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. 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) , 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 …

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