The Education of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams



The Education of Henry Adams

Henry Adams
A Critical Paper by
Ted Sande

He had been encouraged by his friends of the Novel Club to prepare the critical paper on The Education of Henry Adams, despite the fact – or perhaps because of it – that he had twice failed to find it sufficiently compelling to warrant reading through to the end.  Suddenly, motivated by an urge for self-improvement, he accepted.  It seemed to Ted Sande that he was utterly ill-equipped for the task.  What insights could he possibly offer?  The challenge appeared insurmountable, until he looked about the room and realized that despite his own meager gifts, there were none other better qualified to take on Henry Adams than he.

Adams’ world was far removed from Sande’s in time and society; yet there were several useful tangents.  Sande’s blood, too, contained a healthy portion of old Yankee juices from his Ma.  She was the last of her line of the Edgcomb clan, who had come to New England even before the Adamses, married into the Brewsters and others, and had eventually settled at New London, Connecticut, where Ted was born 260 years later.  There was, also, the coincidence that he had begun his education under the aegis of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the autumn of 1938 at Woollaston, where the first Henry Adams had settled about 1640.  And, 1938 was the centennial year of Henry Brooks Adams’ birth. 

It was apparent to Sande from his first encounter with The Education of Henry Adams that it was not a novel.  He was not displeased by the fact, but he was mystified, and remains so, as to why it was chosen to be read by the Novel Club at all.  Education is largely, but not entirely, autobiographical. We certainly don’t learn from it in any detail what Adams’ daily life was like or his everyday feelings.  This is a cerebral book that dwells in the worlds of political action and historical thought, with occasional insights into the man himself. Perhaps Education is best described as a carefully-tailored reminiscence, expressed through the distant third-person singular.

The idea of autobiography as a basis for the novel has historical precedent in the latter days of the 19th-century.  According to Harold Naess, the author of a biography of the Norwegian Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun, there was a lot of talk in the 1880s and 1890s about the novel having exhausted itself as a fictional literary form.  No less a figure than the Swedish author and playwright August Strindberg had categorically stated that the autobiographical documentary would be the only acceptable novel of the future.  Even so, it is unlikely that Adams had Strindberg in mind when he sat down to write Education.

If Education is an autobiography, it is an incomplete one, both in its coverage, as noted a moment ago, and in its chronology.  Twenty years are missing entirely.  The first twenty chapters take us from Adams’ birth in 1838 to his alleged failure as a teacher in 1871.  For Sande, the most interesting part of this chronicle are the chapters that record his years as private secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, the United States Minister to Great Britain during the Civil War and beyond.  Here Adams’s ingrained, relentless cynicism serves him well as he skewers the British and French, revealing their shared duplicity of open neutrality coupled with behind-the-scenes support for the Confederacy.  Their hopes for a dis-United States separated into two weaker countries that would be more manageable for the Europeans were eventually dashed by Gettysburg, from which the South was unable to recover.  Adams tells this tale of diplomatic skullduggery with all the irony he can muster and it is as fresh to read today as it must have been a hundred years ago.

The remaining fifteen chapters leap ahead twenty years, covering the far shorter period from 1892 to 1905.  Where the first half follows an autobiographical format, the second half, though still chronological in sequence, is looser and much more a reflective commentary on the modern world, that builds upon his earlier Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams were first published privately, the former in 1904, the latter in 1907.  They were circulated among a select group of friends and associates with the request that they be read critically and suggestions sent to him for improving the texts.  It is said that Adams was never happy with either book, but his readers felt otherwise and he was persuaded to allow their publication for a wider audience.  Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres was published by the American Institute of Architects in June 1913, with an introduction by Ralph Adams Cram, a leading American Gothic Revivalist architect of the day.  The Education of Henry Adams was published posthumously by the Massachusetts Historical Society in September 1918, with only minor corrections from the author’s earlier marginal notations. The introduction was by a long-time family friend, Henry Cabot Lodge.  Both volumes remain in print and are considered important contributions to American literature.  Both compose an odyssey of Adams’ quest for meaning in life. 

