Book Review: The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
“Life is a narrow valley, and the roads run close together.”
Fascinating and sad. An anomalous document: an autobiography written in the third person by a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents; Henry Adams. Written late in life these are Adams’s reflections on his lifelong search for truth and meaning.
“He never thought to ask himself or his father how to deal with the moral problem that deduced George Washington from the sum of all wickedness. In practice, such trifles as contradictions in principle are easily set aside; the faculty of ignoring them makes the practical man; but any attempt to deal with them seriously as education is fatal.”
Written over a century ago of his experiences as much as a half century before that. A life distilled, as much as can be, during that life. His name gave him access few would enjoy; his apparent wealth gave him freedom to travel the world (trips to Europe were annual); his openness invited the confidence of great authorities; his quietness drew out secrets.
Adams did not write to be published; it shows. Dense prose. Long, boring passages of introspection. Constant references to works unfamiliar in this century. Constant foreign language phrases, untranslated. Hard to imagine a young modern reader wading through it all. Older readers will nod and sigh in sympathy. (Reading an electronic version facilitates reference linkage.)
“Better take sides first, and reason about it for the rest of life.”
A primary source for American history and politics in the latter half of the nineteenth century, usually a void between the Civil War and World War One. Adams was a participant and a confidant of power players. He supped with presidents; he interviewed leaders of science, art, philosophic communities.
He never mentions his wife or his married life, choosing to skip those decades as when he lived as opposed to was educated. Her loss and the manner of her lose obviously impacted him greatly.
Having decided early that he had no religious impulse, Adams looks elsewhere for the truth. He started with the admission that he knew nothing, and that all his schooling taught him noting. He looks in geology, biology, physics, art, literature, architecture, and of course history. “Of course” because he was a professor of history at Harvard.
“The clouds that gather round the setting sun do not always take a sober coloring from eyes that have kept watch on mortality; or, at least, the sobriety is sometimes scarcely sad. One walks with one’s friends squarely up to the portal of life, and bids good-bye with a smile.”
He even returns to seeking truth in religion, though the specter of this child of Puritans apparently reducing Christianity to the Mary cult is mystifying. He seems not to be even aware that Christianity is anything other than Gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows, and organizations.
“With out waiting further experiment—as he took for granted that arsenic poisoned—the rule that a friend in power is a friend lost.”
Uncovers the dark underbelly of power politics in his day. Watergate resembles a church picnic compared to the lies and deceptions practiced by the British government on behalf of the Confederacy. National leaders were just as clueless and wrong-headed as today.
“The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance.”
Adams clearly got a lot right. The increase of power, with internal combustion replacing external, and electricity and even the atom; the globalization of politics; the urge toward women’s rights and racial equality were all clear to him on 1905. That he totally misunderstood women, race, or life should be no surprise. He admitted as much. He lived to see the world war which swept away all he found familiar.
“Perhaps some day—say 1938, their centenary—they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see 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.”
In the end, Adams thinks he succeeds, though any modern reader will blush at his errors. He throws out the atom with the ether, he mistakes historicism for history, and he lets his hopes drown his knowledge.
“Boys never see a conclusion; only on the edge of the grave can man conclude anything.”
This is a great, sharp review. Assuming the grandson and great-grandson weren’t writers beyond this book? Maybe they didn’t receive an editor’s help. Every book needs an editor, in my opinion. Thanks.
Paradoxically, he was a well-regarded journalist and historian.
But he didn’t write this to be published. It was closer to a personal journal than a memoir.
Memoir and biography can be fascinating – but it requires a good writer to turn dense journal notes into art.