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Henry Adams is considered to be the foremost American historian of the nineteenth century. In addition, he wrote one of the most well known autobiographies, The Education of Henry Adams (1907). A scion of a leading American family, Adams incorporated the theme of power in various forms in many of his works. Adams’s importance is primarily as a privileged man of broad learning and cultural experience who fully applied his intelligence in dealing with perennial and modern issues in history, literature, and philosophy.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Henry Brooks Adams in Massachusetts in 1838, he was the son of Charles Francis Adams, a congressman and diplomat, and his wife, Abigail Brown Brooks Adams. Henry Adams was part of a distinguished family: both his great-grandfather (John Adams) and grandfather (John Quincy Adams) served as presidents of the United States. His mother’s family had made a fortune in the mercantile trade. Although he was raised in one of the wealthiest families in Boston, his childhood instilled in him a belief in the virtues of public duty and political service.
While attending Harvard College, Adams claimed he learned nothing but still graduated in 1858. After completing his degree, he traveled in Europe for two years and began his efforts in journalism. In 1860, Adams returned to the United States, where he became employed as his father’s private secretary in Washington, D.C.
Exposure to Civil Service
When Charles Francis Adams was appointed the ambassador to Great Britain in 1861, his son went with him and continued to act as his secretary. At the time of his appointment, the Civil War had just broken out. After years of compromises over such issues as slavery, many people in the South felt their way of life was threatened. Southern regions of the United States began withdrawing from the union. The newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, fought to preserve the country, leading to war. Lincoln selected Charles Francis Adams to serve as ambassador to counteract Southern attempts to gain recognition and support from the British. While working for his father, Adams continued writing for American periodicals.
In 1868, Adams returned to Washington, D.C., and began working as a journalist, publishing essays in such publications as North American Review and The Nation. He was appalled by the corruption and incompetence of the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. As the United States continued Reconstruction (where the country was put back together and the South was rebuilt after the end of the Civil War) Adams called for civil service reform (wanting civil servants to be given their jobs based on qualifications and not as a reward for personal loyalty), retention of the gold standard as a basis for currency, and warned against economic monopolies, especially within the railways.
Taught at Harvard
Unable to affect political reform in Washington through his articles and actions, Adams returned to Harvard after two years and, in 1870, began his academic career. As an assistant professor of medieval history, Adams taught both medieval and American history while researching and writing his first nonfiction books. He resigned in 1877 and moved to Washington, D.C., where he focused all of his attention on writing.
An Expert on History and Politics
In 1879, Adams published his first major book, The Life of Albert Gallatin, a biography of Thomas Jefferson’s secretary of the treasury. He then published one of his two novels, Democracy: An American Novel (1880), an exploration of the culture of Washington and its powerbrokers through the eyes of an everyday, Midwestern woman. The novel was informed by the author’s own knowledge of and experience with American politics, and although the main political figures in the work were fictional, their similarities to actual figures may have been the reason Adams published the work anonymously. Although he was not credited as the author until after his death, the book became very popular at the time of its publication, even without his name attached. Adams’s next book was another biography, John Randolph (1882). He then focused on his monumental nine-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-1891).
Adams faced personal tragedy while writing History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, which slightly delayed its completion and publication. He had married Marian “Clover” Hooper in 1872. She committed suicide in 1885, compelling Adams to stop writing for a time. Instead, he focused on restless travel, and he withdrew from public life. History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison became a classic of American historical writing and won the 1894 Loubat Prize from Columbia University.
In the early 1900s, Adams published two more major works, which were initially privately published for family and friends and not intended for a commercial audience. In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904), Adams offered a mediation on these two wonders of medieval French architecture in the form of a travel guidebook to his nieces. He emphasized how the titular cathedral and monastery emphasized a desirable image of unity in a society that triumphed over hardship to create enduring art. Adams saw that American society of this time period was much more divided.
Adams continued the musings he began in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres when he published what became his masterwork, The Education of Henry Adams (1907). In this highly regarded autobiography, which has been compared to St. Augustine’s Confessions (c. 1397), he documented his struggles to come to terms with the changing political and cultural character of mid-nineteenth-century to early-twentieth-century America.
Adams suffered a stroke in 1912 and was partially paralyzed until his death. As Adams neared the end of his life, he was troubled by World War I. The so-called ”Great War” was raging, dividing the European continent through entangling alliances and changing societies. As the war neared its end, Adams died on March 27, 1918, in Washington, D.C. A year after his death, he received the Pulitzer Prize for autobiography for the commercial publication of The Education of Henry Adams.