In trying to understand his journey, we must try to grasp what Henry Adams meant by “education”.  The term is in the title and it recurs frequently throughout the text.  At times he seems to mean, as one would expect, that education is instruction to prepare the student for life’s experiences.  Sometimes he speaks of education as the lessons learned directly from these experiences.  Of course, there is nothing mutually exclusive about either interpretation.  Yet, this reader frequently found Adams to be elusive or opaque on the subject and he often came away confused by what he had read. 

In Chapter XIX Chaos (1870), for example, he writes of the events surrounding the tragic death of his sister, “The last lesson – the sum and term of education – began then.  He had passed through thirty years of rather varied experience without having once felt the shell of custom broken. He had never seen nature – only her surface – the sugar-coating that she shows to youth.  Flung suddenly in his face, with the harsh brutality of chance, the terror of the blow stayed by him thenceforth for life, until repetition made it more than the will could struggle with; more than he could call on himself to bear” (p.287).  The emotional depth of these sentences is profound; they are a wounded man’s cry of anguish, of self-pity and despair that equates his witnessing of his sister’s agonized death with his discovery in 1885 of his wife’s suicide.  Although Adams begins this paragraph with reference to education, it is impossible to decipher it as a definitive statement about education or its meaning.  There are too many loose ends; too many questions raised that beg answers.  What is this “last lesson”?  Surely for Adams it couldn’t have been the realization that humans are mortal and that they die in unpredictable ways; he had learned that, albeit from 3000 miles away, during the Civil War.  Why is it characterized as a last lesson when, writing as he is 35 years after the fact, he still claims to be learning?  When he laments that during the preceding 30 years his experiences had not given him the feeling that the “shell of custom” had been broken, what does he mean, either with respect to education or to his sister’s death?  And, can it be true that Nature only shows its sugar-coated surface  to youth?  One yearns for Adams to tell us what Nature with a capital “N” means to him and to provide examples of its “sugar-coated surface”. 

Adams has a tendency to make rather all-embracing statements that, at least for this reader do not match up with his experience.  He informs us, for instance: “Historians undertake to arrange sequences – called stories, or histories – assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect” (p.382).  He even claims to have done so in his dozen volumes of American history.  Sande’s readings in history, from Herodotus to Francis Fukuyama, reveal a more complex historiography.  Historians are bound to deal in sequences but not necessarily in strict conformance to time; and, they are more often than not quite explicit on matters of cause and effect.  Indeed, it is a fundamental motivation of the historian to seek causes and to explain their effects, not to suppress them in the interest of a seamless story. 

Similar questions arise on virtually every page and this reader can understand why Adams may not have been entirely happy with his book.  The third-person narrative and scientism cannot quite mask the fact that Adams is giving us a highly impressionistic rendering of politics, society and the circumstance of living in a rapidly changing, increasingly technological world.  He is admittedly, at heart, an 18th century man, and a large part of his appeal is that he projects the civilized ideals of that earlier age as they are fast disappearing from the scene. 

In Chapter XXI Twenty Years After (1892) Adams laments that: “The American mind had less respect for money than the European or Asiatic mind, and bore its loss more easily; but it had been deflected by its pursuit till it could turn in no other direction.  It shunned, distrusted, disliked, the dangerous attraction of ideals, and stood alone in history for its ignorance of the past”  (p.328).

This chapter returns us to America, and frames the 20 years of silence in between. As quoted from Chapter XXI, Adams hints at his wife’s death, but cannot bring himself to mention it or to say her name.  In this only other allusion to her, again indirectly, he tells us that: “His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence.  Naturally, every detail interested him; every line; every touch of the artist; every change of light and shade; every point of relation; every possible doubt of St. Gaudens’s correctness of taste or feeling; so that, as the spring approached, he was apt to stop there often to see what the figure had to tell him that was new; but, in all that it had to say, he never once thought of questioning what it meant” (p.329).  Although he thinks that the message of this memorial would be self-evident to an Asiatic or an Egyptian, he is convinced that it is beyond the grasp of the American mind.  Perhaps, but he never deigns to say what the piece means to him, avoiding the question by redirecting it to others and speculating on the ways they may have interpreted it. 

