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The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography

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534 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1918

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About the author

Henry Adams

499 books121 followers
Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

Noted American historian Henry Brooks Adams wrote his nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison (1889-1891) and also a famous autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1918).

This oldest and most distinguished family in Boston produced John Adams and John Qunicy Adams, two American presidents, and thus gave Henry the opportunity to pursue a wide-ranging variety of intellectual interests during the course of his life. Functioning in the worlds of both practical men and affairs as a journalist and an assistant to his father, an American diplomat in Washington and London, and of ideas as a prolific writer, as the editor of the prestigious North American Review, and as a professor of medieval, European, and American history at Harvard, Adams of the few men of his era attempted to understand art, thought and culture as one complex force field of interacting energies.

He published Mont Saint Michel and Chartres , his masterwork in this dazzling effort, in 1904. Taken together with his other books, Adams in this spiritual, monumental volume attempts to bring together into a vast synthesis all of his knowledge of politics, economics, psychology, science, philosophy, art, and literature to attempt to understand the place of the individual in society. They constitute one of the greatest philosophical meditations on the human condition in all of literature.

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Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,075 followers
April 13, 2023
Epistemological inquiry in the form of self-denigrating autobiography. Written in the third person, at times overbearingly acerbic. Author Henry Adams was grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams. He was a Boston Puritan born in 1838 who at sixteen attended Harvard College—severely berated here—and went on to pursue a career as a journalist, novelist and historian.

His historical gamut stretches from the American Revolution to the years just before World War I. His writing is wry with patches of brilliance and, less often, turgidity. There are some extraordinary scenes. In one it's 1860 and Henry Adams travels as a courier for the American consulate to Sicily to find Garibaldi "in the Senate house toward sunset, at supper with his picturesque and piratic staff, in the full noise and color of the Palermo revolution." He also meets William Makepeace Thackery, Robert Browning, Algernon Swinburne, Charles Lyell, Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson, to name a few.

It was fascinating for me to learn that in 1861, when the author arrived in England as a private secretary to his U.S. diplomat father, that the British recognized the legitimacy of the Confederate belligerency and came close two years later to recognizing the Confederacy as a state. Then came the Trent Affair in which two Confederate diplomats (Mason and Slidel) were seized by a U.S. vessel from a British mail steamer—clearly an act of war. The author describes the tentativeness of their position in London at the time.

Mostly the first half of the book is a merciless dissection of British royalty, society, manners, dining (ugh), and eccentricity in general in the latter half if the 19th century. Adams views it as wholly self-centered and self-regarding, a closed world without lessons to offer him. He's says so in a singular, scabrous overview that's at times very funny.

It occurs to me that the The Education of Henry Adams (1906)—whether intentionally or not—serves as a kind of corrective to James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1819). In it many of the assumptions underlying that earlier work are called into question. Dr. Johnson's famous bromide—"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."—gets a thorough refutation.

Adams' insights come at the expense of himself and anyone nearby. His irony morphs at times into vitriol. Lauded as a unique view on the American story. I think it very well may be. This has for me been one of those great interstitial reads, in which, using the framework of autobiography, the writer is able to cover many of the nooks and crannies of history often overlooked in more general texts. Neil Sheehan does much the same thing but with biography in his Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam. I recommend both books highly, though from a literary point of view Sheehan's is the better written work.

Time has not been kind to Adams' style. Though there must have been a day when it was considered muscular, its phrasing today strikes one as slightly archaic and stilted at times. Its historical insights may be unique, but the text's omissions are as telling as its inclusions. Indeed, Henry Adams' world seems strangely Islamic with half its population going unmentioned. Women had virtually no role in the society of his day—they certainly did not have the vote—except as helpmeets and incubators of heirs. It's very strange to read historiography which excludes them so painstakingly.

(Tellingly, Clover, his wife of many years, is completely written out of the book. This seems truly strange when one learns by way of a Wikipedia search that in 1885 she killed herself by drinking darkroom chemicals. Adams takes a page or two to rhapsodize about the Augustus St Gaudens' statue he commissioned for her grave, in Rock Creek Cemetery, but he never tells us it's for his wife. This we must learn by independent means.)

