Family blessings are a curse, or they can be. If you’re the grandson of an American president as well as the great-grandson of a Founding Father who also happened to be an American president, your very name is both an advantage and a liability. No one knew that better than Henry Adams. Aware that he was hardly a self-made man—“probably no child,” he wrote, “held better cards than he”—in The Education of Henry Adams he spoke with trenchant wit of the privileges that, in a sense, had prepared him for very little. The older he got, the more he became aware of his own ignorance. Or so he said.
Privately distributed in 1907 but not commercially published until 1918, the year Adams died, the Education won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography for “teaching patriotic and unselfish services to the people.” That a book about the failure of education would be hailed as a teaching tool might have amused Adams. But the Education is certainly an American jeremiad. It warns of unlimited, immeasurable power that will be unleashed in the twentieth century, far exceeding anyone’s ability to control it. For politics is only the “systematic organization of hatreds,” and “practical politics consists in ignoring facts.” Perhaps not surprisingly, in the year 1999 the Education topped the Modern Library’s list of the century’s best nonfiction. It’s timely still.
Written in the third person with the deliberate egotism of someone who abjures egotism, as if Henry Adams were a semifictional character, this highly crafted story of putative failure is actually a skeptic’s hopeful search for “a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it.” With an ironist’s awareness of the limits of irony, Adams takes real pleasure in the beauty of nature and created things, whether the rounded, magnificent dome of the Capitol as seen from a distance or the springtime azalea that conveys, at least for a little while, “no hidden horror of glaciers.”
The Education is also a memoir that shuns revelation. “Of all studies, the one he would rather have avoided was that of his own mind,” Adams writes. “He knew no tragedy so heartrending as introspection.” But self-reflect he did, and with a vengeance. In 1870, when he was thirty-two, his adored older sister Louisa died a horrible death from tetanus after she’d injured her foot in a carriage accident. “Flung suddenly in his face, with the harsh brutality of chance, the terror of the blow stayed by him thenceforth for life,” Adams recalls. “For pure blasphemy, it made pure atheism a comfort. God might be, as the Church said, a Substance, but He could not be a Person.” Such was his education. Life was unpredictable, often cruel. He lived through the assassinations of three presidents. His wife committed suicide.
He did not write of her death. Instead, he commissioned Augustus Saint-Gaudens to sculpt a memorial for her grave. Adams, inspired by conversations with the scholar Okakura Kakuzō, later curator of Asian art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and by the huge Buddha he had seen in Kamakura, Japan, was pleased with the result: a large bronze figure of contemplation and repose whose face is shrouded and whose gender is obscure. There’s no identifying inscription. Bewildered tourists began to flock to Washington’s Rock Creek Cemetery to see the weird thing—so many that after Saint-Gaudens’s death, Adams implored the sculptor’s son, “Do not allow the world to tag my figure with a name! Your father meant it to ask a question, not to give an answer.” To a baffled friend, he said, “The whole meaning and feeling of the figure is in its universality and anonymity.”
Though Adams struggled, albeit with ambivalence, to break free of a personal history that was intimately tied to that of the country, he knew he never could. Nor can he now. In the most recent Adams biography, The Last American Aristocrat, David S. Brown, a professor of history at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, depicts him as “the beneficiary of Adams privilege, Brooks wealth [on his mother’s side], and a Harvard education” who “wished to resume an indelible family fiefdom.” Bitter about “civilizational decay,” Adams “sought the knight’s armor of a sufficiently sharpened pen” and hankered after “the simple agrarian republic, now in its death throes.” In Brown’s telling, the Saint-Gaudens figure represents “nothing less than a defiantly idealized monument to the history and traditions of a vanishing preindustrial people.”
