History of Literature

Henry Adams



Henry Adams


Henry Adams

American historian
in full Henry Brooks Adams

born Feb. 16, 1838, Boston
died March 27, 1918, Washington, D.C.

historian, man of letters, and author of one of the outstanding autobiographies of Western literature, The Education of Henry Adams.

Adams was the product of Boston’s Brahmin class, a cultured elite that traced its lineage to Puritan New England. He was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, both presidents of the United States. The Adams family tradition of leadership was carried on by his father, Charles Francis Adams (1807–86), a diplomat, historian, and congressman. His younger brother, Brooks (1848–1927), was also a historian; his older brother, Charles Francis, Jr. (1835–1915), was an author and railroad executive. Through his mother, Abigail Brown Brooks, Adams was related to one of the most distinguished and wealthiest families in Boston. Tradition ingrained a deep sense of morality in Adams. He never escaped his heritage and often spoke of himself as a child of the 17th and 18th centuries who was forced to come to terms with the new world of the 20th century.

Adams was graduated from Harvard in 1858 and, in typical patrician fashion, embarked upon a grand tour of Europe in search of amusement and a vocation. Anticipating a career as an attorney, he spent the winter of 1859 attending lectures in civil law at the University of Berlin. With the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1861, Pres. Abraham Lincoln appointed Adams’ father minister to England. Henry, age 23, accompanied him to London, acting as his private secretary until 1868.

Returning to the United States, Adams travelled to Washington, D.C., as a newspaper correspondent for The Nation and other leading journals. He plunged into the capital’s social and political life, anxious to begin the reconstruction of a nation shattered by war. He called for civil service reform and retention of the silver standard. Adams wrote numerous essays exposing political corruption and warning against the growing power of economic monopolies, particularly railroads. These articles were published in Chapters of Erie and Other Essays (1871). The mediocrity of the nation’s “statesmen” constantly irritated him. Adams liked to repeat Pres. Ulysses S. Grant’s remark that Venice would be a fine city if it were drained.

Adams continued his reformist activities as editor of the North American Review (1870–76). Moreover, he participated in the Liberal Republican movement. This group of insurgents, repelled by partisanship and the scandals of the Grant administration, bolted the Republican Party in 1872 and nominated the Democrat Horace Greeley for president. Their crusade soon foundered. Adams grew disillusioned with a world he characterized as devoid of principle. He was disgusted with demagogic politicians and a society in which all became “servant[s] of the powerhouse.” Americans, he wrote, “had no time for thought; they saw, and could see, nothing beyond their day’s work; their attitude to the universe outside them was that of the deep-sea fish.” His anonymously published novel Democracy, an American Novel (1880) reflected his loss of faith. The heroine, Madeleine Lee, like Adams himself, becomes an intimate of Washington’s political circles. As confidante of a Midwestern senator, Madeleine is introduced to the democratic process. She meets the President and other figures who are equally vacuous. After her contact with the power brokers, Madeleine concluded: “Democracy has shaken my nerves to pieces.”

In 1870 Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard College, appointed Adams professor of medieval history. He was the first American to employ the seminar method in teaching history. In 1877 he resigned to edit the papers of Thomas Jefferson’s treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin. Pursuing his interest in U.S. history, Adams completed two biographies, The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879) and John Randolph (1882). He continued to delve into the nation’s early national period, hoping to understand the nature of an evolving American democracy. This study culminated in his nine-volume History of the United States of America during the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, a scholarly work that received immediate acclaim after its publication (1889–91). In this work he explored the dilemma of governing an egalitarian society in a political world in which the predominant tendency was to aggrandize power. In 1884 Adams wrote another novel, Esther. Published under a pseudonym, Esther dealt with the relationship between religion and modern science, a theme that engaged Adams throughout his life.

Adams was stunned when, in 1885, his wife of 13 years, Marian Hooper, committed suicide. Distraught, he arranged for the sculpture of a mysterious, cloaked woman to be placed upon her grave. The union had produced no children, and Adams never remarried. After his wife’s death, Adams began a period of restless wandering. He travelled the globe from the South Sea islands to the Middle East. Gradually the circuit narrowed to winters in Washington and summers in Paris.

Though Adams referred to his existence during this period as that of a “cave-dweller,” his life was quite the opposite. From the 1870s until his last years, intellectuals gravitated to his home to discuss art, science, politics, and literature. Among them were the British diplomat Sir Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice, the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. His closest friends were the geologist Clarence King and the diplomat John Hay. Adams and King were inseparable. Their letters remain a rich source of information on everything from gossip to the most current trends of thought.

