The Education of Henry Adams

From The Wall Street Journal:

A foundational text for every American Studies program, and one of the most original books published by an American author, “The Education of Henry Adams (An Autobiography)” ought to be read by educated citizens twice. First for its insight into contemporary history and then for what it reveals about the nature of education. Written in 1905, privately printed the next year, and published in 1918, its importance lies in its innovative form and prophetic content. A work startlingly idiosyncratic and unprecedented in the genre, its only forebear was Benjamin Franklin’s “Autobiography” (1793), which Adams called a “model of self-teaching.”

Adams (1838-1918) would demonstrate that writing autobiography was a fusion of record and reflection. In a radical decision, he wrote about himself in the third person, which permitted an important detachment that allowed him to make arbitrary additions or deletions. The best known of the latter was in the center of the book, where he eliminated mention of many years in his life. In 1885 his wife, Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, had died by suicide. The shock led Adams to suppress any record of the event and its aftermath—and, for that matter, any reference at all to his spouse. He destroyed his diaries of the period and all correspondence between them. He resumed his narrative only after several years of silence. His life’s education would be the only compensation for his loss.

Adams was born in Boston, a direct descendant of two presidents and son of a diplomat. He would end up building a house across Lafayette Square from the White House, and becoming a dominant intellectual figure in American life.

Much of the first half of the book is about his disappointment with, and the failure of, his education. Of his early schooling, he recalled, “In any and all its forms the boy detested school.” From the beginning he felt his learning was inadequate. Of Harvard, which he entered in 1854, he concluded, “The education he had received bore little relation to the education he needed.”

There followed travel to Europe’s major cities of learning, but in Berlin “the experience was hazardous,” and in Rome he found “no education.” In England in 1868, he observed that the typical educated statesman “did not know what he was talking about.”

Back in Washington, Adams noted that the capital was “a poor place for education.” He summarized that “he had been mistaken at every point of his education.” But this also turned out to be a moment of revelation and advance, expressed in some of his memorable sentences: “He knew he knew nothing” and “He knew enough to be ignorant.” “Then he asked questions. . . . Probably this was education.” For Adams, even self-examination was painful: “He knew no tragedy so heartrending as introspection.”

In fact, he had learned the primacy of self-teaching—that it was participatory, not receptive; dynamic rather than passive. The second half of his book would be engaged in the great issues of his time as he envisioned them, and often these were startlingly prophetic.

Visits to the two major expositions of his era helped to reshape his thinking. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago gave him an image of American power, and the 1900 Universal Exposition in Paris presented him with the new dynamos on display—symbols, he found, of the energy of the modern age. This led him to conceive of a dynamic theory of history, one that was in constant motion and in which all facts were relative. At last, “he was getting an education. . . . The new forces would educate.”

Having previously written a book about the architecture of Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres and the power of the Virgin as the embodiment of 13th-century unity, he could contrast the present as a study of 20th-century multiplicity—the absence of absolutes. The language of science explained the manifestations of modernism, as he took note of the new research on radium, the X-ray and the atom. The idea of magnetism in particular required an understanding of relationships, rather than one fixed position.

Adams was an elegant literary stylist, and he frequently crafted sentences of paired phrases, joined by a central semicolon. One of the most famous in “The Education” was “In plain words, Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” On the one hand, this was like the structure of a Gothic arch, two parts leaning together with a keystone at its apex. But it also conveyed a contemporary notion of balanced opposites.

Politically he was prescient in his comments on Russia, Germany and China. He wrote, “The vast force of inertia known as China was to be united with the huge bulk of Russia in a single mass which no amount of new force could henceforward deflect.” In turn, the difficult step was to “bring Germany into the combine.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “The Education of Henry Adams”

  1. My first inkling of the importance of Henry Adams came when I read two of Gore Vidal’s novels in his brilliant Chronicles of Empire series, Empire and Hollywood. Adams is a memorable character in both works. (Vidal himself is well on his way to being memory-holed, alas; he wasn’t wrong to call America “the United States of Amnesia.”)

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