on 28 January 2011
The writing of Henry Adams can take some getting used to. At times he seems pompous, and falsely modest (after all, how modest can you be when you have decided to write an autobiography of your life), but I suspect the reality is that Adams is simply the product of another time. Clearly influenced by his illustrious family (great grandson of John Adams, grandson of John Quincy Adams, and son of Charles Francis Adams, a Congressman and Ambassador), one can clearly imagine that this is precisely how he was brought up to be, a product of the 18th and 19th centuries. The result is a biography, "The Education of Henry Adams" which is both personal, and yet touches on several important moments in history.
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.
on 30 April 1999
I first read EDUCATION in graduate school. The book has a great deal of interesting commentary on events of Adams' times. The touch-and-go in England to prevent aid to the South is one example. The autobiographical and historical commentary alone make the book worthwhile. Adams' discussion of the Virgin and the dynamo, however, are even more applicable now than in the early nineteenth century. (Adams also wrote a poem on this theme. It was not in my earlier Modern Library copy, but was reprinted in a journal or book.)