Dividing his book into two sections—“Becoming Henry Adams” and “Performing Henry Adams”—Brown explains that the first “assays its subject” before the suicide of Adams’s wife in 1885; the second takes up what Adams called his “posthumous life.” Those remaining thirty-three years are characterized, Brown writes, by a “drift of persistent travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quickening pace, and a taste for playing with personas” that were “‘primitive’ and skeptical of the automated age.” (Brown is fond of scare quotes.) Adams nonetheless “embraced the fruits of invention,” Brown continues, “traveling in the latest Mercedes, the fastest Union Pacific luxury train cars, and the smoothest steamships (purchasing a never-used ticket for the Titanic’s return voyage).” The adjectives—“latest,” “fastest,” “smoothest”—suggest a certain disdain. Brown sees Adams not just as a writer who “yielded a harvest as rich, complicated, and varied as any American thinker at any time” but as a white plutocrat inexorably exercising his privilege.
During those thirty-three years, Adams completed his masterly History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889–1891) in nine well-researched volumes, as well as two literary chronicles, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres and the Education. He composed a paper arguing for Cuban independence that was read to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped John Hay’s widow edit her husband’s correspondence, and reluctantly accepted a commission to write a memorial biography of George Cabot Lodge, the son of his former student Henry Cabot Lodge. At the same time, particularly in the 1890s, Adams spewed an odious and depressing anti-Semitism. “Tinctured with snobbery and self-pity, elitism and, particularly of those inscribed during the economic depression that followed the Panic of 1893, Jew-baiting,” Brown writes, Adams’s published letters (six huge volumes) also include “a raft of arresting observations, and readers will have to decide for themselves if Adams’s insights on his country and its evolving cultural apparatus outweigh his arrogance.”
Despite his assertions of impartiality, Brown periodically quotes from these volatile, affectionate, frequently dazzling, and often crabby, bigoted letters to portray Adams as a type of “ebbing New England gentry” possessed of a “congenital mental rigidity (liberally evident as one peeked up the family tree).” Adams, as an “heirloom aristocrat,” “often moaned about his family’s lapsed status.” Accordingly, Brown believes that Adams idealized his ancestral home in Quincy, Massachusetts, which “assumed a sacred status in Henry’s youth” as “a kind of paradise lost.” Adams is thus a patrician borne back ceaselessly into the past; the argument resembles the one Brown offers in Paradise Lost, his sympathetic biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, in which he regards Fitzgerald’s work as haunted by “home”—that is, since his sensibility “leaned toward the aristocratic, the premodern, and the romantic,” he’s best understood “ideologically as a man of an older, precapitalist Right.”
But Adams was cagey and wielded what the critic John McWilliams dubbed “mock nostalgia” for the etiolated, insulated New Englanders he knew well. Of course, he was to the manner born. He was the son of the politician Charles Francis Adams and Abigail Brooks Adams, whose father, Peter Chardon Brooks, was a wealthy Boston merchant. The family built a house in Quincy, near the residence of Adams’s grandfather John Quincy Adams, but spent winters in Boston. Adams juxtaposes these two places in the opening chapters of the Education: “Life was a double thing,” he writes, “winter and summer, cold and heat, town and country, force and freedom, marked two modes of life and thought, balanced like lobes of the brain.”
Balance was precariously maintained, if at all. Quincy was no “bed of thornless roses,” Adams notes. “There as elsewhere a cruel universe combined to crush a child.” He tells of the summer day when he was about six and decided he didn’t want to go to school. His stern grandfather emerged from his study, grabbed his hat, took the boy’s hand, and silently walked him to the schoolhouse, whereupon the boy took his seat and his grandfather finally let go of his hand and went home, never having said a word. It must have been terrifying; certainly it was memorable.
The mistake in reading Adams backwards, from the perspective of the later Education, is that you miss his earlier exuberance. He could be enthusiastic, affectionate, comic, naive, inquisitive, and unpredictable. “I belong to the class of people who have great faith in this country and who believe that in another century it will be saying in its turn the last word of civilization,” he declared in 1877. He had graduated from Harvard in 1858; when his father was reelected to the House of Representatives two years later, the twenty-two-year-old Adams joined him in Washington and, as a young journalist, wrote anonymous dispatches for the Boston Daily Advertiser. He was “unusually well-connected if otherwise untried,” Brown reminds us. When President Lincoln appointed Henry’s father minister to the Court of Saint James in 1861, the younger Adams went with him to London as his private secretary. Anxiously he awaited news from the war, “ashamed and humiliated” to be sitting there when so many of his classmates were being killed or wounded in battle. “Our cry now must be emancipation and arming the slaves,” he wrote his brother Charles Jr., who had been commissioned as an officer in the Union Army.
