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The Education of Henry Adams

af Henry Adams

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'Every generalisation that we settled forty years ago, is abandoned'As a journalist, historian and novelist born into a family that included two past presidents of the United States, Henry Adams was constantly focused on the American experiment. An immediate bestseller awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, his The Education of Henry Adams (1918) recounts his own andthe country's education from 1838, the year of his birth, to 1905, incorporating the Civil War, capitalist expansion and the growth of the United States as a world power. Exploring America as both a success and a failure, contradiction was the very impetus that compelled Adams to write theEducation, in which he was also able to voice his deep scepticism about mankind's power to control the direction of history. Written with immense wit and irony, reassembling the past while glimpsing the future, Adams's vision expresses what Henry James declared the `complex fate' to be an American,and remains one of the most compelling works of American autobiography today.… (mere)
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The Education of Henry Adams is rich in personal observations, filled with nineteenth-century US history. Even his mile walk to school at age 6 has historical interest, because the 77-year-old man who held his hand and walked with him was the sixth US president, John Quincy Adams, Henry’s grandfather.

For the record, Henry’s great-grandfather was the second US president, John Adams (signatory of the Declaration of Independence), then his grandfather John Quincy Adams the sixth president, and his father the US ambassador to England during the Civil War. His maternal grandfather Peter Chardon Brooks was one of the 100 wealthiest Americans, a merchant millionaire, which was rare in the 1700s and early 1800s.

Adams was alive twenty-two years before the Civil War, and from his earliest years was appalled at slavery and the retrograde violation of human dignity in the southern defense of slavery (100). He met presidents from, of course, his grandfather John Quincy, through Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and many more, through twentieth-century presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. He died in 1918, the same year that World War I ended. It was a long way from the early American pioneer days of 1838 when he was born. When Adams was born, transportation and communication had not changed in 10,000 years. When he died he had seen the introduction of new transportation and communication that the twentieth century took for granted.

Henry served as assistant to the ambassador to England for eight years when he was fresh out of Harvard University. Returning to the US around 1869 he started a career he loved as a journalist. But his family, friends, and professors he respected, persuaded him to take the position of history professor at Harvard. He did it for seven years. One of his students was Henry Cabot Lodge.

Other than the friends he made during this period, he hated teaching and considered it a waste of seven years. He had little faith in standard teaching methods and outcomes. He valued the active mind and to “know how to learn” rather than the stuff that people spend most of their time studying (314). He believed in slower-paced learning to more fully and deeply absorb subjects as opposed to fast-paced surface learning.

On the other hand, he felt a little guilty after Harvard had greeted him as an adult with open arms: “Yet nothing in the vanity of life struck him as more humiliating than that Harvard College, which he had persistently criticized, abused, abandoned, and neglected, should alone have offered him a dollar, an office, an encouragement, or a kindness” (305).

He returned to his writing career, which over his lifetime included novels, the eight-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, historical and legal essays, the two books I’ve reviewed, and many others. He was one of America’s most esteemed historians though he spent his life with a sense of personal failure and a low estimation of his own education.

His lifelong pursuit was to extrapolate and understand the trajectory of human evolution, socially, politically, industrially, scientifically, theologically, and technologically. One of his comments on human evolutionary development sounds very modern. As history students know, Ulysses S. Grant had been a great general, but was corrupt as president. Speaking of Grant, Adams cuts to the chase: “He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. … That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called…the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. … Darwinists ought to conclude that America was reverting to the stone age” (266).

The Education is rife with insightful commentary on the world spinning around him, sometimes moving too fast to comprehend, sometimes moving incomprehensively backwards. He saw paradigm-shift inventions from telegraph and trains, to telephone and automobiles (he even bought a car in his later years), steam then electricity, inventions like photography, then film and the early Hollywood silent films, finally airplanes and the discovery of radium and radiation.

Adams traveled more than most Americans in the nineteenth century. He spent many years throughout Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and the Caribbean. He was an early observer of the merging of Western Cultures, noting “Hamburg was almost as American as St. Louis” (414).