While in France, Adams pushed further into the recesses of history in search of “a fixed point . . . from which he might measure motion down to his own time.” That point became medieval Christendom in the 13th century. In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (printed privately, 1904; published, 1913) he described the medieval world view as reflected in its cathedrals. These buildings, he believed, expressed “an emotion, the deepest man ever felt—the struggle of his own littleness to grasp the infinite.” Adams’ attraction to the Middle Ages lay in the era’s ideological unity; a coherence expressed in Catholicism and symbolized by the Virgin Mary.

The Education of Henry Adams (printed privately, 1906; published 1918) was a companion volume to Chartres. The Education remains Adams’ best known work and one of the most distinguished of all autobiographies. In contrast to Chartres, the Education centred upon the 20th-century universe of multiplicity, particularly the exploding world of science and technology. In opposition to the medieval Virgin, Adams saw a new godhead—the dynamo—symbol of modern history’s anarchic energies. The Education recorded his failure to understand the centrifugal forces of contemporary life. The book traced Adams’ confrontations with reality as he moved from the custom-bound world of his birth into the modern, existential universe in which certainties had vanished.

Neither history nor education provided an answer for Henry Adams. Individuals, he believed, could not face reality; to endure, one adopts illusions. His attempt to draw lines of continuity from the 13th to the 20th century ended in futility. Adams concluded that all he could prove was change.

In 1908 Adams edited the letters and diary of his friend John Hay, secretary of state from 1898 to 1905. His last book, The Life of George Cabot Lodge, was published in 1911. In two speculative essays, “Rule of Phase Applied to History” (1909) and Letter to American Teachers of History (1910), Adams calculated the demise of the world. Basing his theory on a scientific law, the dissipation of energy, he described civilization as having retrogressed through four stages: the religious, mechanical, electrical, and ethereal. The cataclysm, he prophesied, would occur in 1921. How literally Adams intended his prediction remains a point of dispute.

In 1912, at the age of 74, Adams suffered a stroke. His haunting fear of senility became real for a short time. For three months he lay partially paralyzed, his mind hovering between reason and delirium. He recovered sufficiently, however, to travel to Europe once again. When he died, in his sleep in his Washington home, he was, according to his wish, buried next to his wife in an unmarked grave. In 1919 he was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the Education.

Adams is noted for an ironic literary style coupled with a detached, often bitter, tone. These characteristics have led some critics to view him as an irascible misfit. They contend that his fascination with the Middle Ages and his continuous emphasis upon failure were masks behind which he hid a misanthropic alienation from the world. More sympathetic commentators see Adams as a romantic figure who sought meaning in the chaos and violence of the 20th century. As Adams described it, he was in pursuit of “. . . a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.”

Christine McHugh





Тyре of work: Novelized autobiography
Author: Henry Adams (1838-1918)
Type of plot: Intellectual and social history
Time of plot: 1838-1905
Locale: America, England, France
First published: 1907

The theme of this autobiography is the process of technological growth and the multiplication of mechanical forces which led, during the author's own lifetime, to a degeneration of moral relationships between men and to the lapsing of their pursuits into money seeking or complete lassitude. The book is a masterpiece of intellectual writing, tracing intimately the author's thought processes and his moral and emotional maturation.

