures as iconic representations of their times; the Virgin being the symbol which unified Western culture in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth centuries and led to the great cathedrals of France, of which he was so enamored, while the dynamo is the symbol of modernity, and all it ultimately represents is change.  I'm not much of a fan of the Virgin, but even she comes out light years ahead in this comparison.  She at least represents a set of ideas and ideals and is an accessible and human figure.  To the extent that she allowed men and women of the Middle Ages some entree to Christianity, she served a worthwhile purpose, and, as the subtitle of Mont-Saint-Michel states, provided a unity to the society.

The dynamo, representing rapid change, is by definition a disunifying symbol.  It is inhuman.  It requires nothing of its worshippers except the technical know-how to keep it spinning.  And, as with all technology, it is doomed to obsolesence.  A society which adopts such an unstable and meaningless symbol as its new deity must be likewise doomed, and, sure enough, the Godless, faithless, change-worshipping era upon which modern man was embarked would prove to be catastrophic for all concerned.

The great tragedy of Henry Adams, and the fatal flaw of the book is that he embraced the dynamo.  This need not have been the case, he had actually been prepared by his early education to fight it :

    The atmosphere of education in which he lived was colonial, revolutionary, almost Cromwellian, as
    though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmotherís birth, in the odor of political crime.
    Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with
    the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly
    as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose
    that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition; the duty was unchanged. That duty implied not
    only resistance to evil, but hatred of it. Boys naturally look on all force as an enemy, and generally
    find it so, but the New Englander, whether boy or man, in his long struggle with a stingy or hostile
    universe, had learned also to love the pleasure of hating; his joys were few.

That this brilliant and capable man, trained for the battle against evil, whose great grandfather fought for inalienable rights endowed by a Creator, should have come at the end of his life to the point where he accepted the dynamo, and the naked force, anarchy and existentialism which it implied, must diminish him in our eyes.  The gist of the book is that his education was a miseducation, preparing him for a world that had passed or was passing.  In fact, his education prepared him for the central battle of the modern age, against the loss of faith, but he instead collaborated with the enemy, and so, did fail in the final analysis to measure up to his illustrious ancestors.


Grade: (B+)


Henry Adams Links:

    -REVIEW: of The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams by David S. Brown (Mark Tooley, Providence)
    -ESSAY: 'Henry Adams and the Making of America': Misunderstood (RICHARD LINGEMAN, 9/11/05, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams By David S. Brown (Clayton Trutor, University Bookman)
    -REVIEW: of Henry Adams in Washington: Linking the Personal and Public Lives of America’s Man of Letters By Ormond Seavey (Kitty Kelly, Washington Independent Review of Books)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Adams, Henry (Brooks)
    -ETEXT : The Education of Henry Adams (
    -ETEXT : Democracy (Eldritch Press)
    -Creative Quotations from Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918)
    -Grave of Henry Adams (Find a Grave)
    -Henry Adams, Globe Trotter in Space and Time
    -PAL: Henry Adams (1838-1918)
    -PROFILE : The dynamo :  Who was Henry Adams?  And how did he write - in the opinion of the Modern Library Board - the century's #1 nonfiction book? Board member Edmund Morris explains (At Random Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES : "Henry Adams" (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Power and mystery.(Henry Adams' book 'Democracy')(James M. Wall, Christian Century)
    -ESSAY : Henry Adams and Our New Century (Sanford Pinsker, Partisan Review)
    -ESSAY : Henry Adams (Paul Elmer More)
    -ESSAY :   THE MISANTHROPE'S CORNER (Florence King, National Review; February 9, 1998)
    -REVIEW : of Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation in America. By Mark R. Schwehn (Amy Kass, First Things)
    -REVIEW : of The Education of Henry Adams (October 27, 1918, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of HENRY ADAMS History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of HENRY ADAMS History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson (C. Vann Woodward, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE LETTERS OF HENRY ADAMS Volume One: 1858-1868. Volume Two: 1868-1885. Volume Three: 1886-1892 (William S. McFeely, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Brad Leithauser: No Laughing Matter, NY Review of Books
       American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume One: Henry Adams to Dorothy Parker
       American Poetry: The Twentieth Century, Volume Two: E.E. Cummings to May Swenson
    -REVIEW : of DESCENT FROM GLORY Four Generations of the John Adams Family. By Paul C. Nagel (Garry Wills, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HENRY ADAMS By Ernest Samuels (Hugh Brogan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of BETTER IN DARKNESS A Biography of Henry Adams. His Second Life, 1862-1891. By Edward Chalfant (Gillian Beer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE FIVE OF HEARTS An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918. By Patricia O'Toole (Fiona MacCarthy, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PANAMA By Eric Zencey (Hilary Mantel, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of PANAMA By Eric Zencey (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)