Study Guide

The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Brooks Adams

The Education of Henry Adams Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Education of Henry Adams, the most famous work of its author, was originally intended only for a small audience; after its posthumous publication in 1918, it promptly won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 1919, and it is still regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

At the core of Adams’s autobiography lies his concern that his education was rooted in the eighteenth century and thus was of little value in preparing the boy to become a success in what Adams calls the “twentieth” century (actually the second half of the nineteenth). Further emphasis is placed on the fact that in the newly emerging, rapidly changing world, all education will have to be continuous and can no longer guarantee success. Despite its author’s focus on “failure,” however, and its self-deprecating irony and gentle wit, The Education of Henry Adams chronicles a remarkably successful, productive, rich, and influential life.

The Education of Henry Adams opens with a skillfully drawn account of the author’s youth in the family home of Boston and the summer residence of Quincy, Massachusetts, where the historic legacy of his great New England family was always in strong evidence. Adams personifies the early factors of his development through a warm portrayal of his admired father; it was through him that the boy received an education which, the author half-mockingly insists, “condemned [him] to failure” because he was not educated to stoop to the low ways of a corrupt present.

Adams vigorously dismisses his formal schooling as dull memorizing and perceives personal experience as the true educator. Thus, a boyhood trip to Washington across the morally repulsive, slave-holding South is given more weight than the whole of his time at Harvard College. At Harvard, Adams insists, was bred “an inferior social type, quite as ill-fitted as the Oxford type for success in the next generation.” Similarly, on his first trip to Europe, Adams ends his plan to study German law with his listening to the music of composer Richard Wagner; throughout his travels, his “accidental education” is worth more than carefully laid-out schemes.

Following his young self back to Washington, Adams interprets the insights gained during practical work for his congressman father as an education in the corrupt and devious ways of...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

The Education of Henry Adams Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Education of Henry Adams is a study of the forces that shaped the life and mind of Henry Adams as well as many Americans of his generation. Adams describes a general identity crisis in the United States during its transformation from an agricultural society to an urban, industrial world power. Adams poses a question about himself: “What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?” His autobiography shows how he fared in adjusting to “the game” or challenges of a modern scientific age.

In the opening chapter, “Quincy,” Adams acknowledges that as a child in a famous family that includes two presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, “probably no child born that year held better cards than he.” Nonetheless, he considers himself “heavily handicapped” because the outdated values of his family would hinder him in the new age. During the Civil War, Adams assists his father, the minister to Great Britain, in gaining British support for the Union cause. Afterward, he works in Washington, D.C., as a political journalist. Ultimately, he realizes that his family creed of honest public service is obsolete in the era’s politics of money, power, and self-interest: “The selfishness of politics was the earliest of all political education.”

Adams withdraws from politics into the life of a scholar, another...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

The Education of Henry Adams Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Education of Henry Adams intimately traces Henry Adams’s thought processes, but it does so on an intellectual plane not generally achieved by most writers. For style and content, this book ranks with the finest of American autobiographies.

Adams was born in Boston in 1838 into the illustrious Brooks and Adams families. He was the grandson and great-grandson of two former U.S. presidents. He matured in a period of mechanical and industrial invention, but he had been raised in a colonial atmosphere. He remembers that his first serious encounter with his grandfather, former president John Quincy Adams, had occurred when the youngster had refused to go to school one day. His grandfather led him there by the hand. For the young Adams, the death of the former president had marked the end of his eighteenth century, colonial environment.

The major theme of The Education of Henry Adams is the multiplication and acceleration of mechanical forces. These forces, Adams argued, led to the breakdown of moral relationships among people and to the degeneration of their pursuits into money seeking or complete lassitude. The book also deals with the way in which modern science had produced a view of the universe radically different from the view held before the end of the nineteenth century, so much so that Adams called this new world a multiverse. The term “multiverse” meant, in Adams’s day, a universe in chaos, lacking any kind of ordering principle.

Adams’s father, Charles Francis Adams, had been instrumental in forming the Free-Soil Party in 1848, and he ran for vice president of the United States on the party’s ticket with Martin Van Buren. The younger Adams believed that his own education—Puritan morality, politics, and literary matters—was chiefly an inheritance from his father. In later life, looking back on his formal education, he concluded that this education had been a failure. As an adult, he realized that what he had needed as a student were courses in mathematics, French, German, and Spanish—not Latin and Greek.

Prompted by his teacher, James Russell Lowell, Adams spent nearly two years abroad after his graduation from Harvard. He enrolled in a program to study civil law in Germany, but he found the lecture system atrocious. He then devoted most of his stay in Europe to experiencing art, opera, and theater. When he returned to Boston in 1860, he settled down briefly to study law. In the elections that year, however, his father was chosen to be a U.S. representative. Adams accompanied him to Washington, D.C., as his secretary. There he met John Hay, who became his best friend.

In 1861, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln had chosen Charles Adams, Henry’s father, to be minister to England. Henry once again followed his father. The Adams party had barely disembarked when they heard bad news: England had recognized the belligerency of the Confederacy. The North was now England’s undeclared enemy. The Battle of Bull Run proved so crushing a blow to American prestige that Charles had believed he was in England on a day-to-day sufferance. He remained in England until 1868.

By the end of the American Civil War, the younger Adams had no means of earning a livelihood. He had earlier developed some taste as a dilettante in art, and he wrote several articles for the North American Review. On his return to the United States, Adams noted how he had been impressed by the “movements” of his fellow Americans, who were now harnessing a mechanical energy that led them to “travel,” literally and figuratively, in the same direction. In contrast, the Europeans, he believed, were trying to go in several directions at one time. Still, handicapped by his limited education and by his long absence from home, he had difficulty adapting to the new industrial America. He achieved some recognition with his essays on, for example, legal tender, and with his essays in the Edinburgh Review. He had hoped that he would be offered a government position in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. However, Grant, a man of action, was not interested in reformers or intellectuals like Adams.

Adams earned a position...

(The entire section is 1721 words.)

The Education of Henry Adams Summary

Early Years
Beginning at his birth, Adams’ describes himself as being at the mercy of historical forces. He was born into a...

(The entire section is 1053 words.)