Nearing the age of seventy, when "the mind wakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death," Adams wrote for his closest friends his version of the earth-shattering events they had experienced. He had 100 copies printed in luxurious editions and, in early 1907, sent them to such dignitaries as Theodore Roosevelt, William and Henry James, Charles Gaskell, and Henry Cabot Lodge. This private account was not released commercially until after Adams's death, in 1918, when it became a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize.
Many scholars and critics, as well as Adams himself, view "The Education of Henry Adams" as a sequel to his earlier book, "Mont Sant Michel and Chartres" (also privately printed). Indeed, the posthumous edition of the later work opens with an Editor's Preface (signed by Lodge, but presumptuously written by Adams himself) in which the author proposes subtitles for each volume: respectively, "A Study of Twentieth-Century Multiplicity" and "A Study of Thirteenth-Century Unity." While the two works are certainly linked thematically, they are not companion works in the traditional sense: "Mont Sant Michel" is a personal examination of medieval institutional and cultural history, while the "Education" is Adams's reckoning of his own involvement in international diplomatic affairs and intellectual circles. In other words, one can safely and profitably read one book without reading the other.
So what is this difficult-to-categorize book about? Reduced to its simplest level, it recounts how an "eighteenth-century American boy" grew up during the nineteenth century, only to be intimidated and awed by the chaos of the twentieth. The unity of earlier ages, when everything revolved around God and Church, had been exploded into limitless possibilities by the discoveries of science and the advent of democracy, and Adams realized that "the child born in 1900 would then be born into a new world which would be not a unity but a multiple."
This somewhat obvious yet essential theme aside, the joy of this book for many readers is Adams's sardonic wit and his penchant for aphorisms; the number of quotable quotes is both delightful and exhausting. A notorious name-dropper, he knows everyone, and offers an insider's account of the most important events of the nineteenth century, volunteering his views on international diplomacy, monetary policy, evolutionary biology, and other matters.
Adams portrays the journey of his life as an ongoing attempt at educating himself, yet he disdainfully learned that formal education was useless and that his dabbling had brought him to a dead end. "Religion, politics, statistics, travel had thus far led to nothing.... Accidental education could go no further, for one's mind was already littered and stuffed beyond hope with the millions of chance images stored away without order in the memory. One might as well try to educate a gravel-pit."
Of course, Adams's self-effacing protests of ignorance are often little more than a pose. His sense of innate blueblood superiority can be grating--a stance exaggerated by his writing about himself in the third person. He repeatedly (and backhandedly) reminds the reader how, as stupid as he might be, he is in good company: "Adams knew only that he would have felt himself on a more equal footing with them had he been less ignorant." "Lincoln, Seward, Sumner, and the rest, could give no help to the young man seeking education; they knew less than he." "Ridiculous as he knew himself about to be in his new role, he was less ridiculous than his betters." One of the most unintentionally satisfying sections of this book, then, is when Adams finds himself among true aristocrats in England--and they dismiss him as a social inferior.
As even Adams's biographer Ernest Samuels and Adams specialist John Carlos Rowe both acknowledge, the "Education" is an extraordinarily challenging work. Writing for his friends, Adams assumed a familiarity with arcane historical details about such affairs as American-Confederate-British diplomatic machinations during the Civil War, the Gold Scandal of 1869, and John Hay's role in developing China's Open Door Policy. Even the annotations provided by standard commercial editions may not be enough for many readers to flesh out what Adams is talking about.
If there ever was a book that requires a study aid, this is it. Assuming you can overcome the common predisposition against such guides, you will discover that CliffNotes provides, in a useful narrative form, the necessary historical and biographical background--although it is certainly no substitute for the wit and wisdom of the work itself. And, for those who finish reading the book and want to fill in the gaps, the more scholarly "New Essays on The Education of Henry Adams" (edited by Rowe) offers additional valuable insights with a minimum of jargon.