Illustration of a portrait of Henry Adams

The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Brooks Adams

Start Free Trial

Contemporary American Technology and Adam's Work

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Long before the digital age caused headlines about digital divides and the rapidity of innovation, thinkers reflected upon human adaptation to accelerated technological innovation. The Education of Henry Adams, written as a reflection on the so-called second industrial revolution, was welcomed as such a reflection when it was published but has since become simply an autobiography. Adam’s text explores the interaction between humans and technology, making note of generational tensions surrounding innovation. The idea of a child operating the VCR better than the parent enjoys the status of cliché now, but the concept of technology requiring new minds was not common knowledge at the time of Adams’ writing. Yet, Adams foresaw that innovation would demand new types of people and personalities who in turn required greater technological complexity. In his work, Adams does not simply praise science or display the way in which technology awes the elderly; he also reveals the American pattern for embracing and adopting technology. The way in which Adams formulates his reflections early in the twentieth century has a similarity to the work of American philosopher of technology, Don Ihde, at the end of the century. Ihde, author of Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth, without having read Adams uses the metaphoric device, the Garden of Eden, which is repeatedly used in The Education of Henry Adams to expose society’s philosophy of technology.

Adams encapsulates this concern by tracing the trajectory of civilization as it evolved from the unity of Christendom (1200 A.D.) to multiplicity (1900 A.D.) through the heuristic device of the Garden of Eden. By way of contrast, Ihde uses the Garden of Eden motif to trace technological adaptation in different but contemporary cultures. He shows that even supposedly primitive tribes who, by definition, exist without the other worries of civilization live by virtue of technology exactly developed for their environment. Further, Adams shows that people are naturally quick to implement new technologies into an existing regime: ‘‘human activity from immemorial time and across the diversity of cultures has always been technologically embedded.’’ This happens, according to Ihde, because technologies are multi-stable. By this term, he sums up the idea that while ‘‘technologies transform experience and its variations’’ for humans, the way in which this happens is without intent, or determinism. In other words, humans select technologies and utilize them for their specific purposes; they are not victimized by technology. Each accelerated stage of this process at once disturbs humans in their supposedly nontechnological garden until the technology withdraws into the background. When humans grow accustomed to riding trains, for example, then train travel becomes a ‘‘normal’’ part of life, part of society’s garden. While Adams would agree with this analysis, he would focus on the process by which a technological device becomes disturbing and then accepted by people. With wariness, Adams considers the ability of the human mind to react quickly enough to innovation, a concern Ihde does not share.

While ‘‘The Dynamo and the Virgin,’’ chapter XXV of The Education of Henry Adams , is one of the most often quoted chapters in the theoretical writings on technology, the rest of the book is often neglected. Many theorists have discussed Adams’ arguments on science, but rarely has he been taken seriously as a philosopher of technology. Certainly, Adams helped popularize science and technology and he desired to examine history in scientific terms. But scientific elements in the course of historical reflection or moments of awe before dynamos do not begin to make a philosophy of technology. What proves that Adams is a philosopher of technology is his contention...

(This entire section contains 1921 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

that technology always exists in relation to human society, represented by the metaphoric garden; through the garden motif he simulates the cultural process of technological adaptation. His formula shows that as technology grows more complex and prevalent, human society becomes a technologically embedded garden—a technical ecology that supports human interaction.

Throughout Adams’ text, a form of technology, whether Faraday’s magnet, Curie’s radiation, or Lyell’s Pteraspis, presents ‘‘evidence of growing complexity, and multiplicity, and even contradiction.’’ This leads him to surmise that he was ‘‘still Adam in the Garden of Eden between God who was unity, Satan who was complexity, with no means of deciding which was truth.’’ This self-reflection is part of Adams’ problem: he wants to be in the position of making the choice. Adams wants to introduce technology to himself and to his world, his garden, and not be imposed upon. Thus, Adams tries to experience the entire rail network in America and see how it makes the great space of America a garden viewed comfortably from a window. However, technology arrives too quickly for Adams to adapt to it and he cannot help but grow angry, feel cheated, and attribute a consciousness or magic to it. When Adams is not deluding himself, he knows he exists in a multi-stable universe where he can receive telegraphed reports from his friends back in Washington, D.C., even while exploring the primitive land of the Laps: ‘‘the electro-dynamo-social universe worked better even than the sun.’’ Adams does not hide from technology or fear it; rather, he wants to comprehend leisurely the import of technological arrivals. He wishes to appreciate the telegraph at his own pace, no matter how much it complicates his life. He desires to control technological introduction and use of technology, which is why he likes the automobile.

The human garden, for Adams, grows increasingly complex as humans develop their technology. Knowing that the past was simpler causes Adams to feel nostalgic. However, his nostalgia is ironic since Adams owes his awareness of the garden to which he attributes the most human balance, the Middle Ages, to a form of technology. The ultimate Garden of the Gothic Cathedrals of Normandy was made possible by the automobile:

the automobile alone could unite them in any reasonable sequence, and although the force of the automobile, for the purposes of a commercial traveler, seemed to have no relation whatever to the force that inspired a Gothic cathedral, the Virgin in the twelfth century would have guided and controlled both bag-man and architect, as she controlled the seeker of history.

Adams knows that every human activity has been embedded with technology, but as a historian, he carefully denotes the arrival of each technology and the way it changes his garden. The number one machine disturbing his gardens is the railroad, but the steamer and the telegraph are worthy assistants while the automobile has not yet begun to alter the landscape. Adams begins this pattern of disruption of the old by the new early in the book, stating that ‘‘he and his eighteenth-century troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart—separated forever—in act if not in sentiment, by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad.’’

Understanding the formulation of past gardens, like Eden or his beloved eighteenth-century Boston, questions the view that this is Adams’ professed discomfort with the technological development of society. Rather, Adams—far from being a failure— successfully outlines the garden as the space of societal change where the interaction between humans and their technology plays out. Adams views the human mind as deftly integrating technology and nature in order to renew the garden. Consider again the definition that Adams puts forth of the ideal man, one who has a ‘‘formula of his own for his universe’’ that makes him capable of reacting to and with societal change. Place that man in the following context:

The movement from unity into multiplicity, between 1200 and 1900, was unbroken in sequence, and rapid in acceleration. Prolonged one generation longer, it would require a new social mind . . . [that can] enter a new phase subject to new laws. Thus far, since five or ten thousand years, the mind had successfully reacted, and nothing yet proved that it would fail to react—but it would need to jump.

