The Education of Henry Adams intimately traces Henry Adams’s thought processes, but it does so on an intellectual plane not generally achieved by most writers. For style and content, this book ranks with the finest of American autobiographies.
Adams was born in Boston in 1838 into the illustrious Brooks and Adams families. He was the grandson and great-grandson of two former U.S. presidents. He matured in a period of mechanical and industrial invention, but he had been raised in a colonial atmosphere. He remembers that his first serious encounter with his grandfather, former president John Quincy Adams, had occurred when the youngster had refused to go to school one day. His grandfather led him there by the hand. For the young Adams, the death of the former president had marked the end of his eighteenth century, colonial environment.
The major theme of The Education of Henry Adams is the multiplication and acceleration of mechanical forces. These forces, Adams argued, led to the breakdown of moral relationships among people and to the degeneration of their pursuits into money seeking or complete lassitude. The book also deals with the way in which modern science had produced a view of the universe radically different from the view held before the end of the nineteenth century, so much so that Adams called this new world a multiverse. The term “multiverse” meant, in Adams’s day, a universe in chaos, lacking any kind of ordering principle.
Adams’s father, Charles Francis Adams, had been instrumental in forming the Free-Soil Party in 1848, and he ran for vice president of the United States on the party’s ticket with Martin Van Buren. The younger Adams believed that his own education—Puritan morality, politics, and literary matters—was chiefly an inheritance from his father. In later life, looking back on his formal education, he concluded that this education had been a failure. As an adult, he realized that what he had needed as a student were courses in mathematics, French, German, and Spanish—not Latin and Greek.
Prompted by his teacher, James Russell Lowell, Adams spent nearly two years abroad after his graduation from Harvard. He enrolled in a program to study civil law in Germany, but he found the lecture system atrocious. He then devoted most of his stay in Europe to experiencing art, opera, and theater. When he returned to Boston in 1860, he settled down briefly to study law. In the elections that year, however, his father was chosen to be a U.S. representative. Adams accompanied him to Washington, D.C., as his secretary. There he met John Hay, who became his best friend.
In 1861, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln had chosen Charles Adams, Henry’s father, to be minister to England. Henry once again followed his father. The Adams party had barely disembarked when they heard bad news: England had recognized the belligerency of the Confederacy. The North was now England’s undeclared enemy. The Battle of Bull Run proved so crushing a blow to American prestige that Charles had believed he was in England on a day-to-day sufferance. He remained in England until 1868.
By the end of the American Civil War, the younger Adams had no means of earning a livelihood. He had earlier developed some taste as a dilettante in art, and he wrote several articles for the North American Review. On his return to the United States, Adams noted how he had been impressed by the “movements” of his fellow Americans, who were now harnessing a mechanical energy that led them to “travel,” literally and figuratively, in the same direction. In contrast, the Europeans, he believed, were trying to go in several directions at one time. Still, handicapped by his limited education and by his long absence from home, he had difficulty adapting to the new industrial America. He achieved some recognition with his essays on, for example, legal tender, and with his essays in the Edinburgh Review. He had hoped that he would be offered a government position in the administration of Ulysses S. Grant. However, Grant, a man of action, was not interested in reformers or intellectuals like Adams.
Adams earned a position...
(The entire section is 1721 words.)