One cannot help but wonder what the first readers in 1907, his close friends and acquaintances, thought about the 20-year silence.  It was, after all, the time of a seemingly-happy marriage and prolific writing.  He produced two biographies, The Life of Albert Gallatin and John Randolph, his monumental 9-volume History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and two novels, Democracy  and Esther.  And, in 1884, Henry Hobson Richardson, his flamboyant Harvard classmate and the leading architect of his day, designed for the Henry Adamses and the John Hayes adjoining houses on Lafayette Square.

 It was a time of affirmation, of joy and good deeds; all of which evaporated in shock with his wife’s suicide; which he could never begin to understand or accept.  Marriage in Adams’ caste carried with it obligations that were taken seriously. Its purpose for the well-placed centered on the preservation of family property, a tradition that dated back to the ancient marriage contracts.  The husband’s role was to assume the financial and emotional protection that had been provided by his wife’s father.  The wife quite literally placed her trust in him.  Every indication is that Henry Adams accepted fully his responsibility for his wife’s well being. But he was to discover that his wife could not completely transfer that trust to him when her father, to whom she was unusually close, died.  Her act of self destruction, in the wake of his death, revealed that she was unable to find solace in her husband.  She saw herself alone and could not bear the grief.  It was the starkest lesson of inadequacy any man could learn and he would only endure it in silence, thus making the unspoken the most eloquent aspect of this book.

The second half of the Education reveals Adams’ restlessness of the 1890s.  He travels extensively, visits with close friends, the Hays, Camerons and Lodges, the women doing their best to keep him amused; and the solitary Clarence King.  Here is the famous essay “The Dynamo and the Virgin” that contrasts the technological forces of the present and the religious forces of the 13th-century.  He wrestles with his own position in a new world that was beginning to appear in his youth and he appears baffled by modern science.  A melancholy mood pervades the last chapters.  “The sunshine of life had not been so dazzling of late but that a share of it flickered out for Adams and Hay when King disappeared from their lives;…Time had become terribly short, and the sense of knowing so little while others knew so much, crushed out hope” (p.396).

Adams tells us of his plan to write Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and Education. They would be two points of relation six centuries apart and between which he could project “lines forward and backward indefinitely, subject to correction from any one who should know better.”  He intended to call the latter: “The Education of Henry Adams: a Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity” (p.435).  This eventually leads us into his dynamic theory of history:  “A dynamic theory, assigning attractive force to opposing bodies in proportion to the law of mass, takes for granted that the forces of nature capture man. The sum of force attracts;…[man] suffers education or growth;…; the movement of the forces controls the progress of his mind, since he can know nothing but the motions which impinge on his senses, whose sum makes education” (p.474).  It is hard to imagine anyone taking much comfort in this deterministic, fatalistic and nihilistic conception of the human condition.  

Mourning Hay’s death in 1905, Adams concludes: “The three friends had begun life together; and the last of the three had no motive – no attraction – to carry it on after the others were gone.  Education had ended for all three, and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed.  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” (p.505).  Henry Adams lived another thirteen years after writing these words.  He died in 1918, the last year of World War I.  The Europe and America that he had known and often been perplexed by were in flux, moving in directions that he and his generation could not possibly have anticipated.  The Education of Henry Adams, for all its eccentricities, remains the evocative testament of a man who struggled to understand, however imperfectly, the circumstances and events that shaped his life. 



All parenthetical page references refer to:

Henry Adams:  The Education of Henry Adams, with an introduction by Donald Hall.  Mariner Books (paperbound), Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, New York.  2000. 



What does Henry Adams means by “education”? 


What do you think was Henry Adams’ primary motivation in writing this book?

Compare Henry Adams’ use of travel, after 1890, with that of other American writers, such as Washington Irving, Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac.


Is Henry Adams the first anti-hero in American letters?




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The Education of Henry Adams


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The Education of Henry Adams