Now the Garden, whether eighteenth-century Boston always presented by Adams as literally disrupted by the arrival of the Boston-Albany Railroad, or primitive Lapland disturbed by the telegraph, is a natural and healthy indicator of the acceleration in societal complexity in place from the beginning. Like Ihde, Adams does not believe in a non-technological Garden, even though his religious predilection leads him to long for one.

Usually, in literature, the Garden of Eden motif conjures the notion of unspoiled nature created by God and untouched by human innovation; knowledge and changes created by it come with Satan’s influence and, therefore, technology is automatically coded as evil. Showing that Adams plays with this motif out of a concern with technology and not simply with the theme of science, involves returning to The Education of Henry Adams to take seriously his consistent disruption of the Garden of Eden motif with a technological device. As a historian who desires time for reflection and introduction of new technology, Adams allows technology to appear as an evil disturbance in a calm scene, a traditional use of the image of the garden. However, he always writes about the same technology elsewhere as he uses it or as he reflects on how a device, say a telegraph, facilitates a positive aspect of human society—communication. Upsetting as the technology is at first, it eventually becomes essential to human society so much so that it becomes a natural part of living: it withdraws and embeds itself within the garden.

Adams’ employment of this formula is not a means of predicting future dystopias, but of creating a system of education—a philosophy—wherein the human mind remains reactive to technology. The idea that people might be paralyzed in the face of a new technology and shy away from it frightens Adams. For this reason, Adams’ formula presents a series of gardens in time or in space to show how human society, humanity’s garden, has already been disrupted by technological innovation. Such gardens include his visit to the Laps in Scandinavia, the cathedrals of Normandy, or eighteenth-century Boston. Each idyllic and calm setting is disrupted by a train, a telegraphed message, or made possible only because of the automobile. In other words, technology is never absent from the garden; Adam’s idea of education demands that people always be quick to integrate technology into their conceptualization of the ‘‘garden’’ of America.

Utopian writers, like Edward Bellamy, pinned their hopes for deliverance of utopia on the advancement of technology. Technology historians, like Lewis Mumford, or urban planners, like Patrick Geddes, also assumed that technology would eventually realize a more healthy and prosperous human environment. Thus, at the time of turn-of-the-century doom and gloom, optimism flowed concerning the future; yet all agreed a new citizen was necessary. Adams partook of this utopian discussion as the sober, patrician voice. He reveals a consciousness of a technologically embedded world—a more complex, multi-stable lifeworld—and the consequent problems associated therein. Adams earnestly desired to expose, for the benefit of Americans, the ways in which they might educate themselves to live within an industrialized America. Today, Ihde hopes to do the same thing using the heuristic device originated by Adams, the Garden of Eden, because Americans continue to cling to the notion of an unspoiled nature.

Source: Jeremy W. Hubbell, Critical Essay on The Education of Henry Adams, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Hubbell seeks a Ph.D. in history with an emphasis on technological development at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where he is a member of the Technoscience Research Group.

The Education and the Salvation of History

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Adams’s parody of the autobiographical self resonates in his parallel genre of history-writing, and it is not accidental that the Adams persona defines the self as mistake while deciding to accept the post at Harvard. Adams’s persona is a clear diminution of what E. R. A. Seligman and Charles A. Beard (both of Columbia University) called ‘‘the great man theory’’ of history-writing, which, along with a teleological idea of progress and a methodological confidence about identifying causes and their effects, was one of the three central premises of historical discourse at the time.

The great-man theory of history is familiar to us from traditional political history. In this model of historiography, as James Harvey Robinson (also of Columbia) wrote, the historian compiles ‘‘striking events of the past’’ and identifies them with ‘‘the achievements and fate of conspicuous persons.’’ We ‘‘string our narrative upon a line of kings,’’ Robinson sneered. The result is an annals of statesmenship, with, Seligman wrote, events ‘‘ascribed to great men’’ like Caesar, Napoleon, and Washington. This tendency is manifest in the major histories of the period (especially textbooks), like John W. Burgess’s Reconstruction and the Constitution (1911) George Burton Adams’s European History (1899) or Civilization during the Middle Ages (1894), and Woodrow Wilson’s five-volume History of the American People (1901–1903), and including as well Robinson’s own An Introduction to the History of Western Europe (1903), his colleague Beard’s Contemporary American History (1914), and Beard and Robinson’s Outlines of European History (1916). Henry Adams’s own histories of the early republic, culminating in the monumental, nine-volume History of the United States of America during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889–91), were focused through the activities of people like these two early Presidents and also Albert Gallatin (1879) and John Randolph (1882).

Almost despite their practice, prominent historians like the authors just listed objected that the great man theory, while it may fulfill our desire for the dramatic, as far too theatrical and arbitrary. As an alternative, the revisionists, who came to be known as the progressive historians, sought to ‘‘raise history to the rank of a science,’’ as Adams wrote in ‘‘The Tendency of History’’ (1894), an open letter he wrote to the American Historical Association when his tenure as its president expired. By scientific, these scholars meant a history that discovered laws of historical action and development that were analogous if not equivalent to natural (meaning physical) laws. Ideally, these laws would, Frederick Teggart of the University of California wrote, ‘‘express the constant relations among phenomena.’’ These constant relations amounted to the ‘‘continuity or unity of history,’’ as Robinson phrased the principle for the Congress of Arts and Science at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. I cite Robinson’s formulation among myriad others because its typical conflation of ‘‘continuity’’ with ‘‘unity’’ so nicely suggests the assumptions driving the doctrine, assumptions that The Education often ridicules. ‘‘Continuity’’ and ‘‘unity’’ are not, of course, synonyms. The successiveness or even progression denoted by ‘‘continuity’’ connotes less coordination than does ‘‘unity.’’ Nevertheless, the terms were used interchangeably, with the phrase ‘‘the unity of history’’ frequently used to stand for history’s continuity.

