The Heroism of Despair

Selected Letters

by Henry Adams, edited by Ernest Samuels
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 587 pp., $29.95

Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams

by Joanne Jacobson
University of Wisconsin Press, 161 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Refinements of Love: A Novel about Clover and Henry Adams

by Sarah Booth Conroy
Pantheon/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 301 pp., $22.00


Henry Brooks Adams was born in Boston on February 16, 1838, to the burdensome privilege of being an Adams. His great-grandfather John Adams (1735–1826) was the second president of the United States. His grandfather John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) was the sixth president. “Had he been born in Jerusalem,” Adams wrote of himself in The Education of Henry Adams,

under the shadow of the Temple and circumcised in the Synagogue by his uncle the high priest, under the name of Israel Cohen, he would scarcely have been more distinctly branded, and not much more heavily handicapped in the races of the coming century, in running for such stakes as the century was to offer; but, on the other hand, the ordinary traveller, who does not enter the field of racing, finds advantage in being, so to speak, ticketed through life, with the safeguards of an old, established traffic.

Adams’s father, Charles Francis Adams, was elected to Congress but he did not reach the White House. In 1861 President Lincoln appointed him minister to Great Britain. In London the minister’s finest achievement was to warn Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell of the risks entailed by their infringing neutrality in the Civil War and giving devious support to the Confederacy. But Minister Adams never exercised power in his own land. Nor did Henry Adams, who suffered from the disability of having two older and equally ambitious brothers waiting for preferment.

Adams’s first steps toward a career were the standard ones for a young Bostonian of good family and sufficient means: Harvard, the Grand Tour, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Sicily. He had in mind studying civil law in Berlin and Dresden, but he was more assiduous in establishing himself as a political journalist, writing articles on topics of the day for the Boston Daily Courier, than in laboring through German textbooks. In October 1860 he went to work as his father’s secretary in Washington, and in May 1861 joined him in London. There he combined the duties of son and secretary with the pleasure, in the evenings, of observing high society.

When the Civil War was over, Adams resumed his journalism and published several essays in the North American Review. The reviews were mostly of new books in history, fiction, and travel by Bancroft, Parkman, Howells, Clarence King, Tennyson, and Palgrave. Some of the essays were topical, some historically weighty: “The Bank of England Restriction,” “British Finance in 1816,” “Captain John Smith,” and a review of Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Adams wasn’t what is now called an “investigative journalist.” His essays put into stern ethical perspective the evidence available in pamphlets and newspapers. He wrote in a severely scrutinizing critical spirit. The essay on Captain Smith was typical. Adams was not the only historian to question Smith’s story about his rescue from execution by the intervention of Pocahontas, but the discrepancies he cited between Smith’s A True Relation of Virginia (1608) and his General History (1624) undermined…

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