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Education of Henry Adams (Modern Library) Hardcover – 1 Nov 1997
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"The pleasure of reading The EDUCATION is the pleasure of seeing history come alive." -- Alfred Kazin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From the Inside Flap
'I cannot remember when I was not fascinated by Henry Adams, ' said Gore Vidal. 'He was remarkably prescient about the coming horrors.'
His political ideals shaped by two presidential ancestors--great-grandfather John Adams and grandfather John Quincy Adams--Henry Adams was one of the most powerful and original minds to confront the American scene from the Civil War to the First World War.
Printed privately in 1907 and published to wide acclaim shortly after the author&'s death in 1918, The Education of Henry Adams is a brilliant, idiosyncratic blend of autobiography and history that charts the great transformation in American life during the so-called Gilded Age.
With an introduction by renowned historian Edmund Morris. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
In this book, Adams thinks little of formal education and sees it as not preparing him for his life to come. The education he is talking about for most of the book, is the education he gets from the experiences of life. Those experiences come from his travel, the deep and long friendships he develops with Clarence King and John Milton Hay, and of course from reading.
From his early life, one story really stuck with me, and that is Adams relating his Grandfather, and at the time former President, escorting a stubborn and defiant young Henry Adams to school. Such a scene probably could never happen again, but imagine the impact on the other students to have a President of the United States bring a classmate to school.
One of the most interesting political stories from the book is a long one, detailing his father's period as Ambassador to the United Kingdom during Lincoln's administration. Adams discusses the attitude towards the representatives of the Union and how his father built up a tremendous amount of respect after initially being viewed as a lightweight. Henry Adams served as his father's personal secretary for those eight years, and they had to deal with the attempts by the Confederacy to get recognized and receive aid. An interesting side-note to this period is that they had exchanges of letters with Karl Marx.
Other significant subjects that Adams covers include his personal views on several Presidents, including some very strong feelings about Grant, as well as some lack of interest many that came after, and concern over the youth of Roosevelt. Science also is a key subject, and Adams discusses Darwin, Radium, and other changes which he is overcome by, and predicts quite correctly that the advances in the 20th century will make those of the 19th appear small. Lastly, as mentioned before, the friendships that Adams forms with King and Hay have a tremendous impact on his entire autobiography.
What is missing from this book is 20 years, and an important 20 years it was for Adams, as it is the period of his marriage to Marian Hooper, whom was commonly called Clover. There is no doubt that this period of Adams life would have been filled with tremendous contrasts, both the joy they shared, and the immense sorrow he must have felt when she was depressed and eventually committed suicide. The reader has been denied the personal perspective of Adams, and it is our loss.
I very much enjoyed this autobiography, and it helped that I had read other works by Adams so that I was prepared for his style and manner. I preferred this book to Adams "Mont Saint Michel and Chartres", and the subject matter is certainly broader and likely to appeal to a wider audience. This book was nominated and selected as "The Best Book of the 20th Century" by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, and the winner of the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography. Despite all that, I am giving it just four stars. I feel his style takes some getting used to, and the absence of those 20 years is felt.
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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For the record, Henry’s great-grandfather was the second US president, John Adams (signatory of the Declaration of Independence), then his grandfather John Quincy Adams the sixth president, and his father the US ambassador to England during the Civil War. His maternal grandfather Peter Chardon Brooks was one of the 100 wealthiest Americans, a merchant millionaire, which was rare in the 1700s and early 1800s.
Adams was alive twenty-two years before the Civil War, and from his earliest years was appalled at slavery and the retrograde violation of human dignity in the southern defense of slavery (100). He met presidents from, of course, his grandfather John Quincy, through Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and many more, through twentieth-century presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. He died in 1918, the same year that World War I ended. It was a long way from the early American pioneer days of 1838 when he was born. When Adams was born, transportation and communication had not changed in 10,000 years. When he died he had seen the introduction of new transportation and communication that the twentieth century took for granted.
Henry served as assistant to the ambassador to England for eight years when he was fresh out of Harvard University. Returning to the US around 1869 he started a career he loved as a journalist. But his family, friends, and professors he respected, persuaded him to take the position of history professor at Harvard. He did it for seven years. One of his students was Henry Cabot Lodge.
Other than the friends he made during this period, he hated teaching and considered it a waste of seven years. He had little faith in standard teaching methods and outcomes. He valued the active mind and to “know how to learn” rather than the stuff that people spend most of their time studying (314). He believed in slower-paced learning to more fully and deeply absorb subjects as opposed to fast-paced surface learning.
