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Author Topic: [120] The Education of Henry Adams--Henry Adams  (Read 2022 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: February 03, 2014, 09:45:07 PM »

The Adams Family

February 3, 2014

When I first began reading The Education of Henry Adams, by Henry Adams, I expected to read an autobiography. Indeed, the first chapters resemble one, albeit one in which the author refers to himself in third person. But gradually I began to see that Adams offers little insight into his own thoughts or feelings at the time other than what a later biographer might have offered after reviewing the documentation. In fact, the sexagenarian Adams would only speculate on the inner life of callow young Adams with a biographer's somewhat distant sympathy. Yet the striking omission of his entire married life bespeaks perhaps a pain too deep to otherwise conceal. (His wife, suffered from depression and, committed suicide in 1885.) Adams breaks off the narrative of his life in 1871, the year before his marriage, and picks it up again only in 1891. He writes of himself so coyly and with such diffidence that I finally concluded the book deals not with Adams, but with his education, precisely as the title says.

Adams begins with his early memories of his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, 6th President of the United States and of his great grandfather, John Adams, the 2nd president, who is more a legend than a reality in Henry's life. Henry's father, Charles Adams, served under Lincoln as US ambassador to Great Britain. Henry's maternal grandmother also came from one of the richest families in America. So perhaps Henry did not think it odd to say, about returning to Washington, D.C., from his years abroad, “The first step of course, was the making of acquaintance, and the first acquaintance was naturally the President, to whom an aspirant to the press officially paid respect.” (p. 944) I can't see myself as a fledgling reporter fresh back in town from a few years in England thinking I should first arrange a chat with the President. But Henry's natural ease and comfort in the company of wealth and power struck me as necessarily inducing a certain blindness to the human condition.

Adams has very little to say about his formal schooling, and treats his college as a waste of time. He goes to study law in Germany, and ends up becoming a tourist instead, since he feels he has an insufficient grasp of the language to understand the lectures. The “education” he spends most of the book describing consists of learning how the world works. It starts with his volunteer service as his father's private secretary during the Civil War. There, in London, he learns affability without trust. Later, as an investigative journalist, he learns to sniff out the facts. As a man of independent wealth, he has the luxury of working only out of a desire for meaningful activity, so he studies, teaches, writes, explores to his heart's content in the blossoming world that science promises at the close of the Nineteenth Century. We find chapters on politics, economics, Darwinism, the Paris Exposition of 1900, and his pet topic, a dynamic theory of history.

Henry Adams, born in 1838, only fifty years after ratification of the Constitution, lived until March 1918, almost a year after the United States entered World War I. During his lifetime, he saw the American Civil War, the assassination of three US presidents, the rapid expansion west of the railroads, the emergence of evolutionary theory, the invention of the automobile, the widespread adoption of the electric light, the discovery of radium, and, in short, the transformation of the face of civilization. As a historian, trying to make sense of the chaos around him, he sought to model the discipline of history after the sciences that had changed and would certainly continue to change the world as he knew it. He felt he lived at a unique historical vantage point, and sought to envision from where he stood the trajectory from the past into the future. Some of his predictions struck me as amazingly prescient, even if his “theory” seems more like a metaphor than a formula. In speaking of the Battle of Peking, an important moment in the Boxer Rebellion, he comments that,

The drama acted at Peking, in the summer of 1900, was in the eyes of a student, the most serious that could be offered for his study, since it brought him suddenly to the inevitable struggle for the control of China, which, in his view, must decide the control of the world; yet, as a money value, the fall of China was chiefly studied in Paris and London as a calamity to Chinese porcelain. The value of a Ming vase was more serious than universal war. (p. 1077)

I have one major complaint: He wrote this book for friends only, not for the public, and it bears the marks of that genesis. Many obscure names and incidents he mentions with blithe familiarity, assuming all one hundred of his readers would understand. He also circulated the book, soliciting corrections from all persons he mentioned, which must surely have diluted his original impressions. Also, perhaps because of its private, inoffensive nature, it omits certain sensational elements that one must consult other sources to discover. I've already mentioned the suicide of his wife, but we might also wish he had elaborated on his long relationship with Elizabeth Cameron, or on the secret common law marriage of his dear friend, Clarence King and Ada Copeland, a former slave.

All in all, I did not enjoy Education as much as I did Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres, as it seems more evasive than open. In Chartres, Adams found a symbol of ideal unity about which he could unreservedly effuse. But in Education, because he drew his material from personal memories and friendships, he could not take the same literary license as one might expect. Admittedly, one could find little gems scattered throughout, as for instance, this thought on teachers: “A parent gives life, but as parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” (p. 994) The passage, however, takes an interesting twist, as he points out that the teacher cannot know whether that influence will be from the student's acceptance or rejection of the teacher's ideas. Comments like the following could have come directly from my own experience: “The College expected him (i.e., Henry) to pass at least half his time in teaching the boys a few elementary dates and relations, that they might not be a disgrace to the University....The only privilege [the student] had that was worth his claiming was that of talking to the professor, and the professor was bound to encourage it. His only difficulty on that side was to get them to talk at all. He had to devise schemes to find what they were thinking about, and induce them to risk criticism from their fellows. Any large body of students stifles the student. No man can instruct more than half a dozen students at once. The whole problem with education is one of its cost in money.” (p. 995)

The Education of Henry Adams, published a year after Adams's death, won the Pulitzer Prize for 1919.

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