Henry Adams was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams. His father was ambassador to the United Kingdom and later a congressman. Henry was brought up as a member of the political, social and intellectual elite. He served as private secretary to his father during the Civil War and later became a journalist, historian and novelist. He lived most of his life in Washington but traveled extensively throughout the world. At the age of 70, he privately circulated a book of memoirs, The Education of Henry Adams. When it was finally published after his death, it won the 1919 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. In 1998, the Modern Library named it the best non-fiction book of the 20th century.
The book is offered as an account of Henry Adams’s education, but it’s really the story of his life, with some major gaps. For example, he skips forward 20 years at one point, never mentioning his marriage during those years or the fact that his wife committed suicide: “This is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men — or such as have intelligence enough to seek help — not to amuse them. What one did — or did not do — with one’s education, after getting it, need trouble the inquirer in no way; it is a personal matter only which would confuse him”.
Adams writes of himself in the third person throughout. He is often sarcastic and cynical about himself and others. I often had trouble understanding him. He discusses various 19th century political controversies and politicians in great detail. He also expounds a view of historical progress as the accumulation of “force”, for example, the forces unleashed by the production of coal and the construction of the railroads. Many of his observations are worth reading, however, and worth reading more than once. He reminds us that human nature and politics haven’t changed much (or at all?) since the 19th century. Here is an example, from chapter 7,”Treason (1860-61)”:
“Adams found himself seeking education in a world that seemed to him both unwise and ignorant. The Southern secessionists were certainly unbalanced in mind — fit for medical treatment, like other victims of hallucination — haunted by suspicion, by idées fixes, by violent morbid excitement, but this was not all. They were stupendously ignorant of the world. As a class, the cotton-planters were mentally one-sided, ill-balanced, and provincial to a degree rarely known. They were a close [sic] society on whom the new fountains of power had poured a stream of wealth and slaves that acted like oil on flame. They showed a young student his first object-lesson of the way in which excess of power worked when held by inadequate hands”. (12/26/12)