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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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The Education of Henry Adams is just that: i.e., the education of Henry Adams. But as he uses the word, it denotes a never-ending process between the two parentheses of birth and death. In that sense, Adams strips the word of its conventional value and re-dresses it in a habit more befitting a man who genuinely understands that education doesn’t end with formal schooling, but rather continues until he draws his final breath. And in this matter of education, Adams (who here — as in much of this autobiographical work — eschews the first person singular pronoun) is never easy on himself, the evidence for which we find with: “Henry Adams could see easy ways of making a hundred blunders; he could see no likely way of making a legitimate success. Such as it was, his so-called education was wanted nowhere” (p. 139).


If this review is annoyingly long, it’s only because I want to cite some of Adams’s more salient points — of which there are many — and then let you be the judge of whether you’ll happily undertake your own reading of The Education of Henry Adams. For myself, I have to confess that the going at times was tough. But good things generally require time and effort — and this book is decidedly one of those good things.


Taking all of this in somewhat chronological (or at least page) order, I’d suggest that the section beginning on p. 87 with “Foes or Friends (1862)” and continuing through p. 110 of the section titled “Political Morality” should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in either politics or diplomacy. For the rest of us — mere observers of world events and of those who strut an hour across its stage — the same should be recommended reading. What may strike you — as it did me, over and over again in the course of my reading—is how little has changed over the centuries on this particular stage. What is it the French famously say? Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.


To put some recognizable names to Adams’s scrutiny of things and people Washingtonian, we have this on p. 173: “The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called — and should actually and truly be — the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as commonplace as Grant’s own commonplaces to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.”


And on pp. 182-183, we find this: “Grant’s administration outraged every rule of ordinary decency, but scores of promising men, whom the country could not well spare, were ruined in saying so. The world cared little for decency. What it wanted, it did not know; probably a system that would work, and men who could work it; but it found neither. Adams had tried his own little hands on it, and had failed. His friends had been driven out of Washington or had taken to fisticuffs. He himself sat down and stared helplessly into the future … The political dilemma was as clear in 1870 as it was likely to be in 1970. The system of 1789 had broken down, and with it the eighteenth-century fabric of a priori, or moral, principles. Politicians had tacitly given it up. Grant’s administration marked the avowal. Nine-tenths of men’s political energies must henceforth be wasted on expedients to piece out — to patch — or, in vulgar language, to tinker — the political machine as often as it broke down. Such a system, or want of system, might last centuries, if tempered by an occasional revolution or civil war; but as a machine, it was, or soon would be, the poorest in the world—the clumsiest—the most inefficient.”


If Adams finds fault in people and institutions in and around Washington, D. C., however, he spares the location itself any modicum of that same opprobrium—and does so with a prose almost deliriously poetic. On p. 166, we have: “The first effect of this leap into the unknown was a fit of low spirits new to the young man’s education; due in part to the overpowering beauty and sweetness of the Maryland autumn, almost unendurable for its strain on one who had toned his life down to the November grays and browns of northern Europe.” And again on pp. 174-175, we have this: “Education for education, none ever compared with the delight of this. The Potomac and its tributaries squandered beauty. Rock Creek was as wild as the Rocky Mountains. Here and there a negro log cabin alone disturbed the dogwood and the judas-tree, the azalea and the laurel. The tulip and the chestnut gave no sense of struggle against a stingy nature. The soft, full outlines of the landscape carried no hidden horror of glaciers in its bosom. The brooding heat of the profligate vegetation; the cool charm of the running water; the terrific splendor of the June thunder-gust in the deep and solitary woods, were all sensual, animal, elemental. No European spring had shown him the same intermixture of delicate grace and passionate depravity that marked the Maryland May. He loved it too much, as though it were Greek and half human.”


I’ve already mentioned Adams’s penchant for self-denigration in this work. It starts early, and he doesn’t let up even as late as p. 203: “Perhaps Henry Adams was not worth educating; most keen judges incline to think that barely one man in a hundred owns a mind capable of reacting to any purpose on the forces that surround him, and fully half of these react wrongly. The object of education for that mind should be the teaching itself how to react with vigor and economy. No doubt the world at large will always lag so far behind the active mind as to make a soft cushion of inertia to drop upon, as it did for Henry Adams; but education should try to lessen the obstacles, diminish the friction, invigorate the energy, and should train minds to react, not at haphazard, but by choice, on the lines of force that attract their world. What one knows is, in youth, of little moment; they know enough who know how to learn. Throughout human history the waste of mind has been appalling, and, as this story is meant to show, society has conspired to promote it. No doubt the teacher is the worst criminal, but the world stands behind him and drags the student from his course. The moral is stentorian. Only the most energetic, the most highly fitted, and the most favored have overcome the friction of the viscosity of inertia, and these were compelled to waste three-fourths of their energy in doing it.”