Before the nineteenth century, the human species was thought to be discontinuous with other species, a special creature unrelated to so-called lower orders, divinely made out of nothing or out of dust. This idea was one element of the prevalent account of temporal alterations among species, called catastrophism. Catastrophism held that biological changes were sudden and wholesale, with later species, like humans, having no antecedents in earlier ones. Although portions of this idea survived to contest evolutionism, Jean Lamarck, Charles Lyell, and Charles Darwin—whatever the conflicts in their understanding of the mechanism of physiological change—generally established that humans had developed from other species. In their view, alterations from species to species and within species were not catastrophic, as Albion W. Small put it with reference to historical change, but incremental stages in the sequential modification that all species continually undergo.

The great-man theory suited the catastrophic model of historical narrative, positing that changes occur by the chance appearance of exceptional individuals. In contrast, the evolutionists, as Henry Adams called them in ‘‘Letter to American Teachers,’’ believed that these conspicuous individuals must be understood as manifestations of particular historical conditions and confluences. For the evolutionists, the greatness of the great man was both function and emblem of historical context, which is to say of evolving historical forces. So understood, history could become an inquiry into the development of human phenomena. This reorientation led many historians to demand that their colleagues pursue ‘‘obscure’’ incidents, as Wilson wrote in his Chairman’s Address to the Division of Historical Sciences at the Congress of Arts and Sciences convened at the 1904 St. Louis Universal Exposition. This willingness to entertain the importance of apparently insignificant matters was one of the hallmarks of the so-called New Historians, whose best known figure became James Harvey Robinson after he issued a collection of his essays entitled The New History (1912). Robinson forcefully opposed studying ‘‘conspicuous events and striking crises’’ and advocated examining ‘‘the small, the common, and the obscure,’’ the ‘‘homely elements in human life.’’

In practice, historians did not heed this charge in any sustained way; nevertheless, the progressives’ theoretical interest in the obscure detail and homely element exemplifies their evolutionary bent. Small details were the key antecedents in a progression— not merely succession—of events, with later events evolving from (not just following) series of preceding events. Hence, these historians’ commitment to evolution (continuity) was also a commitment to a narrative of progression in the root sense of the word. Antecedents did not merely precede their successors but prepared the way for them.

The continuity discoverable in the phenomenon of history became unity for these historians because they assumed that the progression they observed amounted to a teleological pattern that they called progress. Like continuity and unity, the terms progression and progress are surely not synonymous, but historians conflated them: as a narrative of progression, history was also, therefore, a narrative of progress, of what Adams called ‘‘elevation,’’ and Adams was a rare voice criticizing historians’ elevation of progression into progress. Thinking of the phenomenon of history as progress and of history-writing as both the commemoration and continuation of that progress involves two related assumptions. First, it presumes the moral superiority of later to earlier forms of social organization and human conduct; second, it assumes that later stages of development are fulfilling the possibilities of earlier stages, and that some ultimate, even perfect form of social organization and human conduct is immanent in present conditions.

Students of the development of the historical discipline, like David Noble and Dorothy Ross, have noted what they call the millennialism of turnof- the-century American historians, for whom Western civilization and especially American society were fulfilling a divine plan for the perfection of man. This teleological enthusiasm suffuses everything historians wrote. A concise example of millennialism appears in the contribution of Columbia’s William Sloane to the 1904 St. Louis Congress of Arts and Science. Sloane celebrates Giambattista Vico as the first ‘‘historical evolutionist. To him the story of a nation was the record of an ever complete realization in fact of certain remnants of a pre-natal revelation.’’ This realization reveals a ‘‘law of moral progress’’ through which ‘‘all human faculties . . . perfect themselves.’’

Frederick Jackson Turner extolled history in similarly exalted terms. ‘‘History [both the phenomenon and its study] has a unity and a continuity’’ because it is, ‘‘in truth, the self-consciousness of humanity,’’ a self-consciousness acquired by understanding its development from the past, ‘‘the undeveloped present.’’ Because history is the ‘‘becoming’’ of the present in the past and of both the past and future in the present, the study of history can ‘‘enable us to behold our own time and place as a part of the stupendous progress of the ages’’; it can ‘‘enable us to realize the richness of our [unconscious] inheritance, the possibility of our lives, the grandeur of the present.’’ In Turner’s most famous essay, the frontier is a receding border where past— the ‘‘inherited ways’’ of Europe—and inchoate present—the coarse, practical, and individualistic— cross-fertilize to provide ‘‘a gate of escape from the bondage of the past.’’ At the frontier, then, the Enlightenment past is at once continued and puri- fied, and the present is an ever more perfect realization of democratic ideals.

Charles A. Beard, best known for criticizing the American Constitution as an expression of moneyed interests, is a supreme example of the progressive historians’ teleological bent. In The Industrial Revolution, Beard bemoans the misery unleashed by industrialism, with its mechanization of individual action and subordination of the human ‘‘desire for freedom . . . to the production of marketable commodities.’’ Having made individualism possible in the first place, industrialism then compromised it. But ultimately industrialism redeems individualism. ‘‘The hope of the future,’’ Beard urges in an idealistic Hegelian mode, is the very ‘‘corporate society’’ that evolved to sustain industrialism. For Beard, the individual is reempowered by being transfigured in the highest form of corporate organization, the trust. Without denying the trusts’ dislocation of and at times violence against workers, Beard—like most Americans who contemplated it, labor leaders like Eugene Debs no less than John D. Rockefeller—considered the trust the latest manifestation and intimation of progress. Progress, Beard reflects, consists of the substitution of ‘‘organization for chaos and anarchy,’’ and ‘‘the trusts are merely pointing the way to higher forms of industrial methods in which the people, instead of a few capitalists, reap the benefits.’’ As the frontier does for Turner, for Beard the trust represents a higher freedom than common individual freedom, creating ‘‘unity in diversity’’ by ‘‘increasing intercommunication of all parts of the world.’’ Therefore, the trust induces ‘‘education from the lowest to the highest form,’’ ‘‘training . . . the individual, so that in seeking the fullest satisfaction of his own nature he will harmoniously perform his function as a member of a corporate society.’’ Through the trust, individualism is redeemed by being ‘‘elevated to social service,’’ and therefore the trust is the fulfillment of both antecedent forms of organization and an innate human desire for freedom.