Adams did not return to America until 1868, after the Civil War had freed the slaves, cost more than 750,000 lives, and prompted a long-overdue debate about citizenship, which, as Brown rightly observes, seems not to have interested him. Instead, plagued by the problem of vocation, Adams informed his brother, “I do mean to make it impossible for myself to follow the family go-cart.” Having finished a debunking essay on the legend of Captain John Smith and two on finance, he launched himself as an investigative journalist—a practitioner of “upscale muckraking,” Brown says, but one who would castigate the spoils system, railroad monopolies, money-grubbing, and the gilded greed of a country where corporations, Adams wrote, could “override and trample on law, custom, decency, and every restraint known to society, without scruple, and as yet without check.”
Brown chides Adams for ignoring the problem of race, which he largely did, in essays that Brown says “bristled with self-interest.” These essays “may have irritated congressmen and singed a spoilsman or two,” he declares, “but they changed nothing.” According to Brown, Adams “sometimes indulged in the luxury of a well-petted woe.” (In his intelligent Henry Adams in Washington (2020), Ormond Seavey reads these essays in light of Adams’s dedication to democratic governance.) Brown thinks Adams was hoping for an actual seat at the political table. Possibly, but he wanted to continue covering Washington right in the nation’s capital, where, according to Ernest Samuels, his Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, he was “the ranking censor of Congress.”
When offered a position at Harvard teaching medieval history—about which he knew nothing—Adams initially turned it down. His family then pressured him to accept the offer; doubtless they didn’t want a muckraker on the loose. His father hoped to be nominated for president in 1872 as the candidate of the Liberal Republican Party, which opposed Ulysses S. Grant and promised, as Missouri senator Carl Schurz, one of its founders, announced, a government of only the “best men”—white men, in other words, of rectitude and moral value (i.e., themselves) who detested government activism, corruption, and corporate swindles. Instead, Horace Greeley was nominated, arguably not a best man.
At Harvard, Adams’s students would remember him as a charismatic, stimulating, and sympathetic teacher who valued collaboration instead of rote recitation. Yet he grew impatient. “Such a swarm of prigs as we are turning out, all formed by prigs,” he exclaimed.
In 1872 Adams and Marian (Clover) Hooper wed. Though no one knows much about the marriage, Adams marveled, “How did I ever hit on the only woman in the world who fits my cravings and never sounds hollow anywhere?” By all accounts Clover was smart, acerbic, fascinated by politics, and prone to depression. Henry James called her “a perfect Voltaire in petticoats.” She was the daughter of a widowed ophthalmologist whose father was president of the largest bank in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Brown writes that “in deciding to marry, he and Clover produced a union of dynastic New England names—ancient, respected, but inescapably bleaching into the background.” Yet Clover’s uncle was then serving in the House of Representatives, and she herself would become a fine portrait photographer. As Brown acknowledges early in his book, Adams would “attain national recognition.” The names had not bleached.
When Adams resigned from teaching in 1877, the couple left for a protracted trip to Europe, where he conducted research for his biography of Albert Gallatin, the Swiss-born secretary of the treasury under Jefferson and Madison, and for his magnum opus on the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Settling in Washington with a view of the White House, the Adamses became lifelong friends with John and Clara Hay and Clarence King; they named themselves “the Five of Hearts” to reflect Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s circle “the Five of Clubs,” as Patricia O’Toole notes in The Five of Hearts (1990), her excellent biography of the group. Hay, who had been a private secretary to President Lincoln and later coauthor of his biography, was then assistant secretary of state, and King, who had written the best-selling Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, was director of the US Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. (Unbeknownst to Adams or Hay, in 1887 King would pass himself off as James Todd, Pullman porter, to become the common-law husband of a young Black woman, Ada Copeland.)