It is the ultimate form of self-denigration to declare that one is beyond education. The kind of almost omniscient learnedness that Adams pursues is a literary convention that dates to the ancients. He returns to this hobbyhorse over and over. It wears thin, for he is only able to keep to his steed by views increasingly abstract. The writing—always a challenge—grows less coherent the deeper into the book we go. So an at times fascinating if ultimately problematic read.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,731 followers
April 24, 2017
Amazing. There are a just a few books (Meditations, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Brothers Karamazov) that I feel every person on the planet should read. This is one of those books. If you are a historian, a diplomat, a Civil War buff or an amateur philosopher, this book will strongly resonate.
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,553 reviews812 followers
April 3, 2012
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."


"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.
Profile Image for Quo.
292 reviews
July 19, 2023
The Education of Henry Adams stands as an amazing, formidable 5oo page book but it can also be at times exhausting to read. Henry Adams was one of the most educated men in America's history, the great-grandson of John Adams, the nation's 2nd president and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, the 6th American president.

And while a lifelong learner, a diplomat, a world traveler, a well-regarded author, a historian of considerable reputation, a talented linguist, both a graduate of and a professor for 7 years at Harvard University, he employs the word Education in a most ironic fashion. And interestingly, the entire tale is told in the 3rd person.

It may seem rather a mystery that Henry Adams, born as Clifton Fadiman once said, "not with a silver spoon but with an entire mouthful of silver", spends so much of his semi-autobiography being so self-effacing. But one can only imagine how much pressure there may have been on someone with that extreme a gift of social standing & political legacy not to have ever been elected or even to have sought public office and not to have had any children to carry on the heritage of the Adams Family. And yet, all of his Adams predecessors seemed to value the quality of being a statesman rather than a politician.

What to make of this book with its rather constant references to education as accidentally gained & a failure in the case of Mr. Henry Adams? My thought is that, rather than a disguised memoir, The Education of Henry Adams seems a masterful treatise contrasting the dominant forces of the 11th & 12th centuries with what he envisioned to be the driving force on the eve of the 20th, with most of Adams' professional life lived in the 2nd half of the 19th century.

There is a continuous search for a unifying force in both the medieval phase of world history, that which Henry Adams taught as a chaired professor at Harvard and the age of science & machinery. Eventually, though seemingly a fairly secular man, Adams settles on the concept of the Virgin Mary as the principal harnessing force of the medieval period and the turbine as its equivalent in the modern era.

In fact, The Education of Henry Adams acts as a kind of sequel to his earlier Mont Saint-Michel & Chartres, the much briefer book that encapsulates the author's fascination with the image of the Virgin as a driving force and with medieval cathedrals as the period's symbolic thrust. Adams felt that between the pyramids of 3,000 BCE & the cross which became a unifying Christian symbol in 300 C.E, no new forces arose to affect "western progress".

Later in his book, Adams spends time dealing with just how the microscope & the telescope changed the manner in which we look both inward & outward, in both cases to expand horizons. It was Adams' grand design to trace development backward from modern multiplicity to medieval unity in this 2nd volume, whereas the earlier work had gravitated in the direction of unity.

Much of this book considers moral vs. political authority & Henry Adams details the many journeys he took in search of an enhanced knowledge of the world at large and as an antidote to his frustration with life in Washington. He traveled at various times to the Far East, Egypt, the Middle East and to the Pacific Islands, as well as making countless trans-Atlantic crossings to Europe & Great Britain.

At one point, he commented that "all the historian won was a vehement wish to escape". At age 65, he decided that "his education was complete & he was sorry that he'd ever began it." Being named Adams & born in 1838 seemed both a supreme gift & a curse, with a constant goal of establishing his own identity, that of a scholar, at the root of much of what he accomplished in life. Ultimately, Henry Adams concluded that the great initial promise of American Democracy had begun a process of disintegration, becoming increasingly tarnished by the administrations of Jackson & Grant, among others.

However, in spite of this seeming pessimism, he continued to study & to intellectually counter the concepts of chaos vs. continuity and force vs. inertia. What one reviewer ages ago termed "sentimental nihilism" seems instead to be a rather serious & very compelling attempt at self-analysis, couched in prose passages I found in many cases to be quite uplifting.

There is no question that Mr. Adams was a Boston Brahman with a very aristocratic bent & many would fault the book for the author's seeming intolerance of Jews & those of a less patrician background. At one point while abroad, he makes reference to "great masses of idle & ignorant tourists." While he failed to incorporate a broader spectrum of humanity into his worldview, I suspect that this was a rather common failing for children of great privilege born almost two centuries ago.

