Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544

A discussion of the reception of the The Education of Henry Adams must first consider its route of dissemination. Adams first distributed his swan song to what amounts to a list of the one hundred most powerful and influential people of his time. He asked, in a rather tricky fashion, that each person correct their text and return it to him. Few were bold enough to do so and of those who did, Charles Eliot—who brought Adams to Harvard as professor of history and who created the famous Harvard Classics Series—returned his copy without comment.

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Considering that the work won a Pulitzer for autobiography, biographers have found the text a tantalizing source for insight into the mind of Adams. Within this biographical criticism there are different points of emphasis. For example, Richard P. Blackmur, in The Expense of Greatness, focuses on the The Education of Henry Adams as Adams’ reflection on his contribution to society. Gerrit H. Roelofs’ ‘‘Henry Adams: Pessimism and the Intelligent Use of Doom’’ disagrees with Blackmur. For Roelof, Adams is challenging the twentieth century to live up to the greatness of the nineteenth century.

Another emphasis of scholars discussing Adams’ work focuses on those moments in the text that predict America’s development. Granville Hickes concludes his review, ‘‘Struggle and Flight,’’ with ‘‘it is little exaggeration to say that The Education of Henry Adams carries us from the adolescence of American industrial capitalism to its senility.’’ Nearly fifty years later, William Wassertrom echoed Hicks, in The Ironies of Progress, saying, ‘‘it was indeed Henry Adams who first insisted that America itself belied progress, that these states did in fact symbolize the hope and despair of advanced industrial order in the world.’’ Adams’ obvious perspicuity in all matters of American industrial triumph made The Education of Henry Adams an inspirational text during the first decade of the Cold War. In The Scientific Thought of Henry Adams, Henry Wasser appreciates Adams’ rationalization of historical thought and its use as a point of reflection. Wasser writes, ‘‘Adams is scientific in his history in the sense that he tries to deduce the laws of history from the laws of science wherein laws applicable to human society are a special case of the laws applicable to the entire universe.’’

Recent criticism is applying gender and postcolonial theory to show that Adams veils the patriarchal and imperial operations of his friends and peers. Martha Banta, in ‘‘Being a ‘Begonia’ in a Man’s World,’’ exposes how Adams manipulates the period’s notions of masculinity. Banta raises the idea that ‘‘whether [Adams] viewed himself as living up to his credentials as a male within the masculine society through which he moved’’ matters in a consideration of the text. John Carlos Rowe investigates another area of mystique. In ‘‘The Education of Henry Adams and the American Empire,’’ Rowe zeroes in on the avowed purpose of the text to explain ‘‘Twentieth-Century Multiplicity’’ with the complete absence of any mention of ‘‘the political forces clearly reshaping the globe at the turn of the century.’’ All of the critics mentioned here and those left out do agree with current assessments that The Education of Henry Adams belongs in the list of the greatest nonfiction works of the twentieth century.

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