The Story

Henry Brooks Adams was born of the union of two illustrious Massachusetts families, the Brookses and the Adamses, and he was, in addition, the grandson and the great-grandson of presidents. His wealth and social position should have put him among the leaders of his generation.
Although the period of mechanical invention had begun by 1838, Henry Adams was raised in a colonial atmosphere. He remembered that his first serious encounter with his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, occurred when he refused to go to school, and that gentleman led him there by the hand. For Henry Adams, the death of the former president marked the end of his eighteenth century environment.
Charles Francis Adams, Henry's father, was instrumental in forming the Free-Soil party in 1848, and he ran on its ticket with Martin Van Buren. Henry considered that his own education was chiefly a heritage from his father, an inheritance of Puritan morality and interest in politics and literary matters. In later life, looking back on his formal education, he concluded that it had been a failure. Mathematics, French, German, and Spanish were needed in the world in which he found himself an adult, not Latin and Greek.
He had opportunity to observe the use of force in the violence with which the people of Boston treated the anti-slavery Wendell Phillips, and he had seen black slaves restored to the South.
Prompted by his teacher, James Russell Lowell, he spent nearly two years abroad after his graduation from college. He enrolled to study civil law in Germany, but finding the lecture system atrocious, he devoted most of his stay to enjoying the paintings, the opera, the theater in Dresden.
When he returned to Boston in 1860, Henry Adams settled down briefly to read Blackstone. In the elections that year, however, his father became a Congressman, and Henry accompanied him to the capital as his secretary. There he met John Hay, who was to become his best friend.
In 1861 President Lincoln named Charles Francis Adams minister to England. Henry went with his father to Europe. The Adams party had barely disembarked when they were met by bad news. England had recognized the belligerency of the Confederacy. The North was her undeclared enemy. The battle of Bull Run proved so crushing a blow to American prestige that Charles Francis Adams felt he was in England on a day-to-day sufferance. The Trent Affair and the second battle of Bull Run were equally disastrous abroad. Finally, in 1863, the tide began to turn. Secretary Seward sent Thurlow Weed and William Evarts to woo the English, and they were followed by announcements of victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg. Charles Francis Adams remained in England until 1868, for Andrew Johnson had too many troubles at home to make many diplomatic changes abroad.
At the end of the war Henry Adams had no means of earning a livelihood. He had, however, developed some taste as a dilettante in art, and several of his articles had been published in the North American Review. On his return to America, Henry Adams was impressed by the fact that his fellow-countrymen, because of the mechanical energy they had harnessed, were all traveling in the same direction. Europeans, he had felt, were trying to go in several directions at one time. Handicapped by his education and by his long absence from home, he had difficulty in adapting himself to the new industrial America. He achieved some recognition with his articles on legal tender and his essays in the Edinburgh Review, and he hoped that he might be offered a government position if Ulysses S. Grant were elected president. But Grant, a man of action, was not interested in reformers or intellectuals like Henry Adams.
In 1869 Adams went back to Quincy to begin his investigation of the scandals of the Grant administration, among them Jay Gould's attempts to obtain a corner on gold,
Senator Charles Sumner's efforts to provoke war with England by compelling her cession of Canada to the United States, and the rivalries of Congressmen and Cabinet members.
He decided it would be best to have his article on Gould published in England, to avoid censorship by the powerful financier. Gould's influence was not confined to the United States, however, and Adams was refused by two publications. His essay on Gould was finally published by the Westminster Review.
Adams became assistant professor of medieval history at Harvard and taught in Cambridge for seven years. During that time he tried to abandon the lecture system by replacing it with individual research. He found his students apt and quick to respond, but he felt that he needed a stone against which to sharpen his wits. He gave up his position in 1871 and went west to Estes Park with a Government Geological Survey. There he met Clarence King, a member of the party with whom he could not help contrasting himself. King had a systematic, scientific education and could have his choice of scientific, political, or literary prizes. Adams felt his own limitations.
After his flight from Harvard, he made his permanent home in Washington, where he wrote a series of books on American history. In 1893 he visited the Chicago Exhibition. From his observations of the steamship, the locomotive, and the newly invented dynamo, he concluded that force was the one unifying factor in American thought. Back in Washington, he saw the gold standard adopted, and concluded that the capitalistic system and American intervention in Cuba offered some signs of the direction in which the country was heading. During another visit to the Exhibition in 1900 Adams formulated an important theory. In observing the dynamo, he decided that history is not merely a series of causes and effects, of men acting upon men, but the record of forces acting upon men. For him, the dynamo became the symbol of force acting upon his own time, as the Virgin had been the symbol of force in the twelfth century.
During the next five years Henry Adams saw his friends drop away. Clarence King was the first to go. He lost his fortune in the panic of 1893 and died of tuberculosis in 1901. John Hay, under William McKinley, became American minister to England, and then Secretary of State. He was not well when he accepted the President's appointments, and the enormous task of bringing England, France, and Germany into accord with the United States and of attempting to keep peace, unsuccessfully, between Russia and Japan caused his death in 1905.
Adams considered that his education was continuous during his lifetime. He had found the tools which he had been given as a youth utterly useless, and he had to spend all of his days forging new ones. As he grew older, he found the moral standards of his father's and grandfather's times disintegrating, so that corruption and greed existed on the highest political levels. According to his calculations, the rate of change, due to mechanical force, was accelerating, and the generation of 1900 could rely only on impersonal forces to teach the generation of 2000. He himself could see no end to the multiplicity of forces which were so rapidly dwarfing mankind into insignificance.


