The Education of Henry Adams

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Writing of himself in the third person to increase the sense of objectivity, Adams presents himself as one unable to cope with the multiplicity of the twentieth century. His education, rooted in eighteenth century rational humanism, had told him that the world is orderly. Yet his experiences had proved to him that chaos is the law of nature; order is the dream of man.

To establish this myth of failure, Adams distorts and deletes facts. He dismisses his monumental historical writings and his work for his father in the American embassy in London during the Civil War. He also skips over the twenty most productive years of his life (1872-1892). The style, too, is somber, the frequent passive constructions stressing Adams’ vision of himself as a victim of forces beyond his control.

As a record of Adams’ life, then, the work is not always trustworthy. It does, however, accurately reflect Adams’ disappointments: He had longed for political power that eluded him, his sister had died tragically in 1872, and his wife had committed suicide in 1885.

The book also demonstrates Adams’ lifelong quest for a unifying historical principle--that dream of order--to explain the movement from twelfth century unity (discussed in Adams’ previous book, Mont St.-Michel and Chartres) to twentieth century multiplicity. Near the end of the Education he presents “The Dynamic Theory of History,” arguing that changes occur with...

(The entire section is 486 words.)