Henry died before women got the vote but after African-American males did and he seems to have taken little notice of the latter, though D.C. at that point in history was still considered a very "southern town". And while quite definitely against slavery & the southern secession that led to the Civil War, Adams spent the entire period of the war assisting his father in London, appointed by President Lincoln, acting as aide-de-camp to his father's ambassadorial position for 7+ years, in large measure working to prevent the British from assisting the Confederacy, especially when it appeared that the northern forces were likely to lose the war.

The image of Henry Adams as a kind of Faust-figure seems apt at times but he was known as a loyal friend & devoted to his brothers & a sister, whose death at 40 while living in Italy was a serious blow to his sense of well-being, though not nearly as large a jolt as the death of his wife, for she & Henry were a devoted couple & frequently entertained America's "best & brightest" at their home in the nation's capital. In fact, one of the more discomforting aspects of The Education of Henry Adams is the failure to mention the death of Henry's wife or anything else during a 20 year gap.

Again, Adams saw himself as a failure in many respects & the two books were self-published, not made available to the general public until after his death, though his 7 volume work on the early American presidents + 2 novels, published anonymously, were quite successful. Beyond that, a stroke put an end to Adams' work on his primary autobiographical legacy, The Education.

What I think limits the book somewhat is an overabundance of names of cabinet members of the various presidential administrations & the many political figures he encountered while in England. Beyond that, Henry Adams rather too ambitiously posits a kind of over-arching theory of the universe, even invoking prehistory but always through the lens of a historian, rather constantly admitting that a classical Harvard education failed to bestow on him the required mathematics & the tools of science to fully navigate within an increasingly dynamic world. In spite of that, he tried to read everything he could muster on science & attempted to master the field of statistics as well.

What The Education of Henry Adams really ends of being is a very personal work of veiled epistemology, though with a third person point of view, constantly asking what one man or woman can possibly really understand about the nature of life, particularly given the author's distrust of political reality, this in spite of having spent much of his life in the nation's capital either writing about the presidency & the congress or being part of the the inner circle of those who governed America over his approximately 60 years on the scene.
All a teacher can do is to teach a student to react to forces. To educate--one's self to begin with--had been the effort of one's life for 60 years & the difficulties of education had seemed to go on doubling every 10 years. No scheme could be suggested to the new American but the great influx of new forces seemed near at hand & its style of education promised to be violently coercive.

The movement from unity to multiplicity, between 1200 & 1900, was unbroken in sequence & rapid in acceleration. Prolonged one generation longer, it would require a new social mind. It must enter a new phase subject to new laws. Thus far, for five or ten thousand years, the mind has successfully reacted, and nothing yet proved that it would fail to react--but it would need to jump.

*My edition of the book is a 1931 Modern Library hardcover edition, bound in signature & it should last another century. All but 2 of 20+ versions listed at G/R are not in fact bound books but Kindle editions, with the remaining 2 both paperbacks. Even more amazing is that the Modern Library declared that the 1919 Pulitzer Prize winning The Education of Henry Adams was their choice as the best non-fiction book of the 20th Century, though it does not have a very large reviewership at Goodreads.

**Within my review are 2 images of & a quote from Henry Adams.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,276 followers
November 5, 2016
Once more! this is a story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young men—or such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them.

Everyone agrees that this book is difficult and odd. An autobiography of an American man of letters, the son of a diplomat, grandson of a president, historian, journalist, secretary, all told in the third person, written for his private circle of friends. At once claiming to be the story of one man’s life, a critique of the educational methods of the nineteenth century, a parable of the fin de siècle, and a new theory of history, the book is, in reality, none of the above, and is instead the sigh of an old man looking back on his life.

I must admit that I found this book exasperating in the extreme. One quickly gets the impression that, when Adams uses the word “education,” it is meaningless or worse than meaningless. He goes to London with his father, and becomes intimately acquainted with the workings of British politics, all during the difficult years of the American Civil War, and complains that he received no useful “education.” He teaches at Harvard for seven years, a professor of Medieval History, and concludes: “On the whole, he was content neither with what he had taught nor with the way he had taught it. The seven years in teaching seemed to him lost.” He becomes a journalist in the capital, and then works on a seven-volume history of America during Jefferson’s presidency; and still, after all this, he insists he has received no useful “education.” And after every phase of his life, when Adams rings the same gloomy bell, the reader asks: “What on earth would satisfy you, Mr. Adams?”

