Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
The Education of Henry Adams cover image

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.)

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.)