Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

In his late sixties, the American historian Henry Brooks Adams wrote The Education of Henry Adams as an exploration of the meaning of his own life. Adams was the great-grandson of one U.S. president (John Adams) and the grandson of another (John Quincy Adams). His father, Charles Francis Adams, was an important figure in antislavery politics and an early leader of the Republican Party in the years before the Civil War. As a child, Adams tells the reader, he simply assumed that one day he himself would be president of the United States. Yet the family attitudes that encouraged that belief also taught him that, as an Adams and a New England aristocrat, he had an obligation to meet the highest standards, both moral and intellectual, in private as well as public life. Almost from the beginning, Adams was troubled by a conflict between ambition and a strong sense of ethical responsibility.

Presented in chapters that are dated and arranged by strict chronology, the book divides into two main parts with a twenty-year gap between them. The first tells of Adams’ childhood, his formal education, and the period up to the age of thirty-three, during which he was searching for a career in public affairs. Having been graduated from Harvard University and having spent two years in Europe, Adams went to England as private secretary to his father, who held the critically important post of U.S. minister to Great Britain throughout the American Civil War....

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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Reform Era
A new spirit of civic awareness by members of the middle class who identified themselves as Progressives launched the...

(The entire section is 725 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Adams uses his life story to illustrate his views of society, history, and education. However, his employment of...

(The entire section is 889 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

1907: Reginald Aubrey Fessenden ushers in the year with the second broadcasted radio program on New Year’s Eve, 1906. Due to...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

• Imagine that The Education of Henry Adams will be published in 2007. What technological symbols could be used to interpret the...

(The entire section is 275 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

• Adams described the unity of the medieval worldview as being reflected through its cathedrals in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres....

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Banta, Martha, ‘‘Being a ‘Begonia’ in a Man’s World,’’ in New Essays on ‘‘The Education of Henry...

(The entire section is 458 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dusinberre, William. Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1980. Argues that Adams’ literary career should not be judged from The Education of Henry Adams alone, and relates the book to Adams’ other historical writings to show that his negative assessment of them is misleading.

Jordy, William H. Henry Adams: Scientific Historian. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952. Evaluates Adams’ claims that he was writing a “scientific” history. Demonstrates the weaknesses of the scientific arguments that Adams advanced.

Levenson, J. C. The Mind and Art of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. One of the first important studies to consider Adams’ thought in its entirety. Contains an analysis of how The Education of Henry Adams fits in the writing life of its author.

O’Toole, Patricia. The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends, 1880-1918. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1990. An engaging narrative about Adams and his closest associates. Provides good insights into the events and emotions that lay behind the writing of The Education of Henry Adams. The most accessible of the books on Adams.

Samuels, Ernest. Henry Adams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1989. The best one-volume biography of Adams, with an excellent discussion of the writing of The Education of Henry Adams that links the book well to the events of Adams’ life.