Beard is typical in transforming the identification of continuity in development into a celebration of progress toward a teleological order consolidated in the term unity. Some historians criticized their colleagues’ millennial spirit. In 1916, Frederick Teggart urged historians to distinguish Darwinian evolution from their incurably teleological ideas of progress and unity. If Darwinian evolution speaks of ‘‘an orderly process’’ by which new forms of life emerge from old ones, nevertheless evolution manifests no intrinsic direction and seeks no goal or final shape. It effects, as David J. Hill put it, ‘‘variations’’ rather than linear development in human conduct and social organization. In a similar spirit, Adams wryly submitted that ‘‘evolutionists might be said to consider not the descent but the ascent of man.’’ But Adams further, and uniquely, spurned the assumptions behind the Darwinian model of scientific history.

Source: Howard Horwitz, ‘‘The Education and the Salvation of History,’’ in New Essays on ‘‘The Education of Henry Adams,’’ edited by John Carlos Rowe, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 125–30.

Henry Adams’s Education and the Autobiographical Tradition

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

For readers who have been fascinated by The Education Henry Adams, the most significant event of recent years was the appearance in 1973 of a carefully revised edition, corrected according to the author’s final intentions and edited by Adams’s chief biographer, Ernest Samuels. At long last, and for the first time since the book was put on sale in 1918, the title page of the Education appears without the infamous and misleading subtitle, ‘‘An autobiography.’’ Those two words, added to the 1918 version without authorization from Adams himself, who died before that printing appeared, have been largely responsible for a general confusion about the author’s intentions, and, in turn, for a profusion of conflicting opinions, comments, and judgments concerning the final success or failure of Adams’s achievement. Yet, all together this almost uncollectable critical response to the book forms at best a partial truth; for by any conventional definition, at least, the Education must be seen to offer us something much larger than the usual understanding of ‘‘autobiography’’ allows. How the shade of Henry Adams, at his sardonic best, must relish the last of his many jokes—this one played unintentionally on the three generations of readers who have helped to keep the Education alive.

All this is not to say that the book is free of autobiographical influences. Quite the contrary: many scholars have noted the author’s debts to Rousseau and Augustine, to the private literature of the Adams family, especially the diaries of John and John Quincy Adams; and to that peculiarly American strain of personal narrative which can be traced, with some variations, from the Puritans, through Jonathan Edwards and Benjamin Franklin, to Henry James and Henry Adams. And convincing evidence of indebtedness to an autobiographical tradition is provided by Adams himself in his ‘‘Preface’’ to the Education, where he acknowledges a familiarity with a variety of personal narratives in the various forms of confessions, autobiographies, and memoirs, mentioning their authors by name. From the perspective of our usual interest in admitted and implied influences, then, Adams’s reliance on a great autobiographical tradition is well established. So a sound case can be made—for treating his book as an impressive extension of that older tradition into the twentieth century. But, in fact, the Education should also be thought of, at least in part, as the first modern American autobiography, a seminal volume, as important in its way as was T. S. Eliot’s announcements of modernity in his best poetry of the same period. To realize just how modern the Education really is, a reader need only compare it with the Autobiography of Henry’s older brother, Charles Francis Adams II, published in 1916. Charles’s book shows what the mere conjunction of the well-established family writing habit, with a prosaic tradition of memoir-writing, and a pedestrian historical outlook could be expected to produce in the work of an almost exact contemporary. Nowhere in Charles’s Autobiography does one find the play of artistic imagination that stamps Henry’s Education as a unique work of genius, an account that is at once both traditional and highly experimental. For the Education is an American classic, and readers must take it on its own terms or fail to comprehend its full meaning.

Nor was this uniqueness lost to T. S. Eliot himself. In one of the earliest reviews of Adams’s book, titled ‘‘A Sceptical Patrician’’ and printed in the Athenaeum in 1919, the poet warned: ‘‘It is doubtful whether the book ought to be called an autobiography, for there is too little of the author in it.’’ Unfortunately, while most readers of the very popular Education have recognized its autobiographical possibilities, few have taken Eliot’s warning seriously enough.

* * *

Aside from Eliot’s cautionary advice, which Adams had no opportunity to read, any more than he had a chance to strike the misleading subtitle from later reprintings, there is abundant external evidence that the author did not plan his work as simply yet another contribution to the tradition of American autobiography. Here, Adams’s personal correspondence is extremely useful in putting us on the track of his thoughts concerning the autobiographical form in literature, even before he began the Education. Writing to Henry James in 1903 about the latter’s biography of William Wetmore Story, Adams said:

The painful truth is that all of my New England generation, counting the half-century, 1820–1879, were in actual fact only one mind and nature; the individual was a facet of Boston . . . Type Bourgeois bostonian [sic]! A type quite as good as another but more uniform. . . . God knows that we knew our want of knowledge! the [sic] self-distrust became introspection— nervous self-consciousness—irritable dislike of America, and antipathy to Boston.

So you have written not Story’s life, but your own and mine—pure autobiography. . . .

Later, after he had completed the Education, Adams sent a copy of the private printing to James in 1908, together with a letter that explained: ‘‘The volume is a mere shield of protection in the grave. I advise you to take your own life in the same way, in order to prevent biographers from taking it in theirs.’’ The truth found by biographers and autobiographers could prove to be ‘‘painful truth’’ indeed. As a biographer himself, Henry Adams knew this firsthand, having written the lives of Albert Gallatin, John Randolph, and Aaron Burr before he began the Education. Certainly the possibilities for using some version of autobiography as a ‘‘shield of protection’’ had occurred to Adams as early as 1891, when he wrote to his English friend, Charles Milnes Gaskell: ‘‘The moral seems to be that every man should write his life, to prevent some other fellow from taking it.’’ So Adams determined to take his own life in literature but in a unique way, as he turned a chronological narrative of personal experience into an autobiographical literary experiment.

