The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry Adams
Nearing the age of seventy, when "the mind wakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death," Henry Adams wrote for his closest friends ... Show synopsis Nearing the age of seventy, when "the mind wakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death," Henry Adams wrote for his closest friends his version of the earth-shattering events they had experienced. He had 100 copies printed in luxurious editions and, in early 1907, sent them to such dignitaries as Theodore Roosevelt, William and Henry James, Charles Gaskell, and Henry Cabot Lodge. This private account was not released commercially until after Adams's death, in 1918, when it became a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. Many scholars and critics, as well as Adams himself, view "The Education of Henry Adams" as a sequel to his earlier book, "Mont Sant Michel and Chartres." Reduced to its simplest level, The Education of Henry Adams recounts how an "eighteenth-century American boy" grew up during the nineteenth century, only to be intimidated and awed by the chaos of the twentieth. The unity of earlier ages, when everything revolved around God and Church, had been exploded into limitless possibilities by the discoveries of science and the advent of democracy, and Adams realized that "the child born in 1900 would then be born into a new world which would be not a unity but a multiple." The joy of this book for many readers is Adams's sardonic wit and his penchant for aphorisms; the number of quotable quotes is both delightful and exhausting. A notorious name-dropper, he knows everyone, and offers an insider's account of the most important events of the 19th century, volunteering his views on international diplomacy, monetary policy, evolutionary biology, and other matters. Adams portrays the journey of his life as an ongoing attempt at educating himself, yet he disdainfully learned that formal education was useless and that his dabbling had brought him to a dead end. "Religion, politics, statistics, travel had thus far led to nothing.... Accidental education could go no further, for one's mind was already littered and stuffed beyond hope with the millions of chance images stored away without order in the memory. One might as well try to educate a gravel-pit." Adams's self-effacing protests of ignorance are often little more than a pose. His sense of innate blueblood superiority can be grating--a stance exaggerated by his writing about himself in the third person. He repeatedly (and backhandedly) reminds the reader how, as stupid as he might be, he is in good company: "Adams knew only that he would have felt himself on a more equal footing with them had he been less ignorant." "Lincoln, Seward, Sumner, and the rest, could give no help to the young man seeking education; they knew less than he." "Ridiculous as he knew himself about to be in his new role, he was less ridiculous than his betters." One of the most unintentionally satisfying sections of this book, then, is when Adams finds himself among true aristocrats in England--and they dismiss him as a social inferior.