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3.0 out of 5 stars A Boston Brahmin recalls...selectively..., 23 Dec 2011
By 
John P. Jones III (Albuquerque, NM, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Education of Henry Adams (Library of America Paperback Classics) (Paperback)
Henry Adams was the great grandson of John Adams, second President, and one of the "Founding Fathers." He was the grandson of the sixth President of the United States, John Quincy Adams. JQ Adams was a presence in Henry's life, for the first 10 years. JQ died in 1848, Henry was born in 1838. Henry's father was a Congressman, and later, the American Ambassador to England during the Civil War. Henry never held public office. This book is Henry Adams autobiography. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and at least one "scorekeeper" has proclaimed it the greatest American non-fiction book of the 20th Century. I would demur.

I was initially drawn to it for a couple of reasons: its primary focus was on the second half of American 19th century history, a time when many accounts focused on the area where I now live, the West, and the closing of the frontier here; and this was an account from the East, moreover, where "the story all began," the Boston area. And Henry Adams had the quintessential American pedigree, on his father's side, certainly politically; on his mother's side he was born to great wealth, the Brooks family. A relatively new nation was already producing "Brahmins." My copy, with an Introduction by Leon Wieseltier, was discouraging, from page 01: "As a history, of the man and of the country, it is not to be trusted..." So why am I reading this, I ask?

But persevere, I did. There were some fascinating parts from his childhood, the contrast between the city and country life, Boston and Quincy, and some interesting observations about his relationship with his grandfather. Adams attended and graduated from Harvard, as the class orator, 1858. One of the books motifs is his attempts at obtaining an "education." Be it real or fake self-deprecation, he is continual saying that he is learning nothing (and it gets old, quickly!) After graduation, he goes to Europe for a couple of years, focused on Germany and Italy. He "sits out" the American Civil War, as a Private Secretary to his father, in London. On one or two occasions, he mentions his Harvard classmates who were in the war, but does not seem to really relate. He is far more struck with British political and social life, with antipathy towards Lord Russell, the British Prime Minister. He stressed that the entire British political class was pro-Confederacy. He scratches, and eventually is a "bit player" in society circles, and he meets the poet Swinburne on a weekend in the Yorkshire dales. He returns to the US in 1868, and dabbles in the political life of the Grant administration. Then he skips 20 years of his life, with no explanation! His "education" never seems to involve women; his wife might be mentioned once, how he "acquired" her, never, and her suicide death is also never mentioned. Other repeated themes include how his 18th century mind never prepared him for the 20th century. The later part of the book involves his musings about scientific and technological developments, the railroad, telegraph, et al. He attends a number of World Fairs. I found his ruminations about the power of science vis-à-vis the power of religion interesting, particularly how the latter could motivate people to build the pyramids, and the great cathedrals of Europe.

Wikipedia has a section devoted to Adams' anti-Semitism. Indeed, he might have been, though I did not see it reflected in this book, unless by inference, it is in his dislike of bankers. But his real flaw seemed to be grouping people, and making wild generalizations about them. Consider: "The English mind was one-sided, eccentric, systematically unsystematic and logically illogical. The less one knew of it the better" (p171.) Or, "...the impenetrable stupidity of the British mind..."(p 117.) OK... maybe one can chalk up anti-British prejudice to his pedigree, but lawdy, how about this: "The Pennsylvania mind, as minds go, was not complex; it reasoned little and never talked." The "Pennsylvania mind" is in contrast to the "Boston mind". And he is not putting anyone on, as far as I can tell.

He is reasonably erudite; some bon mots were pithy and "right on." But he is SO uneven, wildly so, that like other readers, I found this book a difficult slog, and not very insightful into his character. Couple that with all that which is missing, which also includes the history books he wrote on the Presidents, and his contemplations at Mont St. Michel and Chartres. He also says that financially he was wiped out in the Panic of '93, but continues to be a "globetrotter," visiting Egypt, Yellowstone, Cuba, and many other places. He never explains why he selects these places, and like many a Christmas letter I receive, he never explains any insights he obtains from his visits; it is merely a catalog of "been there, done that."

I have to be in a very generous mood to give the book 3-stars.
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