The Education has hidden treasures, offhand observations that end up being the most memorable. For example, he notes the affectation of eccentric behaviors in people considered highly eccentric. Eccentricity itself becomes a convention. He observes that “a mind really eccentric never betrayed it. True eccentricity was a tone—a shade—a nuance—and the finer the tone, the truer the eccentricity” (370).

Adams’ final thoughts show his disappointment: “He saw his education complete, and was sorry he ever began it” (458). He abhorred the ever-worsening “persistently fiendish treatment of man by man;…the perpetual symbolism of a higher law, and the perpetual relapse to a lower one” and principals of freedom deteriorating into principals of power and the “despotism of artificial order” (458), referring to the rise of corporate dominance over society. He particularly disliked the growing influence of corporate power: “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy…They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot” (500).

Adams had good friends who met tragic fates, his wife committed suicide at a young age, and as he grew older, found himself “A solitary man of sixty-five years or more, alone in a Gothic cathedral or a Paris apartment…” (460). So this is The Education of Henry Adams. You may wonder why I liked it so much, and recommend it. The book is a retrospective provided by one of our most observant students of life, with access to the most interesting places and people in their most interesting times. The book itself is a fascinating education for anyone who reads it.
( )
  Coutre | Dec 23, 2020 |
Ultimately this is an old man grousing about how the country has gone to hell in a hand basket. Plus he was no doubt bothered that he had sat out the Civil War as an aide to his father the ambassador to Great Britain. Unlike today that disqualified him from holding elected, and especially high, office as his grandfather and great grandfather had. ( )
  JoeHamilton | Jul 21, 2020 |
For the first several chapters it reminded me very much of how I felt about my own experiences in school.

I am delighted with how nicely the third person narrative fits this autobiography. He is a very skilled writer.

He was a deep thinker and there is much that I don’t understand. Part of my inability to understand is I only have vague familiarity with many of his intimate acquaintances and this historical events he was in the middle of.

I grew curious as to whether he ever married since he was writing at length about various powers, including the power of the feminine. From Wikipedia I found that he had married, she committed suicide, and he was totally silent about her in his autobiography. (Chapter 30)

It would take a much more careful reading to understand the depth in this book. ( )
  bread2u | Jul 1, 2020 |
I expected to check off one of those “supposedly Great Books that I’ve never gotten around to,” but this was the best history of the nineteenth century that I’ve ever read. It certainly has all the brushes with powerful men (yes, mostly men) you would expect from a grandson and great grandson of US presidents. But much greater is its grappling with an age of tremendous changes in the world via new scientific discoveries, technological progress, and the squabbles and brawls of nations. Each year I set aside only one or two books to reread a few years later, and this is one of that rarest category. ( )
1 stem nicholasjjordan | Nov 13, 2019 |
This peculiar book was on my wishlist for years, ever since I first red a description of it. Henry Adams, a grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, made his name as an essayist and historian, but he is best remembered today for this autobiography. As a creature of one of the most elite American families, Adams could hardly avoid living an extraordinary life in regular contact with rich and influential people. He also had an imposing family legacy that was perhaps impossible for anyone to live up to. In this book, looking back over his life from the perspective of old age, Adams resorts to laconic detachment, writing of himself in the third person (”Adams”).

The book enjoyed its greatest popularity in the 1920s, in part because the name-dropping that Adams does throughout the book was about people who were then still widely known. (Modern editions include a name glossary.) Adams’s comfortable pessimism also must have appealed to the generation that endured the catastrophe of World War I and formed the materialist culture of the ’20s. The book’s star fell during the Great Depression, but the Education has always had its devotees. (One of them is Edmund Morris, who wrote the introduction to my edition.)

My progress through the book was gradual. I spent about three evenings a week with it, and occasionally I wasted some daylight on it. While I never stopped finding Adams interesting, I did begin to feel that marching through the book was a duty more than a plesure. I'm usually happy to indulge writers who digress frequently and who come at their subject indirectly, by tortuous paths, or as if by accident. I even try to win skeptics over to the delights of that pioneering novel about nothing, Tristram Shandy. But the Education was a harder slog than I expected. The conceits that had delighted readers in the 1910s and ’20s soon wore a bit thin for me, sometimes lapsing into predictability. Everything, I soon realized, would turn out in the end not to be education. I found myself wishing Adams would describe, however tentatively and circuitously, what ”education” ment to him. But I feel sure that this silence was intentional.

