Thursday, January 12, 2017

Book Review: The Education of Henry Adams

by David Blake, Fiction Department, Central Library

The Education of Henry Adams
Henry Adams

You may have heard of the film trivia game, “seven degrees of separation which references Kevin Bacon.” Henry Adams is the "Kevin Bacon” of the history of the United States. He led a remarkable life and was connected through friendship and family relation to our most important historical figures from the Revolutionary era (through his grandfather John Quincy Adams) to the Kennedy administration (through his friendship with a young Eleanor Roosevelt). But The Education of Henry Adams is not a tell-all series of anecdotes about the scores of interesting people he met and knew. Rather, it is an introspective look at the useful and difficult self-education that emerged from his dealings with the important figures of his era, roughly the last half of the nineteenth century.

The heart of this autobiography is the decade of young Henry Adams’ unpaid service as personal secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, Lincoln’s Ambassador to Great Britain, on one of the most important diplomatic missions in US history. Their task was to maintain the neutrality of the British in the Civil War despite the British desire to recognize the Confederacy, buy cotton from them and sell them weapons, which would have reversed the outcome of the Civil War had Adams failed. But this book is not a blow-by-blow recounting of the success of their mission. Rather, Adams, with the hindsight of fifty years of access to historical records, discusses the many ways the American legation—and the British leadership, Palmerston, Gladstone, and Foreign Secretary Lord Russell—all of these brilliant accomplished leaders were almost always entirely wrong about each other’s positions and intentions. Adams describes a real-world education gained from a high stakes endeavor.

During his work in London, young Adams was approached by Charles Darwin and asked to write a paper introducing Darwin’s evolutionary theories to American readers. Later, although he did not have a degree in history, Harvard asked him to become a professor of Medieval history, about which he was ignorant. But he created the seminar method of conducting classes (still widely used) so that he and his students could study together. He was friends with Clarence King, father of the US Geological Survey, and travelled with him into a West still wild with buffalo herds and hostile natives. His closest friendship was with John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, and Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of State. Together, they commissioned the great architect H. H. Richardson to build a pair of adjoining houses on Lafayette Park, across from the White House, where they wrote volumes of US history. Some of the best writing is about Adams' youth where he lived on his grandfather’s farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, sill an outpost of 18th century New England puritanism.

The Education of Henry Adams was originally self-published and only distributed to close friends and only reached the public after his death. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and is widely regarded as the finest American autobiography. Adams was close friends with Henry James, and as with James, his elegant sentences require close attention from the reader, who will often encounter untranslated French or Latin passages, as well. It is a companion piece to his Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, also an American classic. Adams' intent is to compare the religious and intellectual unity of the Medieval era with his time’s expanding multiplicity, driven by the historical forces of science and technology, discussed at length. He is concerned about the education of young leaders for the coming century which he believes will be defined by complexity and change.

The Education of Henry Adams demands much from its readers. He assumes a familiarity with the ideas and personages of his time. Many passages are intellectually challenging and require reflection. But the reader is rewarded with a deeper understanding of an important part of the history we all share. And Adams is very good company.

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