Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974
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 contemporary politics. There, the narrative implies, morality and idealism are dangerously out of fashion. The author continues his account of his practical education—contrasting starkly to familial values—as the young man follows his father to England. There, his “education” acquaints him with the price of political scandal and compromise, alienating social customs, and the experience of the United States’ sudden coming of age with the assassination of President Lincoln in 1865.
As a turning point in his career, Adams depicts his decision in 1870 to accept a professorship at Harvard, after about only two years back in the cauldron of Washington, where he was further educated in the corruption of the present day. His narrative—in a chapter significantly titled “Failure”—reads like an apology for this act, which seemingly forever rejected any possibility that he would live up to his birthright of a shining political career. Accordingly, the narrator informs the reader that with this act, “Henry Adams’ education, at his entry into life, stopped, and his life began.” Characteristically, his self-assessment of the following seven years is carried by the familiarly self-mocking tone as he insists that as “a professor, he regarded himself as a failure.”
Against the dark vision of the failed eighteenth century man Adams, the narrative presents the fate of Clarence King, close friend of the author who, as an enterprising geologist and self-made man, “had given himself education all of a piece, yet broad.” Yet King’s ensuing bankruptcy in 1893 and a confrontation with the gigantic dynamos of the Chicago Exhibition in that year seem to render hopeless all trust in education: What use can come of the cultivation of a mind in a world where the brute forces of capitalism and electricity threaten the very existence of a self hoping to live in harmony with a unified cosmos?
From this pessimistic vantage point, Adams develops the final third of his autobiography, which becomes increasingly theoretical and philosophical. The author connects the perceived failure of his life with a broader sense of chaos and vulnerability; he sees the “multiplicity” of the emerging twentieth century—symbolized by the dynamo—as opposed to the unity of medieval spiritualism and veneration of the Virgin Mary.
Adams’s important observation of dramatically accelerating technological progress and its accompanying cultural change leaves his narrative struggling to produce a formula that could describe these processes with the same mathematical accuracy with which his contemporary scientists began to discover the rules governing the behavior of ideal gases. Mixing history and thermodynamics, Adams articulates a “dynamic theory of history” and a “law of acceleration”; both theories convince in their analysis of the past but fall far short from being natural laws.
Adams’s autobiography ends on a note that is both resigned to the inevitability of the new and guardedly optimistic about the vistas the new powers serving humanity may open. Taking the death of a beloved friend as an occasion to conclude his autobiography, Adams ends with a vision of a future world which may be regarded “without a shudder.”
Despite its obvious laments and occasionally massive self-deprecation, The Education of Henry Adams fascinates in its profound examination of a powerful mind growing up at a crucial period in American and human history. If his autobiography excludes important aspects of his life—his wife, Miriam, is not mentioned once—it is nevertheless a powerful meditation on how to prepare the mind to succeed in a rapidly changing, uncaring world. Taken as such, Adams’s work is of a strikingly modern quality and has not lost its relevance for the reader of today.