Works in Literary Context
As a historian, Adams is considered one of the greatest produced by the United States; as a writer, he crossed literary boundaries to present fresh, challenging ideas and works. Adams helped fashion and define the school of ”scientific” history with History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In the essays in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and his autobiography The Education of Henry Adams, he combined philosophical dissertation, memoir, and intellectual ideas. Descended from a family of prominent politicians and statesmen, as well as greatly influenced by his experiences and knowledge of such people, Adams emphasized the theme of power in many of his works. Among Adams’s influences included Edward Gibbon, Edward A. Freeman, Henry Sumner Maine, and Jules Michelet.
Adams’s History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison was an early model of scientific historiography. Rather than telling an enter training narrative, Adams arranged the facts of the two presidential administrations in sequence and invited his readers to form their own conclusions about them. Accordingly, the series is voluminously detailed, reflecting the author’s heavy use of documents and papers from the era. The objectivity of such a method was not absolute, and Adams’s history portrays Jefferson and Madison’s efforts as an admirable experiment in popular democracy that failed because of the incompatibility of its ideals with America’s geographic immensity and its fragmentation of culture and identity into sectionalism. History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison ends with questions that Adams saw his generation struggling to answer about the direction of the country, its goals, and how society will be united.
Theme of Power
In a number of his works, Adams explored the concept of power—religious power, scientific power, and political power. In Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, power takes the form of religious belief and focus as a means of creating the two structures he talks about in depth. The metaphor for Adams’s incomprehension of the twentieth century in The Education of Henry Adams is the dynamo (an industrial electric generator which makes a direct current), which Adams had seen at the Chicago World’s Fair. Adams saw that power in the twentieth century was coming from what he considered the alarming growth of science and technology, and he believed that the world was less stable and coherent than it once was.
Most of Adams’s output focused on political power in some form. From The Life of Albert Gallatin to the History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he emphasized how politics and issues of power shaped America and its leaders. Even John Randolph looks at power through the story of the Virginia politician and advocate for states’ rights who opposed Thomas Jefferson’s efforts to build a strong federal government. In Adams’s fiction, the corruption of power emerges as a major theme. In Democracy: An American Novel (1880), an ordinary woman, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, moves from ignorance to knowledge to disillusionment as she encounters the corruption Adams considered endemic in late nineteenth-century American democracy.
Works in Critical Context
Today, Adams’s works are read primarily as reflecting the philosophical and social concerns of his generation and class at a time when American cultural and political authority was passing from the colonial-era patricians of New England and Virginia to the capitalists and party-machine newcomers of the Gilded Age. Since the mid-twentieth century, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartes and The Education of Henry Adams have come to be regarded as his most important and influential works. Adams’s longest work, the History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, is also considered his most significant work of history.
The Education of Henry Adams
Privately printed in 1907, The Education of Henry Adams was first known only to a small audience. When the book was published commercially in 1918 after Adams’s death, it attracted widespread attention. Critics have praised it as an original and intriguing self-portrait, an achievement that by itself contradicts the author’s claim to failure. George Hoch-field wrote in Henry Adams: An Introduction, ”In the brilliance and intellectual daring of the quest itself, Adams converts failure into heroism. . . . The Education of Henry Adams is…an enduring and invigorating work of art.”
History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison
The History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison was initially met with apathy by critics. Some early reviewers also felt that Adams was too harsh in his treatment of the nation. In a review for Dial, Henry W. Thurston praised Adams’s abundant use of primary sources but commented that one may well question whether or not another, having had access to the same sources, would have found so little of which to approve.”
History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison eventually became regarded as a historical work of the highest order. Praised for its broad scope and accuracy of detail, this work came to be credited with providing historical analysis with new possibilities and perspectives through Adams’s questioning of dogmatic philosophical assumptions of the period. In the Atlantic Monthly, a reviewer commented, The period may be discussed with different predilections; it will never be discussed more keenly and more profoundly. In a word, the book is one of marked ability and very great value.”
- Hochfeld, George. Henry Adams: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1962.
- Review of History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Atlantic Monthly (February 1891).
- Thurston, Henry W. Review of History of the United States of America During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Dial (February 1890).
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