When Adams wrote about failure, he was likely thinking about King, who died in 1901 at fifty-nine, alone and impoverished in Arizona. Failure and power: both were subjects observed close at hand. “Power is poison,” he wrote in the Education. Brown speculates that once back in Washington, though, Adams may have again been hoping for a government position—“not that Henry would have suffered the ‘indignity’ of campaigning for a public office”; his background “suggested an alternative form of service: appointment.” In fact, Adams declined an ambassadorship to Central America in 1882. He said he’d prefer people to read his books; he was busy scouring State Department archives to produce what would become his great history of the early years of the republic.
He was also writing novels: a roman à clef, Democracy (1880), and Esther (1884). A tidy dissection of political machinations “as congenial to its time as a prophet to a barbecue,” as the critic Irving Howe put it, Democracy asks if honest government is possible in America. This is the question posed by the character Madeline Lightfoot Lee. “No representative government can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents,” her morally challenged suitor, Senator Silas B. Ratcliffe, replies. “Purify society and you purify the government.” More optimistically, Nathan Gore, a New England diplomat, disagrees:
Democracy asserts the fact that the masses are now raised to a higher intelligence than formerly…. I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking.
In the second volume of his Adams biography, Samuels describes the novel as a “symposium on democratic government.” Anonymously published, Democracy was later rumored to be the handiwork of Henry James, and in 1911 Adams playfully remarked, “Really, of course, Henry James wrote it, in connection with his brother Willy, to illustrate Pragmatism.”
When he’d heard of his brother’s engagement, Charles had cried that the Hoopers were “crazy as coots.” Clover’s sister would throw herself in front of a train, and a brother would fall or jump out of a third-story window. Regardless, posterity has occasionally wondered if Adams was partly to blame for his wife’s suicide, as if his omitting her from the Education suggests callousness rather than a surfeit of feeling. In 1885, reeling from the death of her father, to whom she was devoted, Clover swallowed potassium cyanide, one of her darkroom chemicals. Adams was knocked to pieces. The next year, his father died. “I have not had the good luck to attend my own funeral,” Adams confided, “but with that exception have buried pretty nearly everything I lived for.” In a cache of letters given to the Massachusetts Historical Society not long ago, he beautifully expresses the grief that in Brown’s view had become “tiresomely mordant.” Yet his letters to friends who suffered any kind of loss, even that of leaving home, were consistently touching. As he told Edith Roosevelt, “of all earthly trials, farewells are the worst.”
After Clover’s suicide, Adams invited the artist John La Farge to join him in Japan for five months “in search of diversion, in search of ‘death,’” Brown claims, adding that “Japan accommodated a growing tourist industry of elites” who, “perhaps aching for Old Boston, looked to Old Japan.” To be sure, Adams traveled in style, but his curiosity about all religions and about various civilizations, even when he affected to despise them, was boundless: in a word, he was curious about life. Among the places he visited were Cuba, Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Australia, Sicily, Russia, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Sweden, the American Rockies, and Norway. Though Brown considers Adams a sentimentalizer who discovered in the Samoans, for instance, his own biases, he wrote forty-page letters to his friends describing clothes, dance, food, and forms of worship.
Back in Washington, Adams finally completed the study of the Jefferson and Madison administrations, which Garry Wills, in his illuminating Henry Adams and the Making of America (2005), called the “non-fiction prose masterpiece of the nineteenth century in America.” Modeling his book partly on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Adams wrote with panache, epigrammatic wit, and brilliance, demonstrating how the best of intentions run afoul of circumstance or chance. Opening the book, moreover, with four chapters on the geography in various parts of the country and the character of people in each—including immigrants, who arrived in America “not for love of ease” but for work—Adams also demonstrates how innovation was regarded as unsound and how reigning conservatives zealously believed that “what had ever been must ever be.”