In the Education itself, perhaps the most obvious signal of the author’s extraordinary intentions may be found on the ‘‘Contents’’ page. Surely a superb historian like Adams could do better than to leave such a hiatus as that between Chapter XX, entitled ‘‘Failure (1871)’’ and Chapter XXI, entitled ‘‘Twenty Years After (1892).’’ For ‘‘protection,’’ of course, he had seen fit to leave this period in his life blank—a gap that excluded every detail of his relationship with Marion Hooper Adams, the wife who is never mentioned in the Education. Gone too, along with the personal version of his marriage, is all pretense to confessional sincerity or historical accuracy and completeness. Instead, as Adams makes clear, the reading game must be played by the author’s own rules.

Nowhere is this made so clear as in the ‘‘Preface’’ to the Education. From that point onward in the book, the introduction of a ‘‘manikin’’ figure called ‘‘Henry Adams’’ serves to protect the real author from excessive self-revelation, by offering the disguise of personal experience as a covering for didactic art. From almost the first word, the reader is warned that he should not expect another confessional in the tradition of Rousseau or of the American Puritans. For Adams, the Confessions, although written like the Education ‘‘in the manner of the eighteenth century,’’ can be instructive in the twentieth century only when correctly viewed or read. Timely interpretation emphasizes personal limitations rather than accomplishments, and makes the Confessions useful as a warning and not as a model.

As educator, Jean Jacques was in one respect, easily first; he erected a monument of warning against the Ego. Since his time, and largely thanks to him, the Ego has steadily tended to efface itself, and, for purposes of model, to become a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes. The object of study is the garment, not the figure. The tailor adapts the manikin as well as the clothes to his patron’s wants. The tailor’s object, in this volume, is to fit young men, in universities or 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. . . .

The manikin, therefore, has the same value as any other geometrical figure of three or more dimensions, which is used for the study of relation. For that purpose it cannot be spared; it is the only measure of motion, of proportion, of human condition; it must have the air of reality; must be taken for real; must be treated as though it had life. Who knows? Possibly it had!

Enter the manikin ‘‘Henry Adams’’ and exit all pretense of conscious self-revelation. As the author tells us 432 pages later,

Of all studies, the one he would rather have avoided was that of his own mind. He knew no tragedy so heart-rending as introspection, and the more, because— as Mephistopheles said of Marguerite—he was not the first. Nearly all the highest intelligence known to history had drowned itself in the reflection of its own thought, and the bovine survivors had rudely told the truth about it, without affecting the intelligent.

Here, the ‘‘painful truth’’ Adams first had described to James emerged more painful still. The source was not simply personal revelation of the usual kind—the embarrassing details of an outward life—but rather the traditional autobiographical practice of looking inward, and of telling truthfully what one has found. Far better to spare the pain and turn away from self, to teach, instead, in the words of the ‘‘Preface,’’ ‘‘. . . young men, in universities or elsewhere, to be men of the world equipped for any emergency.’’ And teach, Adams did in the pages of his book.

* * *

This is not the place to trace in detail the many lessons in politics, religion, philosophy, science, and art—which measure the author’s didactic intention in the Education. These main lines of educative force also provide themes for the narrative; while the manikin’s example demonstrates over and over the repeated ‘‘failure’’ of the subject ever to learn enough. Gradually, by accretion, this ‘‘failure’’ grows to seem conclusive—just as certain as the failure, in Adams’s mind, of Rousseau in his Confessions to provide any effective guidance for modern man. Yet the larger, more general lesson here is one of change and not of failure alone; and to give it force, the author concentrates his attention on a central human figure, the persona Henry Adams, who grows from child to man as he tries out, for the reader’s benefit, a variety of possibly educational experiences.

But finally the life of ‘‘Henry Adams’’ by itself does not teach enough to satisfy the author, who tells us why:

Truly the animal that is to be trained to unity must be caught young. Unity is vision; it must have been part of the process of learning to see. The older the mind, the older its complexities, and the further it looks, the more it sees, until even the stars resolve themselves into multiples; yet the child will always see but one.

Experience has led the manikin away from unity and instinct, and time has played him false, even while it pretended to educate.

In the face of such change, man must seek to recapture a sense of instinctive unity in art, as Adams hoped to do in his Education. For him, art was the only possible alternative to chaos, although for others who may be better educated than he, the author holds out another possibility of scientific unity, especially in the final chapters of his book and in his later essays. But the Education tells Henry Adams’s story, beginning with his origins in ‘‘Quincy’’ (Chapter I) and ‘‘Boston’’ (Chapter II), and ending with the futuristic speculations that radiated from his mature mind. Put together in his way, the whole story is an experiment in didactic art—taking up in the twentieth century where Rousseau and Franklin left off. For, much as when he was a classroom instructor at Harvard College, the author of the Education still kept his faith in the timeless value of the teacher, who could shape human thought into worldly force, and effectively link the past and present with an uncertain future. As Adams wrote in the Education, ‘‘A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.’’ By reaching out to the ‘‘one [mind] in ten’’ that ‘‘sensibly reacts’’ to such teaching, the writer hoped to have his autobiographical lessons accepted by his readers in the same way that, in the ‘‘Preface,’’ he claimed to use Rousseau’s Confessions, as ‘‘a monument of warning against the Ego.’’

Finally, only the vigorously reacting mind, Adams believed, could benefit fully from lessons which otherwise became surface polish for the merely passive manikin:

The object of education for that mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn.

That rare tenth mind alone knows how to learn: it follows out Adams’s lines of force and interest only to react against the egoistic example of the manikin. For that mind only, Adams holds out the hope of being prepared ‘‘by choice’’ to ‘‘jump’’ and stay ahead of the other expanding forces in the universe. Just such a mind might well succeed where the author knew himself to have failed; it might complete a patterning of life and experience with a mastery that would turn chaos into orderly design. Yet, so far as Adams could see in the Education, all education based on example—at least human example—was already obsolete. Traditional autobiography, like other forms of human experience, seemed to have reached the end of its usefulness, as education and as art.