On p. 232, we find that Adams has withdrawn still further in his ruminations: “More than this, in every society worth the name, the man of sixty had been encouraged to ride this hobby — the Pursuit of Ignorance in Silence — as though it were the easiest way to get rid of him. In America, the silence was more oppressive than the ignorance; but perhaps elsewhere the world might still hide some haunt of futilitarian (sic) silence where content reigned — although long search had not revealed it — and so the pilgrimage began anew!”


And yet, the cynical Adams remains: “After all, friends had done the work, if not one’s self, and he too serves a certain purpose who only stands and cheers” (p. 234). But the ever-vigilant Adams also remains: “A seeker of truth — or illusion — would be none the less restless, though a shark” (p. 258).


After decades of watching friends and acquaintances rise to high places, Adams remains not singly — but becomes doubly — cynical. “Those who seek education in the paths of duty are always deceived by the illusion that power in the hands of friends is an advantage to them. As far as Adams could teach experience, he was bound to warn them that he had found it an invariable disaster. Power is poison. Its effect on Presidents had been always tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards; but also because no mind is so well balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it; and finding it disputed with him by hungry packs of wolves and hounds whose lives depend on snatching the carrion” (p. 268).


On a side note — but with all of this in mind, and knowing that we may well have our first serious female contender for the presidency in 2016 — it might be of interest to read Adams’s observations on the plight of American women in his time (on pp. 282-286). Unfortunately, the citation is a tad too long to lay down here.


By way of conclusion, and as a present New Yorker, I’ll cite one of Adams’s concluding paragraphs — and one I feel to be particularly apt as much today, in the year 2014, as it was in 1905 when he composed it under the title “Nunc Age”: “Nearly forty years had passed since the ex-private secretary landed at New York with the ex-Ministers Adams and Motley, when they saw American society as a long caravan stretching out towards the plains. As he came up the bay again, November 5, 1904, an older man than either his farther or Motley in 1868, he found the approach more striking than ever — wonderful — unlike anything man had ever seen — and like nothing he had ever much cared to see. The outline of the city became frantic in its effort to explain something that defied meaning. Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky. The city had the air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control. Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid. All New York was demanding new men, and all the new forces, condensed into corporations, were demanding a new type of man — a man with ten times the endurance, energy, will and mind of the old type — for whom they were ready to pay millions at sight. As one jolted over the pavements or read the last week’s newspapers, the new man seemed close at hand, for the old one had plainly reached the end of his strength, and his failure had become catastrophic. Every one saw it, and every municipal election shrieked chaos. A traveler in the highways of history looked out of the club window on the turmoil of Fifth Avenue, and felt himself in Rome, under Diocletian, witnessing the anarchy, conscious of the compulsion, eager for the solution, but unable to conceive whence the next impulse was to come or how it was to act. The two-thousand-years failure of Christianity roared upward from Broadway, and no Constantine the Great was in sight” (p. 317).


Happy reading! Is Henry Adams “lite” reading? No — as I suspect I’ve amply demonstrated here with these direct citations. Is he worthwhile reading? Decidedly — as I hope I’ve also shown with these same citations.