Consider too the historical figures: the enigmatic Jefferson, the heels on his pointy boots worn down and tortured by “the rawness of political life,” learns that his peace policy “resulted in the necessity of fighting.” Napoleon is “like Milton’s Satan on his throne of state,” and Toussaint Louverture, wise and courageous, is too much like Napoleon, which “roused Bonaparte’s anger.” There is Aaron Burr, “the Mephistopheles of politics,” and the devious Timothy Pickering, whose “hatred for Jefferson resembled the hatred of Cotton Mather for a witch.” Brown praises the History for its “dismissal of elite leadership,” its international perspective, and its reckoning of technology, and he understandably faults its scant attention to slavery or to women.
“History never tells us what we need to know!” Adams half-joked to a younger historian. “Did Methuselah suffer from rheumatism? Did Odysseus mind weather?” From the sidelines he remained involved with politics, science, and culture, whether William Jennings Bryan’s campaign for free silver or rock formations in Polynesia, whether architecture or baseball or thermodynamics. He disparaged Émile Zola, Dreyfusards, Eugene Debs, and socialism but detested Grover Cleveland’s idea that “the government can safely use the army to shoot socialists.” He called the press “the hired agent of a monied system, and set up for no other purpose than to tell lies where its interests are involved.”
He unofficially advised Hay when he served as secretary of state under William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt was “pure act,” Adams famously said. Less famously: “If you remark to him that God is Great, he asks naively at once how that will affect his election.”) He contained multitudes, changed his mind, vacillated, vented ugly spleen against Jews, and encouraged children to play with the dollhouse he kept behind a sliding panel. It was initially bought for the daughter of Elizabeth Cameron, the married woman he loved passionately but celibately after his wife’s death.
Adams understood the predicament of being a writer in America:
My favorite figure of the American author is that of a man who breeds a favorite dog, which he throws into the Mississippi River for the pleasure of making a splash. The river does not splash, but it drowns the dog.
Undoubtedly frustrated by the indifferent response to his History and still seeking a mode of adequate expression, Adams turned instead to different forms—retelling, for instance, the life of the queen of Tahiti, in her voice, based on his interviews.
In 1904 he privately published Mont Saint Michel and Chartres, presumably for the benefit of his many beloved nieces. Brown describes it as a “cognitive palate-cleansing” that allowed Adams to wander “a bit deeper into the archaic.” In addition, he writes, its “French-centric view of the Middle Ages,” its exclusion of Old Norse sagas, and its omission of the Western Schism, when popes competed for parishioners, produced a “truncated tale” of the medieval world. Comparing Mont Saint Michel unfavorably to Mark Twain’s satiric novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), which it in no way resembles, Brown assumes that in Twain the “remnants of feudalism continue to (negatively) impact modern life; Adams, of course, mourns feudalism.”
Yet Adams intended Mont Saint Michel and Chartres primarily as a spiritual autobiography. With humor and imagination, he interprets what he reads and sees, such as the figure of the Virgin Mary, as representing
the whole rebellion of man against fate; the whole protest against divine law; the whole contempt for human law as its outcome; the whole unutterable fury of human nature beating itself against the walls of its prison-house.
This is a wish, a plea, a vision best summarized in the poetic description of a Gothic cathedral that closes the book:
The delight of its aspirations is flung up to the sky. The pathos of its self-distrust and anguish of doubt is buried in the earth as its last secret. You can read out of it whatever else pleases your youth and confidence; to me, this is all.
“I have been trying to persuade people that I don’t come from Boston and am a heartless trifler,” Adams once chortled. “If I stood on Fifth Avenue…and in a state of obvious inebriety hugged and kissed every pretty woman that passed, they would only say that I was a cold Beacon Street aristocrat.” That might be true. It’s also true that we read him for his pungent prose, that restless voice, and those finely balanced sentences, which maintain a delicate equilibrium in spite of doubt, self-distrust, unaccountable loss—and the coming century. We read him for his tragic sense of life and his ceaseless, sadly fallible, unfailing attempt to understand it.
At the end of the Education, Adams learns that John Hay has died. “Now, at least, one had not that to fear for one’s friend,” Adams quietly laments. “It was time to go.” But Henry James had reminded him that the act of writing “is still an act of life.” Adams understood. As he said back in 1867, “a life is not such a tremendous time to learn to express your ideas.”