What was left to Adams and to modern literature was experiment. So he attempted to turn his narrative of personal experience into something both artistic and useful. Alongside the warnings provided by the chronological gap in the narrative and by the manikin subject, the author developed a vocabulary of symbols, used to tie past experience to future possibility by drawing on instinct rather than reason. The most famous example, of course, is Chapter XXV, ‘‘The Dynamo and the Virgin,’’ perhaps the best evidence that the Education can be read as modern art, as many anthologies testify.

I do not pretend in this brief survey to judge the Education either a failure or a success as art. Still it should be useful to point out that the overall effect of Adams’s symbolic treatment—like the picture of the titular character in the book who is both manikin and tailor, and the impression created by the beforeand- after organization—is once again to underscore division or contradiction in human experience, and to deny the possibility of unity in the ‘‘vision’’ of the aging author. Perhaps the ‘‘child will always see but one’’; yet the reader of the Education, on the other hand, is left to yearn for such childish unity— in subject matter, organization, and conclusion. The book lacks even an imposed authorial unity, in the form of a single symbolic pattern; and the reader cannot order the various lines of force and thought by reference to some convenient symbol, like the pond in Walden.

For Adams, ‘‘Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.’’ By telling us only what he wanted to about his own life, Henry Adams played the part of a natural man who yet remained always something of a dreamer. While he was a teacher, he was also an artist, who sought to make his own story into didactic art of a high order, still leaving all judgments about his ultimate success to his readers. Meanwhile, the lessons of his life became theirs to use as they saw fit. Properly, the final words about the didactic value of an autobiography might be expected to belong to the author, who could best summarize the meaning of his own life. But in Adams’s case, the authorial strategy was different. At the time that he was writing his life story, the author of the Education showed that he was too nimble or too evasive to be caught without ‘‘protection’’ and a ‘‘shield’’ for the future. In a letter to E. D. Shaw, the artist managed to shift the burden of interpretation from intention to response, as he showed how he had made the substance of his own experience into a heuristic experiment, designed to test his audience rather than to reveal himself:

All considerable artists make a point of compelling the public to think for itself, and their rule is to require each observer to see what he can, and this will be what the artist meant. To the artist the meaning is indifferent. Every man is his own artist before a work of art.

Taken as autobiography, then, the Education is most of all ‘‘a work of art.’’ The genius of Adams’s experiment in modernity lies in his dramatic conversion of the narrative and didactic conventions he has inherited—the stuff of traditional autobiography— to his own unique purposes. For, while he kept the surface appearance of the narrative of personal experience, perhaps to convince the public that they knew exactly what he was doing, Adams also offered his readers full artistic license to make every one of them his own autobiographer.

Source: Earl N. Harbert, ‘‘Henry Adams’s Education and the Autobiographical Tradition,’’ in Tulane Studies in English, Tulane University, Vol. 22, 1977, pp. 133–42.

The Education of Henry Adams Reconsidered

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Anyone beginning to read Henry Adams’ Education for the first time gets the impression from the very first chapters that Adams thought his life had been a failure, and that he considered it a failure because his education had not fitted him to play a useful part in the new and different world that was coming into being in the nineteenth century. The book can therefore be taken—so it seems—as a protest, based on one man’s experience, against the effect of technology and industrialism on the personal values of the social system which they displaced.

Throughout the book Henry Adams gives the impression of a man who wished to participate actively in affairs but always missed the chance to function effectively. There is a certain poignancy in his desire to understand why a man like himself, who started with every apparent advantage and set out with such faith and eagerness, should have ended with so little accomplished. His antecedents and his personal attainments had indicated a career in the Adams tradition; yet he never found an opportunity to make a contribution to his time comparable with what his forebears had accomplished.

This presentation of himself as a failure has usually been accepted by Adams’ readers at face value. In the 1920’s a whole ‘‘generation of futilitarians’’ (Louis Kronenberger’s phrase) found that Adams’ theme of maladjustment between a cultivated personality and an increasingly mechanized civilization presented exactly the predicament which they were experiencing. His book became the Bible of the younger generation struggling with the frustrations of a world they neither made nor understood.

Could it be, on the other hand, that the dominant theme of Henry Adams’ book was a literary device of the author’s rather than a reflection of the facts? One recent critic has advanced the theory that Henry Adams fancied himself as the ‘‘heroic failure’’ of a modern epic. From this point of view, the dramatic irony inherent in the repeated assertions that Adams never felt at home in the world and despaired of ever playing a significant part in it was a consciously cultivated irony. If true, this view of Adams’ intention helps to explain some things about the book which otherwise strike the reader as puzzling. There is, for example, in the chapters devoted to Adams’ travel-years after graduation a certain tone of insouciance—a pose of naiveté— which leaves the reader with a very inadequate sense of how Adams reacted to the things he saw in Europe. He seems to be trying to emphasize the lack of ‘‘education’’ to be gained from the experiences available to a young man of his background in his day. And yet we know from the famous letters Adams wrote on subsequent travels that he was capable of responding richly to experience. In the Education, however, he gives the impression of making the grand tour without zest and of finding most things rather empty of meaning for him. This impression does not accord with what is otherwise known of his temperament. His attitude becomes understandable, however, if it can be regarded as a consciously planned device for emphasizing his ‘‘failure’’ to find an acceptable place in a civilization with which he felt himself out of tune.

Actually, the burden of Henry Adams’ complaint was not his own ‘‘failure’’ to adjust to the world but the realization that the world in which he lived as an adult had changed so much from the world in which he grew up as a child that the traditional values of his upbringing had become meaningless and inapplicable. A relatively uncomplicated agrarian America, operating on the basis of stern but comprehensible Puritan principles, was rapidly being transformed into a highly complex industrialized state, with a bewildering shift in the principles on which it operated and an apparent exclusion of morality from the political means for achieving its goals. The disappearance of the sort of world in which an Adams could have functioned and its displacement by a new world which required a type of ‘‘education’’ such as no previous Adams had ever had—that is the real theme of Henry Adams’ long book. He took pleasure, it is true, in presenting himself as an anachronism from a former age and indulged his tragic feeling of having been born too late. But behind the mask of ‘‘the tragic failure’’ was another Henry Adams who was not lamenting his fate so much as making a genuine effort to understand the times that were out of joint.

