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History and Henry Adams

My studies are indeed all directed to one point, which is pointed out to me by the station that I hold.

—John Quincy Adams
Diary, June 30, 1796

The Education of Henry Adams has long been for me one of the great chronicles of society in our literature. In a book which is devoted to society in the imagination of some key American writers between the end of the Civil War and the end of the century, and which will therefore deal largely with social novels, I can begin with the autobiography of an historian because this remarkable but singular book illustrates the dilemma in this period of a literary artist who was not a novelist.

Adams was an unusually subtle writer; among the American historians who still regarded themselves as writers, history as a branch of literature, he stands out as the last and the best. Although he was to offer himself as the prophet of a “scientific” approach to history, it will be seen that he wrote “science,” as he had always written history, from a confident and even arrogant literary instinct. He was an extraordinarily accomplished writer, but by the time he came to write Mont-Saint-Michel at the beginning of the twentieth century and The Education of Henry Adams in 1905, he was to show himself to the friends for whom he privately printed these books, as he had already shown himself in his letters, to be an original one. Both his much-vaunted science of history and his sense of historical truth were to become casualties of his literary virtuosity.

Still, of all the interesting American historians, Adams had the largest intellectual ambition and the surest literary gift. So it is natural to think of him as a great historian—and not merely because we recognize him as an artist. What we mean by a “great historian” is not the most immediately influential writer of history, not the most painstaking specialist in history, but the writer who, within the discipline of scholarship, has more than any other created our image of history, who in fact shapes our idea of history.1 The great historians and their books are closest to what “history” means to us. Since “history,” as an intellectual order in the mind, is essentially the creation of the historian, it follows that it is the great historians who have made “history.”

Adams has more than any other American historian made us see the transition to the modern age in his terms. Yet not many Americans have read. Adams’s most important professional effort in history, his nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-1891)2 , or such historical specialities as his Chapters of Erie (1871), Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law (1876), Documents Relating to New England Federalism (1878), The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), or John Randolph (1882). Most of Adams’s works, including his two novels, Democracy (1879) and Esther (1884) are unread by even the literary public, and this is true of Adams’s Life of George Cabot Lodge (1911) and the essays toward a science of history, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, collected by his brother Brooks and published in 1919, the year after Henry’s death. When one notes that most of his works are not in print, how limited their circulation has always been, how restrictive Adams was in publishing even his novels (Democracy was published anonymously and Esther under a feminine pseudonym), that his two best-known works, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and the Education were first printed privately, that his letters (the gayest, most brilliant private chronicle of politics and manners ever composed by an American) are still read largely by scholars, the claim of his influence may seem strange and certainly the nature of it needs some explaining.

No one who has read the History, who admires it as a fully achieved construction of history in the grand manner, studded with brilliantly memorable portraits, graphically documented episodes of life in the great worlds of diplomacy and war, would claim that Adams’s importance as an image-maker of history is due wholly to the literary skill and the architectural grandeur of this enormous work. “History” must be felt by many people, not just admired by individual connoisseurs. History exerts its power as literature not because a book has literary distinction, but because the magisterial pattern it weaves is felt to shape us, to change us, to embody our idea and image of collective experience History then becomes a memory of the race.

What turns history into literature is a literary power so great that we come to think of it as historical truth. Even the historical work most famous for its fine writing, its conscious sense of style, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, has prevailed because the grandeur of its conception and the unbroken confidence behind it make Gibbon’s picture of the late classical world the supreme image we have of that subject. Yet if Gibbon’s work did not, on the whole, still stand up as historical fact, it would seem as unreliable as Carlyle’s French Revolution, which is “literature” now because it is not history. Carlyle’s book lives as historical play, but there have been too many other books on the Revolution, and more committed ones, for us to take this play for reality. The historians who are read over and again, because their books are the history we have, are those whom we believe even if we don’t like the form their argument takes. Our image of history will not always be obtained directly from their books; it can be passed from mind to mind in the excited discovery that this is how history “works,” how it moves. It is only the version of certain historians that has made history believable, that has given us a belief in “history.” This alone makes them artists in their line. They convince us not by single new facts, but by the dramatic new order they give to fact.

Henry Adams was such an artist, and the Education is a work of such high art, so accomplished, subtle and persuasive in its way, that it has taken under its wing, as it were, Adams’s other books; has gathered his life, his works, his celebrated family into a single document of the great transformation of American life after the Civil War which also offers itself as the single key to that transformation. Adams’s account of his “Education” has become the great table of the period. No other American historian has had such a triumph; few American intellectuals have left this much connection in our minds between a single personality and history Henry Adams, who despised the masses, despaired of progress, declared himself a failure and drew the last drop of bitterness from his experience, has turned out to be one of the ruling myth-makers of American history.