RRB
02/13/14
Brooklyn, NY
( )
  RussellBittner | Dec 12, 2014 |
The tiresome (although not terribly so) aspect of the book was the author's continual reminder that, lest you forgot, the theme here is education. Adams' assertions that he really belonged in the 18th century were nowhere more evident than in his (falsely?) self-deprecating wit, which did indeed seem to belong in a European court somewhere. All in all though, the man turned some really great phrases on a regular basis. ( )
  KatrinkaV | Sep 20, 2014 |
One of the oddest books I've ever read, and am ever likely to read: an autobiography written in the third person, which tells us almost nothing at all about the author/central character, this seems more like a pre-modernist bildungsroman than anything else. The weirdness doesn't end there- Henry Adams spends much of his time philosophizing about history while the narrator (call him Mr Adams) spends most of his time explaining that Henry Adams is a fool who has no idea what he's talking about; Henry Adams involves himself in politics, the academy, and Grand Tourism but Mr Adams rants about the uselessness of politics and the academy, and rolls his eyes at Henry's failure to understand or properly enjoy any of the things he sees while Grand Touring.
As if that's not hard enough to deal with, Mr Adams' assumes that you've already heard of him and all his friends, and that you know what they were about. Sometimes this works okay (for instance, I know a bit about Swinburne and the presidents he encounters); often it doesn't (Henry, Mr King and Mr Hay were clearly very close friends, but what exactly the latter two did, what they believed, and what impact their actions had on the greater world remains a mystery to me). If you're deeply versed in 19th century American politics, you'll probably find his comments on those men and dozens of others amusing and interesting. I am not so versed.
Despite which, this is an amazing, brilliant book, well worth the considerable effort needed to read it, because Mr Adams and Henry Adams are pretty obviously men you would like to spend time with in heaven. One of them, or maybe both, would amuse you with lines such as:
"Modern politics is, at bottom, a struggle not of men but of forces. The men become every year more and more creatures of force, massed about central power-houses. The conflict is no longer between the men, but between the motors that drive the men, and the men tend to succumb to their own motive forces."

and

"Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds."

I don't know, though, if I'd like to spend much time chatting with Adams himself. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
The Education of Henry Adams is a terrible book. Like Walden and Emerson’s Essays, it reveals a peculiarly American complacency in its subject, but without the redeeming writing skill of Thoreau and Emerson. Adams is vague and general when he should be detailed and specific, and that’s pretty much all the time. He writes as if his readers had just put down a newspaper covering the events of the period he’s writing about, so that all he need do is allude to people and places.
The choice of narrating his life in the third person is never justified or explained. Perhaps Adams thought it suited his habit of self-deprecation. Unfortunately, the self-deprecation, like most of Adams’s attempts to be humorous, comes across as mere sarcasm, which is the weakest of humor’s rhetorical tools. The book’s conceit, that Adams never gets the education he needs to face the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, is undercut by Adams’s condescension about almost everyone else’s mental powers, including Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, Roosevelt, and other American presidents he meets.
Adams, a self-confessed dilettante when it comes to art (though even here he boasts of confounding the experts), is in fact a dilettante in all he tries. He plays at learning law in America and abroad, makes fun of his secretarial duties in the service of his father Charles Francis Adams when the latter is ambassador to England, and when he returns to the States after the Civil War to no prospect of high diplomatic appointment under Johnson, he gives up the idea of diplomacy altogether and becomes a part-time journalist and an unwilling history professor. Meanwhile, he has briefly taken up Darwin without understanding him; he has the mistaken popular, teleological notion that evolution aims at perfection.
In the chapters on Adams’s years in London during the Civil War, the young diplomat bewails his failure to understand what the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Minister Lord Russell, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer Gladstone are up to. Henry thinks their behavior reflects a wish to see U.S. power divided, since she is a rival nation (and an old enemy). In fact, if their memoirs and biographies written years later are to be believed, they were just reacting to day-to-day changes in the American situation while trying to protect England’s cotton trade with the South.
After the war Adams remains in England at loose ends, taking up Darwinism and becoming a dilettante and an art collector in a small way. When he returns to the country he can expect nothing from the Johnson administration—the southerner Johnson was anathema to the old Free Soilers (Sumner, Charles Adams, and the other men who formed Adams’s political consciousness). He had been publishing, sometimes with his identity concealed, in various stateside papers since his work for his father in the Congress, so he ended up going to Washington to try to break into a journalism job, ultimately in New York.
He supported Grant but soon discovered what a mistake that was. The Jay Gould scandal came less than a year into Grant’s presidency. Adams first turns down and then accepts a job to teach at Harvard and edit the North American Review.
After the death of his sister in the early 1870s there is a hiatus in Adams’s account: He tells us nothing about his marriage or his wife’s depression and suicide, and he leaves out any account of the years from 1872 to 1892, when he retires and begins a period of travel with various friends. Altogether I find the book unsatisfactory as autobiography or as a picture of the times Adams lives through. ( )
  michaelm42071 | Sep 3, 2013 |
read this when traveling from Paris to Moscow back in April 1996 maybe
  FKarr | Jul 27, 2013 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:26:55 -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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