Another exasperating element is the degree to which Adams assumes a familiarity with the intricacies of 19th century politics. Reading the chapters when he was in England felt like reading a grocer’s shopkeeping books. It was disjointed, jerky, and, worst of all, didn’t explain a thing. At first, I assumed this difficulty resulted from Adams’s originally writing the book for his circle of friends; but the obscurity goes even further: it is as if Adams wrote the book only for himself. The book swings wildly in tone from dry note-taking to half-formed and half-coherent abstractions, all written in a prose style lucidly opaque.

Adams also gives the impression of being a bit muddle-headed. He spends some time talking about Lyell’s geology and Darwin’s evolution, and it soon becomes apparent he understands neither. He goes on long tangents about “force,” while it is obvious that what Adams means by that word is as meaningless as what he means by “education.” He ends the book on a very confused and seemingly pointless attempt to give a mathematical explanation of history, but never reaches above vague commonplaces, endlessly repeated. I seldom came across an insight of his that was insightful.

In short, the impression was that Adams had taken all of the stuff of his life—his doings, his friendships, his thoughts, his career, his background—and left it out to bake in the hot sun, until all the savor and succulence was scorched out of it, leaving only a tough jerky that wearies the jaw in the attempt to chew the husk.

Still, after all this, I must admit that this book has a strange power. There were times I could not put it down, even when I felt I wasn’t understanding a thing. Adams always seemed to be only two steps away from a great insight, an astounding thought; but he never quite reaches it, which is why the book can seem so tragic. He was always searching and never finding; and the reader is left in doubt what he was searching for, and whether anyone will ever find it. In his elegant, knotty prose, he turns out aphorism after aphorism—all apparently insightful, but in reality empty—popping like soap bubbles leaving nothing but air. And what saves the book is that Adams knew this, and yet could do nothing better.
Profile Image for Mackenzie.
11 reviews5 followers
January 28, 2009
there is no book like this anywhere else in American literature. It annoys, it fascinates, it bores, it amuses... a densely textured, thoughtful, at times exasperating story of growing up in the American 19th Century by the great-grandson of one president and the grandson of another -- who freely admits he should have lived in the 18th Century.
Profile Image for Prickle.
33 reviews74 followers
July 29, 2023
The most brilliant sort of old-fashioned writing and as unique a "memoir" written before the First World War I'm ever likely to read. Adams said he wrote this book for the future, that the generations of the 20th century can understand the mind and progress of the 19th, and certainly it abounds with perceptive insight from one of the most aware and self-conscious minds of simultaneously the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century America. It shouldn't be denied either however that the book is filled with a long litany of names that have no bearing or interest for the vast majority of modern readers, especially in a time when cultural amnesia is ascendant and historical memory short, except for those who already have an almost unhealthy interest in 19th century goings-on like yours truly (and let's face it you probably are one of those readers if you're reading this review). But even the most glittering careers of the time such as John Hay or Lord Palmerston or James Abbott McNeil Whistler have long been forgotten in light of more current affairs, though I would not say "swept into the dustbin of history" just yet. As a curious side-note, just the other day I came upon a discussion of the theories of 19th century geologist Charles Lyell whom Henry Adams was a sort of disciple of despite me never having heard of Lyell before reading this book, and it was an immensely satisfying moment having already made the acquaintance of the ghost of Lyell here in a dusty tome over a hundred years old. So if the reader is willing to stay alert and be educated through these pages, then I believe there is lot to get from this book, indeed from most dusty old books over a hundred years old.