It was an extraordinary subtlety that set all this in motion, a prodigious ability to persuade—which is the way of the man behind the scenes, the courtier and wary observer who leaves court memoirs, inside stories of power. The Education of Henry Adams, though written as the history of a failure, of an “eighteenth-century” type born into the unfriendly and obscure world of modern American capitalism and technology, succeeds as a work of history because Adams can present the actors of history while turning his not being one of them into a philosopher’s disinterested virtue. Adams as a writer triumphed through his ability to suggest both the greatest possible intimacy with history and his own disdainful removal from it. His book, nominally written for his friends, is a patrician’s inside story of a dominant group, a leading class, an elite. Once you become aware of the book as a practiced monologue spoken to the few capable of understanding his nuances of feeling and references to fact of how crafty Adams is, in the driving spirit of his monologue, in editing the facts of his own life; of how much he leaves out, how much he glosses over, how archly, cynically, and self-hallucinatingly he retouches material reported very differently in his earlier accounts of the same material3—there is nothing strange in thinking of Adams as the master of his literary trade and the willing tool of his own imagination. In the full freedom of talk that no one can interrupt, he plays his life over, plays at facts, often arranges a whole period to a motif as if it were a piece of music—he seeks to create impressions, to prove a case by so thoroughly being one. Everything in the life of this man, his country, his ancestors, his generation, and his particular subject—the predicament of the human mind trying to calculate, but constantly being outdone by, the mighty new forces it has raised up—finally arranges itself as a pattern to produce a particular effect. Modern society is flying apart through its own madly self-multiplying energies. A world is going to hell in explanation of the worldly “failure” of this prophetic nature, Henry Adams.


Henry Adams had a literary imagination so insistent that it was to prove mystifying even to itself. But into whatever his mind moved, his purpose was always to write history. He was to create his most memorable effect in the Education by contrasting the Adamses as the fathers of American history with himself as the dilettante son, the spectator and speculator of history. But closeness to power is so fundamental to Adams’s self-confidence in writing history that he finally adopted intimacy with power as his literary strategy for writing anything. Of course he was less abashed by Washington than was Saint-Simon by Versailles; any American would have been. But Adams’s own literary mind so naturally sought unspoken authority from his own relationship to power that he was able to exploit this position as his best material.

Proust was to pay the highest compliment to a fellow artist by parodying the Duc de Saint-Simon’s Mémoires in his early work, and by turning this book into one of the “invisible presences” within A la recherche du temps perdu. Saint-Simon did not consciously see himself as an “artist”; he wrote in order to settle accounts, to satisfy some grudges, and above all to show that he knew what was going on. “Thus, apart from my other concerns, my curiosity was satisfied, and you must admit, whether you be somebody or nobody, that that is the only nourishment to be found at Courts, and that without it you would die of boredom.” Adams’s brilliantly gossipy letters show all these motives as his own (though he would not have admitted them, least of all in and for the Education, where his literary “doubles” are Augustine, Gibbon, and Rousseau).

But in the Education he consciously turned himself into a character, not Henry Adams but “Adams,” “a manikin on which the toilet of education is to be draped in order to show the fit or misfit of the clothes.” “Adams” became even more elusive a character than the author could suggest in the Preface, inviting analogies with Rousseau, which was characteristically written to give the possibly bewildered reader a literary tradition into which to put the book. But Adams, who so easily dominated the narrative of his life, could not dominate the pressures of his own imagination. He became, inextricably and winningly, first a witness to history, then a symbol of history, finally the embodiment of history trying to understand itself. So The Education of Henry Adams draws always on history in order to portray Henry Adams as a type of the human species in the nineteenth century, of Harvard College and New England, of shy young secretaries to American ambassadors, of sensitive intellectuals too fine for politics, of savants trying to understand the acceleration of history, of all intellectual exhaustion in the fin de siècle, of the best people in America and their startling failure. A “type bourgeois-bostonien” he listed himself among other representative men in a letter of 1903 to Henry James on his William Wetmore Story and His Friends. That was his story to make his work of art.

  1. 1

    In his biography of Henry James, Leon Edel notes that after some English readers complained of James’s criticizing the European nobility, James “had the sense at last of his own power, of the writer whose image of society becomes the mirror in which society looks at itself.”

  2. 2

    The complete work was last reprinted in 1930.

  3. 3

    As in his letters about the Civil War.

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