Henry Adams knew that a man must thoroughly understand the world in which he finds himself in order to be able to grapple with it. He sensed that his ‘‘education’’ in the ways of the new world would require him, first of all, to unlearn everything that he had been taught. However, he believed in the values of his grandfather’s world; it was the rejection of those values by the new world, rather than his own failure to accommodate himself to it, that represented for him the real tragedy he was writing about. Nevertheless, he felt it was important to get beyond the perspectives of his traditional background and to make the attempt to understand the contemporary world. Lacking the opportunity to participate in affairs, he became an observer and commentator, writing detailed accounts of the political events he was living through, frequently with penetrating remarks on the personalities of the chief participants. His political chapters served the purpose of underlining the corruption, vulgarity, and cynicism of the modern world from which he felt himself alienated. Until Lincoln Steffens painted the same picture in more vivid colors and with much greater detail, Adams’ account of the unprincipled dealings in American public life was the classic portrayal of a burgeoning business civilization creating a chaos in which self-interest was the sole guiding principle.

But political events and economic developments were only the surface features, after all. Henry Adams’ education in the nature of the modern world would not be complete—at least, he would never be satisfied—until he had fathomed the driving forces and motivations that accounted for the surface phenomena. He understood in a general way that modern science with its practical achievements was responsible for the transformations which had changed the easy-going world of his forebears into a totally different, enigmatic world, that nevertheless seemed amazingly alive. But he doubted the correctness of the common point of view which regarded progress as inevitable and the American brand of material achievement as the climax of all progress. What Henry Adams really sought from his ‘‘education’’ was a standard or principle of interpretation by which he could estimate the truth of the world-view which made a virtue of chaos as long as it seemed to further ‘‘progress.’’ As one who had been brought up in a tradition that gave great satisfaction through the unity and consistency of meaning it assigned to life, he was genuinely concerned to discover how it was possible to find a comparable satisfaction in a world that had become so complex and contradictory as to lose all unity and consistency of meaning.

Adams failed to solve the problem, at first, because he assumed from the start that satisfaction in life would be found only by those who learned to control the complicated, multiple forces dominant in the world in their time. When he saw politicians and business men who were not ‘‘educated,’’ in his sense, doing just that with phenomenal success, and when he saw men like his friend Clarence King failing miserably even though trained (educated) for exercising such control, he became pessimistic about the value of ‘‘education’’ as a means of finding satisfaction in life. For him, satisfaction meant understanding as well as controlling. He observed, however, that the successful men of his day controlled the forces operating in the world without understanding them, or even being conscious of a need to understand them. Adams, therefore, despaired of the possibility of finding any principle of action in modern life that gave unity of meaning to the diverse activities it engendered.

Adams, however, was not prepared to accept ‘‘multiplicity’’ as any more than a descriptive term for the modern situation: it could not be made, his whole temperament told him, into a philosophical justification for the situation. And so, he continued to study, to observe, and to weigh, in a constant search for the meaning of his contemporary environment. He gave up, for the time being, the attempt to identify a unifying principle in the world as he knew it; and turning to the world of the Middle Ages, where unity and significance had permeated all of life, he proceeded to study it thoroughly in order to find out its secret. It has been customary to regard Henry Adams’ love affair with the Middle Ages as a nostalgic search for the very things he missed in modern civilization. The contrast between the two ages is striking enough: on the one hand, chaos without meaning; on the other, a unifying principle that gave significance to all the parts. But when Henry Adams immersed himself in the medieval outlook on life, it was not to ‘‘go home’’ to a world for which he felt an instinctive sympathy— actually he had been unaware of such a world before his tour of Normandy with the Henry Cabot Lodges. It was rather to gain perspective on his own world that he sought to understand medieval ‘‘unity’’ in contrast to nineteenth-century ‘‘multiplicity.’’

So satisfying did Henry Adams find the assurance and confidence reflected in the medieval point of view that he almost surrendered to it, and bowing himself before the Virgin of Chartres he asked for the peace that would come from understanding himself and his world as clearly as the Virgin’s followers understood theirs. Significantly, he did not ask for ‘‘the peace which passeth understanding’’; he insisted on having understanding; as a child of the scientific age, he had to know. So, wistfully, he started ‘‘once more’’ his search for ‘‘education’’ (enlightenment).

The real significance of Henry Adams’ Education is not the story of maladjustment that it tells, nor yet the contrast between two civilizations that it makes, but the explanation which the author eventually worked out for the trend of civilization from medieval unity to modern multiplicity. In a series of brilliant though still ironic chapters (31–34), Adams summed up what he had learned from his lifelong search for understanding of the world in which he lived. These philosophical chapters have seldom been taken quite seriously; they have sometimes been brushed aside as derivative: the chief idea in them came from the author’s brother, Brooks Adams. But there is a philosophy of history in them, seemingly artificial because applied too mechanically, yet containing an explanation of modern ‘‘chaos’’ and the ‘‘multiplicity’’ of modern civilization which has proved to be so appropriate and so illuminating that it deserves reconsideration.

Henry Adams had learned, first of all, that modern science (itself an attempt to discover the immutable ‘‘laws of nature’’) had ended by discovering, in modern physical theory, that there were no simple, immutable laws of nature which gave unity, consistency, and order to the universe; that, rather, the laws of the physical world seemed to be infi- nitely complex, not always consistently predictable in their application, and hence undependable as a basis for finding order in the universe. In a word, Henry Adams came to the realization that such a system of order and unity as the medieval synthesis was the creation of the mind of man imposing its desire for simplicity and significance on the phenomena of the world at large. As he said himself, ‘‘Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.’’