Another famous silence is his omission of any mention of his wife, Marian “Clover” H. Adams, a fascinating woman to whom he was intensely devoted, and who killed herself during a struggle with depression in 1885. She was one of America’s first portrait photographers, and she poisoned herself with some of the potassium cyanide she used to develop photographs. This giant lacuna in The Education of Henry Adams is only indicated by a chapter title: “Twelve Years Later.”

Adams was a very young man during the Civil War, serving his father in the American embassy to Britain. So slavery and the southern “Slave Power” are lively presences in the Education. Black people, however, are invisible; one would probably search the whole text in vain for the contemporary word ”Negro.” Instead, Adams’s meditations on race — an important topic to him — are consistently directed beyond American shores. It is interesting to watch him struggle with the idea of race, convinced that it exists, aware that it is the foundation upon which the edifice of world history was being raised, but troubled by the elusiveness, the insubstantiality of it.
Race ruled the conditions; conditions hardly affected race; and yet no one could tell the patient tourist what race was, or how it should be known. History offered a feeble and delusive smile at the sound of the word; evolutionists and ethnologists disputed its very existence; no one knew what to make of it; yet, without the clue, history was a nursery tale. (pp. 411-412)
The passage I just quoted is from Adams’s trip to Hammerfest, Norway where, in the footsteps of Thomas Carlyle’s protagonist Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, he seeks the edge of the polar ice cap, and marvels to find it not only easy to reach but illuminated with electric light. He then meditates on ”the Norse” (his quaint term for Scandinavians) as embodying “unity” (his unexplained synonym for modernity) and contrasts them with Russia, where he had just visited. Russia, for him, exemplifies a universal “inertia” that would surely resist incorporation into ”unity“ — or change of any kind, for that matter — for generations to come. The ikon-kissing peasant exemplified all Russians for Adams. How surprised he must have been to hear of the Russian Revolution, less than five months before his deth in March 1918.

While contemplating the Hammerfest glacier he also glances at the indigenous people, whom he calls, reflexively and with an unconscious pun, the last Laps. One wonders how surprised he might be at the survival of the Lapps — now known by their own name of Sámi — and at their limited autonomy within Norway and Finland, and their protected rights to their language, culture, and self-determination. All these developments would be the opposite of Adams’s idea of progress and “unity.”

The world we live in is unlike the abstract future that Henry Adams fabricated, piece by piece, during his unevenly documented life of contemplation. I couldn’t help wondering, after I finished the book, whether Henry Adams himself had taken it seriously. Was it all just a performance to amuse his many friends? Or was it a task to keep the author distracted from the great loss at the center of his life? In parts of the book — such as the sermonette about unity and inertia, or the chapter "The Dynamo and the Virgin" about another pair of opposed archetypes — his words glow with a steady zeal, like the orange fire in a vacuum tube. None the less, whatever else all this may have ment to Henry Adams, we can safely assume that there was no education in it.
1 stem Muscogulus | Jul 22, 2019 |
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Henry Adamsprimær forfatteralle udgaverberegnet
Lodge, Henry CabotForordmedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
Morris, EdmundIntroduktionmedforfatternogle udgaverbekræftet
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Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.
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'Every generalisation that we settled forty years ago, is abandoned'As a journalist, historian and novelist born into a family that included two past presidents of the United States, Henry Adams was constantly focused on the American experiment. An immediate bestseller awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, his The Education of Henry Adams (1918) recounts his own andthe country's education from 1838, the year of his birth, to 1905, incorporating the Civil War, capitalist expansion and the growth of the United States as a world power. Exploring America as both a success and a failure, contradiction was the very impetus that compelled Adams to write theEducation, in which he was also able to voice his deep scepticism about mankind's power to control the direction of history. Written with immense wit and irony, reassembling the past while glimpsing the future, Adams's vision expresses what Henry James declared the `complex fate' to be an American,and remains one of the most compelling works of American autobiography today.

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