Victor Nuovo: Henry Adams a study in Americana

33rd in a series

Henry Adams (1838-1918) belonged to one of America’s great families. He was the great-grandson of John (1735–1826) and Abagail Adams (1744-1818). John Adams, one of the nation’s founders, served as its first vice president and its second president. His grandfather, John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), was the sixth president of the United States. His father, Charles Francis Adams Sr., was a member of the House of Representatives before he was appointed American Ambassador to Great Britain in 1860 by Abraham Lincoln. Henry Adams served as his father’s private secretary and spent the war years in England, much to his dislike.

A graduate of Harvard, Henry Adams studied law privately, which, although admitted to the bar, he never practiced. He was appointed professor of history at Harvard, and taught there for seven years. But he preferred to be an independent writer. He lived on inherited wealth.

On his return from England, he made Washington, D.C., his permanent home and lived the life of a Washington insider, for he had many connections. He was a prolific author. Among his many works, perhaps the most memorable are “A History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison,” which the literary critic Yvor Winters described as “the greatest historical work written in English with the exception of Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall.” It is an overstatement, but it is fair testimony to Adams’ capability as a writer and to his learning as a historian. The others are “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres,” and “The Education of Henry Adams.”

“Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” and “The Education” should be read together. Superficially, the former is reminiscent of a travel guide to two monuments of Medieval culture. “The Education” is written in the third person, its tone dispassionate, impersonal, factual. It is a narrative about how experience shaped the mind of Henry Adams, whom the author happened to be. While reading it, one quickly grows aware that the narrator has an acute mind, a superior intelligence, is massively learned, and blessed with an ability to view himself and his life and all of history with a remarkable objectivity. This perfectly fits the nature of the work, for Adams did not intend it to be a book about himself; it is not an autobiography, but a guide for young men (and perhaps for women also) to prepare themselves to engage in public affairs. It contains wisdom that applies even in old age. Adams knew that life’s adventures end only with death.

Although he professed no religion, Adams was deeply affected by Medieval Rome. “Medieval Rome was sorcery,” “a pure emotion.” It touched his soul; it became an abiding stimulant to his mind; it inspired him to become a historian. He imagined himself following the path of Edward Gibbon, who was inspired by the ruins of ancient Rome. His was a historical imagination, and as a historian he was made aware of the impermanence and folly of all things human. He could imagine no other form of existence than historical existence. The study of history, personal, national and beyond, became the chief means of his education, and Henry Adams was constant in his pursuit of it.

What fascinated him most about Medieval Rome was its adoration of the Virgin Mary, who for him was a symbol of infinite power, which he considered was best represented in architecture of the Cathedral of Chartres. If Adams had any religion, it centered on the worship of the Goddess. Chapter 25 of “The Education” gives an account of his daily visits to the Great Exposition in Paris in 1900. He entitled it “The Dynamo and the Virgin.” One of the exhibitions was of electric generators, which he took to be instruments of power. This invention, which would enable mankind to harness the power of nature, became for him a symbol of the exponential growth of commerce. This dynamic power, this force, was the engine of American progress, an instrument of the American will, a will to power, by which the United States would secure its place in the history of the world, for good or for ill. Adams was not sanguine about how all this might evolve, and he soon perceived that it was not all to the good. He died during the Great War.

Henry Adams also wrote two novels, which he entitled “Democracy” and “Esther.” The former is a brilliant exposé of political corruption in Washington; it has not lost its timeliness. The latter is a poignant story of a young woman of high intelligence and strong moral opinion, of her pride and willingness to sacrifice marital bliss to maintain her moral integrity, all the while struggling with chronic depression. The story does not end happily. Esther maintains her moral integrity, but sends her lover away.

It is generally supposed that the character of Esther is modeled after Adam’s wife Clover (Marian Hooper Adams, 1843–1885), who took her own life. Adams completed the novel before her death. Clover took great interest in it; she and Henry discussed it daily while he was writing it, and he greatly valued her criticism and advice. This collaboration was for them a kind of therapy, for Clover and Henry were well aware of her mental condition and where it might lead. Henry makes no mention of his marriage and the death of his wife in “The Education.” What could he have written?

He later commissioned the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was a close friend, to create a monument to her. It marks her grave in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. — a bronze statue of a woman, seated, hooded, her eyes closed, in deep contemplation.

To conclude, I must note that before I began preparing his essay, I knew little about Henry Adams. What I have learned is that he is a great American writer, a historian, a philosopher of history. His life and writings, and his view of history epitomize what Reinhold Niebuhr would call the ambiguities of American history and its ironies. The depths of the American mind cannot be plumbed without his help. To exclude him would be to render the American mind lifeless.

Postscript: “The Education” and “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres” are available in paperback editions published by the Modern Library. The Library of America has published them in a single volume, along with Adams’ poetry, and “The History of the United States” in two additional volumes. Also worth reading is David Brown, “The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams.” Visit your local book shop and read Henry Adams.

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