The Education of Henry Adams is, by any reckoning, a peculiar autobiography. It is written in the 3rd person (as if Adams (1838-1918) were writing about someone else and not himself), and Adams fails to include every major event of his life in his work, leaving out twenty whole years (1872-1892), years that included his entire marriage and his wife’s suicide — Adams jumps from 1872, when he recently become a professor in Medieval History (a position Harvard created for Adams), to “Twenty Years Later.” Not only does he leave out whole decades, but he even fails to mention some important matters in those years he does cover. His goal, he says, is to present an extended meditation on his “education,” both the formal education he learned in school, and also what learning he acquired as government functionary, reporter, professor and political hanger-on. He claims repeatedly that such education as he received in school was woefully inadequate for the life he found himself living. His schooling was based on an 18th c. model, which did not prepare him for the challenges he found in late 19th and early 20th c. America.
The world the adult Adams found himself in dismayed him – he felt that his education prepared him for a life of certainties, but the modern world, a world he characterized by reference to the dynamo, was one of constant change, and so the education he received, with its emphasis on the Classics and the Humanities, most appropriate from the Middle Ages through the 18th c., no longer fit, nor could he find any teacher who could ready him for the world in which he lived.
Adams is a great writer, especially great at introspection and at describing that introspection. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work, fascinated by Adams’ constant “visions and revisions” of his life and the events therein. To a large extent, despite its gaps, this is a work which probably reflects the lived experience of Adams accurately. Even the giant gap of twenty years tells us a lot. In a work on “education,” clearly married life must have played a large role in shaping Adams in the middle of his life; and surely the great anguish of his wife’s suicide must have caused him to reflect, and ultimately to cope with his loss, and that is surely an “education.” But on these subjects, Adams is silent. At no point does he mention a wife, or that he was ever married. At one point he discusses his negotiations with Augustus Saint-Gaudens who sculpted the memorial for the grave site of Marian Hooper Adams. But in discussing the negotiations, he simply refers to the “Adams memorial,” with no mention made of the woman memorialized.
As a liberal arts major in college, I don’t find myself agreeing with Adams’ assessment of his own education, both at Harvard or afterwards. He had been a success serving as his father’s secretary in England during the tense negotiations to keep England neutral in the US Civil War; he was a popular and successful professor at Harvard, despite his personal misgivings; he was a successful historian – his works on the United States during the administrations of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson as well as his work on Mont Saint-Michel are considered masterpieces; and he was a popular author in his day, his novel, Democracy, being one of the great political satires of 19th c. America.
And yet, Adams somehow felt that he hadn’t lived up to his potential, and that the schooling he received in school and in the world did not prepare him to realize that potential. Fascinating.
There is an ice-breaking activity that I’ve done in many workshops over the year – people are asked to consider whom they would invite to dinner and share that in a discussion with others. After reading this work, I think Henry Adams has probably risen to the top of my imaginary list.
For those of you interested in the Adams family in general, I would also recommend a 4 DVD series (you can find it in the library) called The Adams Chronicles, which tells the story of John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Charles Francis Adams, Henry Adams, and Brooks Adams. It is well worth a viewing.
About the Author
Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.