On the other hand, he felt a little guilty after Harvard had greeted him as an adult with open arms: “Yet nothing in the vanity of life struck him as more humiliating than that Harvard College, which he had persistently criticized, abused, abandoned, and neglected, should alone have offered him a dollar, an office, an encouragement, or a kindness” (305).
He returned to his writing career, which over his lifetime included novels, the eight-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, historical and legal essays, the two books I’ve reviewed, and many others. He was one of America’s most esteemed historians though he spent his life with a sense of personal failure and a low estimation of his own education.
His lifelong pursuit was to extrapolate and understand the trajectory of human evolution, socially, politically, industrially, scientifically, theologically, and technologically. One of his comments on human evolutionary development sounds very modern. As history students know, Ulysses S. Grant had been a great general, but was corrupt as president. Speaking of Grant, Adams cuts to the chase: “He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. … That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called…the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. … Darwinists ought to conclude that America was reverting to the stone age” (266).
The Education is rife with insightful commentary on the world spinning around him, sometimes moving too fast to comprehend, sometimes moving incomprehensively backwards. He saw paradigm-shift inventions from telegraph and trains, to telephone and automobiles (he even bought a car in his later years), steam then electricity, inventions like photography, then film and the early Hollywood silent films, finally airplanes and the discovery of radium and radiation.
Adams traveled more than most Americans in the nineteenth century. He spent many years throughout Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and the Caribbean. He was an early observer of the merging of Western Cultures, noting “Hamburg was almost as American as St. Louis” (414).
The Education has hidden treasures, offhand observations that end up being the most memorable. For example, he notes the affectation of eccentric behaviors in people considered highly eccentric. Eccentricity itself becomes a convention. He observes that “a mind really eccentric never betrayed it. True eccentricity was a tone—a shade—a nuance—and the finer the tone, the truer the eccentricity” (370).
Adams’ final thoughts show his disappointment: “He saw his education complete, and was sorry he ever began it” (458). He abhorred the ever-worsening “persistently fiendish treatment of man by man;…the perpetual symbolism of a higher law, and the perpetual relapse to a lower one” and principals of freedom deteriorating into principals of power and the “despotism of artificial order” (458), referring to the rise of corporate dominance over society. He particularly disliked the growing influence of corporate power: “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy…They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot” (500).
Adams had good friends who met tragic fates, his wife committed suicide at a young age, and as he grew older, found himself “A solitary man of sixty-five years or more, alone in a Gothic cathedral or a Paris apartment…” (460). So this is The Education of Henry Adams. You may wonder why I liked it so much, and recommend it. The book is a retrospective provided by one of our most observant students of life, with access to the most interesting places and people in their most interesting times. The book itself is a fascinating education for anyone who reads it.
Author of Call of the Active Mind
An eighteenth century man's disposition dealing with a nineteenth century reality, this book is a road map for trends and developments not only on a personal level but on a national and international political level. What were antebellum attitudes like in the Unitarian Church of Boston, Massachusetts, the nation as a whole you have it here. Too complex yet interesting are his views on otherness i.e.North-South, Mass-Virginia, Washington-New York-New England, England- France-Germany (Germany had still not become united at the time span of much of this book) educational theories before Dewey got his hands on it, etc. etc. etc.
Even his asides as to what his feelings, emotions and observations about the members of the US Senate, Risorgimento Italy, Garabaldi, Rome (pre-tourism flood) are food for thought and of course education French style, German style, New England style (do not forget he saw the different cultural boundaries in America) are not only prescient but almost prophetic (the shift in the English - French- German - American - alliances). Truly he was an American De Tocqueville.
A profound experience, this is still one of the great books of American literature.
As to the contents -- this is widely known as a difficult book to read, and I agree wholeheartedly. Takes real commitment to slog through it. (Very difficult to believe it won a Pulitzer!) But it has its rewards. The book covers a fascinating range of US history, from before the Civil War into the early years of the 20th century under President Roosevelt. Henry knew and writes of an incredible array of people from politics, the arts, and society. And his travels took him to Paris. London, the South Pacific, the Rockies, and throughout Europe.
The vocabulary and constant references to historical figures, events, mythology and literature almost demand constant side trips to look up the references. So reading it on a Kindle might be easier because you have access to the definitions and so on directly from the device. I spoent a lot of time on Wikipedia and other sites while I was trying to read this!
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