The Education of Henry Adams
© 1918 Henry Adams
Who is Henry Adams, and why would anyone read about his education? Personally, I discovered this book through a personal interest in his family; Henry’s great-grandfather was John Adams, and his grandfather was John Quincy. Even his father, Charles Frances, played an important role in public life as the United States’ ambassador to England, a difficult post during the War between the States. This is quite the legacy, and The Education makes it clear how heavily that family heritage sat on Henry’s shoulders. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, during his life, he was most known as an historian and political journalist. But An Education isn’t about historical methods or interview skills; Adams’ meaning of education has little to do with school at all. These are more the reflections of an extremely thoughtful man whose impressions turn more and more to gloom as the 19th century runs its course and the world begins a new chapter.
When I say An Education has little do with school, it helps that the subject absolutely hated school. He hated it as a boy, when he’d much rather be outside playing or inside reading; he found it useless as a teenager, even after enrolling at prestigious Harvard; and when he traveled abroad and dabbled in classes at a German university, that too he found wanting. It probably didn’t help that he generally found himself wanting; unlike his grandfathers who had a pivotal role to play in the creation and establishing of the early Republic, Adams saw no place for himself. He was more a child of the 18th century, or even the 17th, deeply stepped in literature and law, and the world was quickly changing to favor new learning — that of railroads, dynamos, and finance. Adams’ situation in his younger life will fascinate many readers; as a boy, he does his Latin exercises in the same room that the Free Soilers and nascent Republicans are discussing politics; later still, the teenaged Henry accompanies his father to England, where he serves as a diplomatic aide. Throughout his life, he’s ever a member of Washington society, regularly rubbing shoulders with presidents and senators — and he’s never shy to express opinions on them.
Adams, despite the burden of responsibility he felt as part of his upbringing in the young Republic’s most accomplished family, and the growing pessimism as he looked to the future more dominated by factories and empire, is often funny. I don’t know if he intended to be, but what else can a reader do but chuckle when he declares plantation masters as good for nothing but “bad temper, bad manners, poker, and treason“? In his travels abroad, he spends considerable time in England, Germany, and Italy, but France is snubbed. Enthusiastically snubbed. He wanted absolutely no French influence on his education, and “To save himself the trouble of drawing up a long list of all that he disliked, he disapproved of the whole, once for all, and shut them figuratively out of his life. France was not serious, and he was not serious in going there.”” Considering how romanticized France and especially Paris are, Adams’ thoroughgoing scorn of the same is almost refreshing.
Although The Education of Henry Adams isn’t for everyone, if you have an interest in the 19th century, American or European, the reflections here bear investigating. Here is a life that began in the early Republic, its subject literally being taken by the hand to school by John Quincy Adams, and by the end of the book, the 20th century is underway with Theodore Roosevelt at the helm. Adams’ experience during the war — the slow disintegration of order, and the horror of realizing his friends from Boston and Virginia were now killing one another with hate in their eyes — is especially somber to read. Abroad, too, Adams’ experience sees Germany quicken from a disorganized, lovely mess into the German Empire, while Italy is still struggling to be born as a nation. I couldn’t help but be sad when I realized Adams died in 1918 — he’d lived to see the worst war then imaginable turn the beautiful places he so frequently haunted in Europe into fields of death; the dynamo he viewed with fearful wonder would be the western world’s first attempt at suicide.
“Looking Back at an Education“, review of same at The Frugal Chariot