Henry Adams had learned, in the second place, that the discoveries of modern science, destructive as they were to philosophical conceptions of the universe, were nevertheless making constructive contributions to the material comfort of mankind in the universe, by increasing man’s knowledge of the number and kinds of physical energies available for application to his needs. As man’s knowledge of the physical forces of nature became more complex (less unified even in theory), man’s opportunities for bending them to his purposes increased proportionately. The ‘‘multiplicity’’ or complexity of modern industrialized life, in other words, corresponded to the actual ‘‘chaos’’ of forces existing in the physical universe.

In the light of these insights, it had been pointless as well as fruitless for Henry Adams to look for a unifying principle to explain the modern world. Multiplicity of conflicting forces was its chief characteristic, and inevitably so. Man might try to impose his control over the physical forces of nature and upon the human energies of society, but the resulting ‘‘order’’ was not inherent in either nature or society, and it lasted only as long as the mind of man thought the one and willed the other. Philosophically speaking, there was no ‘‘God’’ to give significance to the universe of forces and the world of energies. Logically, therefore, there was nothing wrong with the modern tendency to establish control of these forces and energies without understanding them. In relation to the universe and the world, men had become ‘‘as gods’’—without the divine capacity, of course, to give real significance to what they were doing with their new powers. The significant fact, for Henry Adams, was that the tendency was irreversible. He had come to realize that there was no going back, that a world of meaningful unity had never really existed (outside the human mind), that a world of chaotic, conflicting forces corresponded more nearly to the reality than all the orderly worlds created by man’s imagination and reason.

The most famous part of Henry Adams’ philosophy of history was what he called ‘‘the law of acceleration’’ (unconsciously demonstrating within himself his view that, though there be no actual laws, even in history, the mind will impose law as a device to help itself understand what it is talking about). He thought he saw in history a consistent trend toward increasing control over the forces of nature. Starting in a small way with the discovery and exploitation of the power of a water wheel and the power in a windmill, man had then, with smaller and smaller gaps of time between discoveries, but larger and larger amounts of power at his disposal, proceeded to find and use steam power, electric power, and so on. Henry Adams was convinced that this ‘‘acceleration’’ in man’s control of nature’s forces would continue in geometric proportion, until (he predicted) man would have discovered within fifty years of Adams’ time the ultimate source of power locked in the atom.

In his own generation, the symbol of modern man’s control of force was the dynamo, which Henry Adams found to be the most fascinating embodiment of ultimate power under complete control yet devised. Fascinating he found it to watch in operation—but apalling to think about in its implications. As a symbol of force under control, it helped to explain to him the nature of the civilization in which he lived. As a prophecy of the trend of civilization, it suggested increasing efficiency in man’s control of ultimate force until the human race reached the point where it could even destroy itself with atomic energy. This eventuality Henry Adams could not regard with complacency. He could not accept the view of his contemporaries that the history of mankind in modern times was a story of inevitable progress upwards. ‘‘Complexity, Multiplicity, even a step towards Anarchy, it might suggest, but what step towards perfection?’’

It was not the ultimate denouement, however, that troubled Henry Adams in his innermost depths. That denouement, after all, remained only a logical possibility; it was not inevitably a foregone conclusion. He saw another already taking place which appalled him more specifically. As man’s control of the forces of nature increased in efficiency, his will to dominate the social energies of mankind also increased, with a resulting tendency to concentrate the power inherent in the forces of society, again for the sake of efficiency. In other words, the technological advance of mankind was inexorably accompanied by a trend to regimentation and the collectivization of man’s social relationships. It was the progressive destruction of human values in the accelerating trend towards a power civilization that appalled Henry Adams the most.

Here was the real tragedy of living modern times. Critics are mistaken to emphasize the tragedy implicit in the Education a personal one for Henry Adams. Adams would have insisted that he was describing a situation that constituted a tragedy for all thoughtful and sensitive souls. With the increase in the means of control over energy and power, all that was distinctively human in human life was gradually being supplanted by all that was mechanical and impersonal. Adams’ book was not simply a protest against an intolerable situation by one who had been most uncomfortable in it; it was an attempt to instruct a whole new generation in the conditions under which life in modern times was being lived, and to emphasize that no other conditions were possible under the circumstances.

Henry Adams made all this sound very pessimistic. But behind the pessimistic tone of his discussion it is possible to discern a positive note of emphasis on continuing human values, particularly the human capacity for thought. It is true that, in its context, his quotation from Karl Pearson: ‘‘Order and reason, beauty and benevolence, are characteristics and conceptions which we find solely associated with the mind of man,’’ sounds like a pessimistic acknowledgement of the fact that the universe does not contain order and reason but is essentially meaningless. On the other hand, like several ironic passages in Adams’ last chapters, the quotation conceals his faith that, though the universe be meaningless, the very attempt of the human mind to create meaning from its diverse phenomena is the source of all truth and beauty and value in the human world. The meaningless chaos of the universe, though eternal, was as nothing compared with the ephemeral, but significant, flash of a human mind in the cosmic darkness.

Again, Henry Adams’ parable of the young oyster, in which he compared the human mind to that little animal ‘‘secreting its universe to suit its conditions until it had built up a shell of nacre that embodied all its notions of the perfect,’’ but ‘‘perishing in the face of the cyclonic hurricane or the volcanic upheaval of its bed,’’ sounds like a realistic recognition of the fact that the universe has no interest in the existence of man and offers him only complete annihilation (death) as his ultimate fate. Few writers have described more pitilessly how completely indifferent the universe seems to be to the aspirations and strivings of the human race. Yet, behind the irony of the parable was the implication that it was precisely the aspiration and the striving that gave meaning, if only temporarily, to all that was human in an otherwise impersonal universe.

What Henry Adams accomplished in his Education was not only to describe remorselessly what kind of a world the modern world had become— philosophically, as well as politically and economically; he also provided a point of view with which to face that world without despair.

Source: Herbert F. Hahn, ‘‘The Education of Henry Adams Reconsidered,’’ in College English, Vol. 24, No. 6, March 1963, pp. 444–49.


Critical Overview