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The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams
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The Education of Henry Adams

by Henry Adams

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I have read several great confessional autobiographies over the centuries, Augustine and Rousseau come to mind, but my favorite is Henry Adams' narrative, The Education of Henry Adams. The Preface and four opening chapters provide a solid foundation for the entire book. They focus on his youth in Massachusetts and time spent in Washington, D. C. and at Harvard College through his twentieth year.

His attention points to the nature of his own education growing up in a family whose very name was synonymous with the Presidency of the United States. Born in 1838, both his Great Grandfather and Grandfather had been presidents, while his father looked forward to an Ambassadorship to England during the Civil War. Henry's education would be continued during that period as secretary to his father. But first he narrates the experience of growing up torn by family connections between the small town of Quincy and the metropolis of Boston.

The two towns provide just one of the contrasts that concern young Henry; contrasts that include town (Boston) versus country (Quincy), Winter versus Summer, and his own family ties between the Brooks of Boston on his mother's side and the Adams on his father's side. It was the interstices between these and other contrasting experiences that provided young Henry with the "seeds of moral education". Even this early in his life, as he reflects from the view of the twentieth century, he questioned what and who he was and where he was going with his life.

The community and culture that formed Henry's mind and being included family friends that would become historical figures for those of us born in the latter half of the succeeding century; figures that included, in addition to his family, Ellery Channing, Waldo Emerson, Richard Henry Dana, and above all for Henry, his hero, Charles Sumner. Henry worshiped the Senator and Orator and looked up to New England statesmen like him that expressed "the old Ciceronian idea of government by the best". People like Daniel Webster and Edward Everett who governed Massachusetts. Henry, however, was destined to move on to Washington with his father as the Adams family had for decades been a part of the national stage.

Henry did not like school and rather preferred the free play with his peers. In spite of his opinion of school it is clear that he was continuing his education at home and was soon to move back north to enter Harvard College in his sixteenth hear. His thoughts on his education at that time rang true to this reader as he described his travel to Washington, not as what happened but as what he remembered. And this was "what struck him most, to remain fresh in his mind all his life-time, . . the sudden change that came over the world on entering a slave State. He took education politically." His time in Washington ended with a remark that "he had no education", a continuing contradiction that stemmed from his own reaction to the "official" education he was undergoing in schools that contrasted (once more see above) with the true education in which his experience was creating memories.

Harvard does not suit his taste either - the curriculum had no particular quality that could impress the man that Henry was becoming; a man who was not only a reader but a writer. He was impressed by Russell Lowell who "had brought back from Germany the only new and valuable part of its Universities, the habit of allowing students to read with him privately in his study. Adams asked the privilege, and used it to read a little, and to talk a great deal." His friendship with Lowell led him to connections with the transcendentalists although he never became one. He also became friends with one Robert E. Lee at Harvard and enjoyed a coterie of Virginian friends despite their Southern ways. At the end of his formal education he was able to conclude that "As yet he knew nothing." A bit of harsh judgment for the Senior Class Orator, but great minds are sometimes hardest on themselves.

The remainder of the autobiography takes him on a journey through Darwin and Chicago and "The Dynamo and the Virgin" into the beginning of the twentieth century. His story is always interesting and his prose is some of the best I have encountered. I may comment further on it as I continue to read and reread about his thoughts on a very particular education. ( )
1 vote jwhenderson | Dec 10, 2018 |
brilliant writing. ( )
  margaretfield | May 30, 2018 |
Sampled Downloaded and Read - not interested in reading

I am still interested in Henry Adams but want to read something more generalized and comprehensive. And something not written by Henry himself - his writing style is incredibly dense, even relative to the dense writing style of the period!
  Kim_Sasso | Mar 14, 2018 |
As memoirs go, this one is pretty boring, possibly interesting reading for people studying the psychology of Henry Adams, but not all that useful for much else, and really tedious. ( )
  JBarringer | Dec 30, 2017 |
A principal American oligarch, Anglophile, grandson of John Quincy Adams
  chaitkin | May 24, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry Adamsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Lodge, Henry CabotPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Under the shadow of Boston State House, turning its back on the house of John Hancock, the little passage called Hancock Avenue runs, or ran, from Beacon Street, skirting the State House grounds, to Mount Vernon Street, on the summit of Beacon Hill; and there, in the third house below Mount Vernon Place, February 16, 1838, a child was born, and christened later by his uncle, the minister of the First Church after the tenets of Boston Unitarianism, as Henry Brooks Adams.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0192823698, Paperback)

Many great artists have had at least intermittent doubts about their own abilities. But The Education of Henry Adams is surely one of the few masterpieces to issue directly from a raging inferiority complex. The author, to be sure, had bigger shoes to fill than most of us. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were U.S. presidents. His father, a relative underachiever, scraped by as a member of Congress and ambassador to the Court of St. James. But young Henry, born in Boston in 1838, was destined for a walk-on role in his nation's history--and seemed alarmingly aware of the fact from the time he was an adolescent.

It gets worse. For the author could neither match his exalted ancestors nor dismiss them as dusty relics--he was an Adams, after all, formed from the same 18th-century clay. "The atmosphere of education in which he lived was colonial," we are told,

revolutionary, almost Cromwellian, as though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmother's birth, in the odor of political crime. Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition; the duty was unchanged.
Here, as always, Adams tells his story in a third-person voice that can seem almost extraplanetary in its detachment. Yet there's also an undercurrent of melancholy and amusement--and wonder at the specific details of what was already a lost world.

Continuing his uphill conquest of the learning curve, Adams attended Harvard, which didn't do much for him. ("The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.") Then, after a beer-and-sausage-scented spell as a graduate student in Berlin, he followed his father to Washington, D.C., in 1860. There he might have remained--bogged down in "the same rude colony ... camped in the same forest, with the same unfinished Greek temples for workrooms, and sloughs for roads"--had not the Civil War sent Adams père et fils to London. Henry sat on the sidelines throughout the conflict, serving as his father's private secretary and anxiously negotiating the minefields of English society. He then returned home and commenced a long career as a journalist, historian, novelist, and peripheral participant in the political process--a kind of mouthpiece for what remained of the New England conscience.

He was not, by any measure but his own, a failure. And the proof of the pudding is The Education of Henry Adams itself, which remains among the oddest and most enlightening books in American literature. It contains thousands of memorable one-liners about politics, morality, culture, and transatlantic relations: "The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest." There are astonishing glimpses of the high and mighty: "He saw a long, awkward figure; a plain, ploughed face; a mind, absent in part, and in part evidently worried by white kid gloves; features that expressed neither self-satisfaction nor any other familiar Americanism..." (That would be Abraham Lincoln; the "melancholy function" his Inaugural Ball.) But most of all, Adams's book is a brilliant account of how his own sensibility came to be. A literary landmark from the moment it first appeared, the Autobiography confers upon its author precisely that prize he felt had always eluded him: success. --James Marcus

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:59 -0400)

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A memoir of nineteenth-century historian and philosopher Henry Adams in which he discusses the forces that influenced his life including, politics, religion, society, and literature.

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