Critical Evaluation

"Education" is both the theme and the metaphor of The Education of Henry Adams. In the preface, Adams notes that the object of his "study is the garment, not the figure," and he goes on to say that his specific object "is to fit young men, in universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency: and the garment offered to them is meant to show the faults of the patchwork fitted on their fathers." Thus, by recounting the way in which he educated himself, he intends to educate others—a typical goal of autobiographers such as Benjamin Franklin, St. Augustine, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, all of whom are cited by Adams in his book.
Adopting the voice of a third-person narrator and following a strict chronological order in telling the story, including using parenthetical dates for each chapter title, suggests that the educated man is indeed sharing his knowledge with the uneducated and is doing this with complete- objectivity. This apparent objectivity is misleading, however. Not only is the book more theory than it is narrative; it also does not recount Adams' life with the objectivity one might expect from the tone and chronological approach. For example, complete silence surrounds all that happened to Adams from 1872 to 1891. He concludes one chapter, titled "Failure (1871)," and begins the next chapter, titled "Twenty Years After (1892)," with no explanation of what occurred during that hiatus. Critics have speculated about this silence, suggesting that perhaps Adams simply did not want to write about his marriage and his wife Marian's suicide, or perhaps Adams wanted to emphasize the contrast between what he had been at the age of thirty-three and what he had become by the age of fifty-three. Whatever the reason for the gap, Adams apparently felt that his readers did not need the details to complete their education.
What Adams did give his audience was an autobiography that moves from the self into abstraction, that theorizes about four areas that were critical to his becoming educated: politics, science, nature, and psychology. Each influence helped Adams become a skeptical, observing individual who attempted to educate others.
In addition to showing his family's role in helping him see the role of politics in his life, Adams devotes an important section of his autobiography to examining President Ulysses S. Grant and the lessons Adams learned from that politician. Adams had hoped for some kind of political office from Grant, but not realizing that goal, he speculates on why that loss was probably his gain and a step toward his being educated. Adams explains how he came to see Grant as a "pre-intellectual, archaic" type, who "would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers." Though Adams felt that he himself did not suit the twentieth century, he came to understand that he possessed what Grant lacked—namely, the ability to think. That quality was one aspect of the educated man.
Another quality was the ability to live without absolute certainty, the ability to use the scientific method to understand the incompleteness of truth. Describing himself as a Darwinian, he explains that he "was the first in an infinite series to discover and admit to himself that he really did not care whether truth was, or was not, true." In other words, in his educational process, he learned that the process of examination, the inclination to be skeptical about absolutes, was essential.
Equally critical, and related to his understanding of science, was Adams' recognition of what governed nature: chaos. Whereas order was the dream of man, chaos, according to Adams, was the order of nature. Thus Adams came to learn that his simplistic notion of an orderly nature needed to be replaced with a more sophisticated sense of the lack of unity and uniformity in nature.
The final influence upon Adams was what he called "the new psychology," which, like Adams' understanding of science and nature, pointed to complexity and a lack of unity. Thus, he pointed to the new psychology as being "convinced that it had actually split personality not only into dualism, but also into complex groups, like telephonic centres and systems, that might be isolated and called up at will." Added to the three other influences, this new way of viewing psychological realities shaped Adams' education, so that he came to realize that his earlier beliefs in unity were being replaced by an awareness of multiplicity.
In coming to this understanding, Adams makes dramatic use of dialectic, emphasizing the tension between opposites. His chapter titles demonstrate this when, for example, he juxtaposes "Quincy" to "Boston," "Political Mortality" to "The Battle of the Rams," and "The Height of Knowledge" to "The Abyss of Ignorance." The most famous of his oppositions occurs in one chapter, "The Dynamo and the Virgin," in which Adams explores the dynamo as the symbol of the twentieth century, contrasted with the Virgin, the symbol of force acting upon medieval times. The chapter in which he explores this particular opposition is actually a condensed version of two books written by Adams in which he carefully explores first unity and then multiplicity. The first book, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, is also one of the finest introductions to the Middle Ages, and the second, The Education of Henry Adams, continues to be one of the best analyses of twentieth century intellectual history.
In his autobiographical study of opposites and the way in which they contribute to a person's education, Adams determined that the aim of education was the ability to cope, and the aim of education in the twentieth century was the ability to cope with a particularly important phenomenon: multiplicity. As he put it, "The child born in 1900 would, then, be born into a new world which would not be a unity but a multiple." The Education of Henry Adams chronicles one man's coming to this realization and his effort to help others become educated as well.



Discuss Art

Please note: site admin does not answer any questions. This is our readers discussion only.

| privacy