The Education of Henry Adams was published by Adams himself in 1907 in an edition of only one hundred copies, which were given to friends. The book clearly had a great and rather complex importance for Adams himself. In addition to mentioning its relevance to young people exploring the possibilities of education, he also wrote of his autobiography as an experiment in literary form and as a companion volume to his analysis of medieval culture, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904). He was unwilling to have The Education of Henry Adams made generally available during his lifetime, but he left the rights to the Massachusetts Historical Society, which bought out the first public edition shortly after his death in 1918. The Education of Henry Adams was not only immediately and unexpectedly popular but also was almost as quickly recognized as a work of lasting literary importance.
Like most classics of American literature, The Education of Henry Adams owes its permanent interest to its honest, sensitive portrayal of value conflicts that have been recurrent features of American life and culture. In addition to the conflict between ambition and the New England Puritanism of Adams’ background, there is an evident tension between Adams’ interest in science and technological progress and his feeling for traditional religious values and for religious experience as represented in art. Equally pervasive and interesting are the tensions in Adams’ character between his sense of active social obligation, on the one hand, and on the other his temperamental inclination for the role of detached observer and his taste for the quiet pleasures of friendship, art, and nature.