The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
By Henry Brooks Adams
Penguin Classics, 566pp
The Education of Henry Adams was privately printed in 1907. Upon Adams’s death in 1918 it received its first public printing, and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Now largely forgotten, and some of his theories discredited, The Education of Henry Adams still retains a enigmatic allure in autobiographical writing – for it is not really an autobiography (it misses out large chunks of its authors life) and is presented in the third person, and more so because Adams uses it to theorise on history, religion, politics and nationhood. At many times in his autobiography, Henry Adams does not even feature.
Henry Adams was born into a family known throughout America. His great-grandfather and his grandfather had both been American presidents – John Adams and John Quincy Adams – and the accumulated weight of history bore down on Henry Adams from a very young age.
“The Irish gardener once said to the child: “You’ll be thinkin’ you’ll be President too!” The causality of the remark made so strong an impression on his mind that he never forgot it. He could not remember ever to have thought on the subject; to him, that there should be a doubt of his being President was a new idea.” (p.12)
In a family of learning and political motivations, education was forever on the young Adams’s minds. Education at this stage meant learning, reading, understanding how things worked. One of the great powers of The Education of Henry Adams is how that key word changes its meaning throughout the work, until he is forced to admit “that nine-tenths of his acquired education was useless” (p.220), for education is more than the knowledge of fact.
The closest antecedent for this work is St. Augustine’s Confessions (397). What is left out of that book remains concealed in this one – the presence of death. Death hangs over this work, a constant shadow, but the deaths that have impacted upon the tellers life remains unmentioned. Augustine concealed Adeodatus’s death; his son’s tragic end remained a spectre behind words. In Adams’s work, the suicide of his wife (in fact almost any mention of his wife) is excluded, creating a hollow point in the very centre of this work. Adams’s education allows him to consider the political assassinations that pepper American history, but does not allow him to discuss the lessons learnt of love, of marriage or of loss. Only by understanding this absence does The Education of Henry Adams reveal its depth. There is just one death that is given due attention, that of his sister Louisa, in Bagni du Lucca, the result of a “miserable cab accident.”
“She faced death, as women mostly do, bravely and even gaily, racked slowly to unconsciousness, but yielding only to violence, as a soldier sabred in battle. For many thousands of years, on these hills and plains, nature had gone on sabring men and women with the same air of sensual pleasure.” (p.251)
Like all young men, Henry Adams faced the future with excitement. He did as young men of his generation and standing were expected to do: he enrolled at Harvard University. He studied with fervour, energised by the act of learning. In retrospect he knows he learnt little through his formal education:
“he needed… the facile use of only four tools: Mathematics; French; German, and Spanish. With these, he could master in very short time any special branch of inquiry, and feel at home in any society… These four tools were necessary to his success in life, but he never controlled any one of them.” (p.30)
But he is aware that education does not have to be formal.
“For the next eighteen months the young man pursued accidental education, since he could pursue no other; and by great good fortune, Europe and America were too busy with their own affairs to give much attention to his. Accidental education had every chance in its favor, especially because nothing came amiss.” (p.70)
Adams spent a large portion of his life in Europe, particularly in London and Paris. It was through these travels that he learnt about thirteenth century life, giving rise to his famous Mont-Saint Michel and Chartres (1904). The remainder of his time was spent in Washington, but he becomes a man adrift, uncertain of his purpose.
“He had tried to make himself useful, and had exerted energy that seemed to him portentous, acting in secret as newspaper correspondent, cultivating a large acquaintance and even haunting ball-rooms where the simple, old-fashioned, southern tone was pleasant even in the atmosphere of conspiracy and treason. The sum was next to nothing for education, because no one could teach; all were as ignorant as himself; none knew what should be done, or how to do it ; all were trying to learn, and were more bent on asking than on answering questions. The mass of ignorance in Washington was lighted up by no ray of knowledge. Society, from top to bottom, broke down.” (p.90)
Time and again this becomes his understanding of society – that there is ignorance, and an unwillingness to learn. Of his time teaching as Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, he said:
“The number of students whose minds were of an order above the average was, in his experience, barely one in ten; the rest could not be much stimulated by any inducements a teacher could suggest.” (p.263)
Finally even he has to admit defeat in life:
“Adams read and failed to understand; then he asked questions and failed to get answers.” (p.330)
Perhaps this is the sign of a great mind – that he knows much but understands little. To be able to admit this lack of education is not a galling thing for Adams, for what he has learnt has led him to his finest achievement – his Dynamic Theory of History. The last quarter of his Education is given over to elucidating his theory, which one suspects he feels will be his lasting force upon the earth. The theory attempted to resolve “all the forces of history into the perfect divine plot of conflict between the forces of the Virgin and the Dynamo.” Though a fascinating and brave attempt to understand the twine of history, the theory was a failure. Three years later Adams proposed another theory based on the second law of thermodynamics and the principle of entropy, but this theory was discredited, and Adams spent the remainder of his life attempting to correct his theory.
The Education of Henry Adams reads as memoir, history, intellectual discussion and as the attempt of an old man to finally understand his place in the world. One feels the reverberations of a mind still suffering under the weight of his personal history and his family history, who has tried breaking free of those binds, only to fail. Near the end of his Education he seems to come to an important realisation but this too is not understood:
“As he saw the world, it was no longer simple and could not express itself simply. It should express what it was; and this was something that neither Adams nor La Farge understood.” (p.277)
The Education of Henry Adams remains an interesting and thoughtful document whose greatest impact comes not in the theories that he proposes, but in the world that he reveals. Adams lived through one of the greatest changes the world has known – the electrification of the world, the coming of the twentieth century, when the old models of understanding would become defunct. Perhaps Adams saw this but could not process it. He spends his twilight years visiting exhibitions and asking questions of scientists about what all this advancing technology will mean, but comes to no conclusions. The last few years of his life were spent as the greatest conflict the planet had known raged on the fields in France – how could a nineteenth century education have understood that?
The Education of Henry Adams is out of print in Penguin Classics.
The copy used for review purposes, and from which the page numbers come, was downloaded from the Million Books Project and is a copy of a privately published edition from 1907.
 Gooder, Jane. Introduction to the Penguin Edition