Illustration of a portrait of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Brooks Adams

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

The Education of Henry Adams is both less and more than a conventional autobiography. The author tells little either of his professional work as one of the United States’ greatest historians or of his personal life and private affairs, omissions that are as significant as anything that the book includes for understanding Adams’ intensely private character. He omits any mention of the twenty years between 1871 and 1891, the period when he taught at Harvard and wrote two successful novels in addition to his most ambitious work, the nine-volume History of the United States of America (18891891), which covered the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. More important, this was also the time of his twelve-year marriage. The marriage was outwardly, at least, happy and successful. Yet the Adamses were childless, Marian Adams was given to severe periods of depression, and in 1885, shortly after the death of her father, she committed suicide. Devastated by his wife’s death, Adams was barely able to speak of it, even to close friends, for the rest of his life.

The omissions are compensated for, however, by Adams’ intimate account of his own intellectual development and by his lively discussions of the main political and intellectual trends of the middle and late nineteenth century. Although he is not very interested in portraying personalities, Adams does provide vivid impressions of some of his important contemporaries—artists, writers, and scientists as well as politicians.

Although he had careers as a teacher, novelist, and historian that most people would consider eminently successful, Adams, measuring his own accomplishments by those of his ancestors, regarded himself as something of a failure. Nevertheless, his references to this failure are partly ironic, as he clearly believes that the eighteenth century principles of reason, intellectual curiosity, and public responsibility that he had inherited as an Adams are superior to the unrestrained ambition and greed that had replaced them in nineteenth century American culture.

His sense of failure was also real, and it caused him to think about education in a way that is strikingly modern and likely to be useful to young adults of today. In the preface, in fact, Adams figuratively speaks of himself as a tailor whose “object, in this volume, is to fit young men, in universities and elsewhere, to be men of the world, equipped for any emergency; and the garment offered to them is meant to show the faults of the patchwork fitted on their fathers.” In the early parts of the book, the word “education” is used with its ordinary implication of schooling or formal education. Even here Adams is preoccupied with the practical importance of education and, in a way that was unusual for his time, almost contemptuous of the bookish education that he had received at Harvard. As the book progresses, however, Adams gradually broadens the meaning of “education” to the point that it signifies all the experiences from which one learns to participate in life or to understand its meaning. Asking for a practical education but at the same time valuing understanding, imagination, and ideals more than wealth or comfort, Adams provokes readers to think about why they are learning as well as what they are learning, to ponder the relation of meaning and experience to happiness, and to consider the importance of lifelong learning for a satisfying adulthood.

In the latter chapters of the book, Adams’ concern with the meaning of life leads him to look for some common measure for the various forces that cause change in history. Adams was too skeptical and self-aware to take his own theorizing with complete seriousness. Nevertheless, his theories gave rise to the most famous chapter in the book, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” in which he compares the force that technology exerted on nineteenth century culture with that which the Christian ideal of the Virgin exerted in the Middle Ages, particularly as expressed in the architecture and stained glass of the great Gothic cathedrals.

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