It's no surprise this book became a best-seller after it was published in the wake of WWI. Many of the people of the time, barely yet emerging from an agrarian 19th century existence, found themselves thrust into a new world of mechanized warfare and cutthroat geopolitics, where all progress and science meant all the more grist for the mill for human conflict. It would have pleased Adams to know that he was there to serve as a guide from beyond the grave to the new world that he had given perhaps more comprehensive thought to than nearly all of his American contemporaries, for this was also not the first time he had experienced such a fracturing of the world, having served as his father's secretary when Charles Francis Adams was appointed as Ambassador to Great Britain by the Lincoln administration in the fateful year 1861. It was there I must confess when the book really captured my interest as the young American nation in the midst of Civil War grappled diplomatically with the old powers of Europe, with Adams painting an immensely interesting picture of the unique personalities and occurrences of the time, from the vacillations of Gladstone to the rising influence of Charles Darwin. One of the most revealing episodes occurs when the older Adams, reflecting years later after the letters of Palmerston, Russell, and Gladstone had been published, discovered that he and his father had perhaps understood nothing at all about what was going on in actuality in the minds of the opponent statesmen, how events that looked so threatening for America at the time obscured the reality of a fractured cabinet, how Palmerston was not the evil mastermind intent on the dismemberment of the States they thought he was, and how Russell and Gladstone had often acted as blundering fools and undermined their own poorly disguised support of the Confederacy. Indeed one of the strengths of this book is how Adams is able to subject himself to withering self-criticism and put his past self into historical context: the arch-historian applying the tools of history to himself.

(As another personal aside, it makes clear to me now in hindsight how the supposed 19th century British apostle of morality and liberalism in politics Gladstone could expand the British Empire to an unprecedented extent through oceans of blood while looking contemptuously at Irish affairs at home and all the time preaching his gospel of morality and Christianity. Makes one satisfied that Parnell was able to run circles around him.)

That's not to say that the previous chapters where Adams describes his "18th century" upbringing in antebellum Boston uninteresting. Coming from such a family as he did, he was uniquely positioned to intimately understand from an early age the politics of the time, and that he would have to learn over and over how "a friend in power is a friend lost". One of the reasons in writing the book was an attempt by Adams to understand how he and the people he grew up with, people perhaps more advantageously placed in society for success than any other people in America of that time, grew up to be relative failures, or at least not coming close to heights of promise and Adam's grandfather and great-grandfather. The world had eventually passed them on, and the 18th century education they received in youth Adams eventually recognized to be more of a handicap than anything else in the new world created in America after the Civil War.

Indeed, when Adams arrives back to the United States after the Civil War he is confronted head-on by the corruption, moneyed interest, and inertia of the Grant administration. Clearly Adams was not privy to the contemporary historical revisionism in vogue for of the Grant presidency, and what he would have thought about that I simply leave here:

"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."

This newest shock of "education" eventually pushed him into opposition, journalism, the writing of his Gilded Age novels, and after his appointment to the Harvard professorship (Adams has some very interesting opinions on Harvard as a student and teacher which would bewilder the modern worshipper of academia no doubt), the rest as they say is history.

But not quite. Some of the most interesting and engaging chapters are near the end of the book, especially concerning the intersecting relations between history, science, and technology, and no one chapter illustrates this better I think than "The Dynamo and the Virgin". Several other common threads in this book come together here and explode out again through the end like a well constructed novel. As another reviewer described, there is a sort of "doom of modernity" that wreaths all of Adams's thoughts, but to his credit he never stopped trying to understand the world around him even to his advanced age. Some of the most fascinating things Adams "discovers" after his long education is that of the phenomenon of acceleration of technology, which he thought could be projected as clear as mathematical formula of a curve into the future like Moore's Law. That a dilettante could come up with such a conclusion from hand-collected lists of coal-production and history books long before the era of the transistor is surely something that redounds much to the glory of dilettantism. In all this Adams never neglects the humanist touch, which for someone much more interested in the human interest side of science and not the science itself is much appreciated.

Adams immediately follows "The Dynamo and the Virgin" with the remarkable chapter "Twilight", where among other areas of human and scientific interest he describes how in 1901 the world was almost stunned into obedience when The United States seemed to throw off its shroud to reveal itself as a great power for the first time with Hay's famous "Open Door Policy" in China. The new century had opened, and the new Colossus was here, having stolen a march on Europe while they were asleep. Poor Britain! Perhaps it would have been better for her days of numbered Empire had Palmerston dismembered the States when he had a chance. Not many authors could write on the philosophy and science and geopolitics with the same breadth and verve, and Adams was uniquely positioned as almost the ghost at the banquet for both, a spectator from both another age and above the age. Here is a passage of interest on Russia as Adams observed it during the Manchurian crisis on the eve of the Russo-Japanese War:

"The drama had become passionately interesting and grew every day more Byzantine; for the Russian Government itself showed clear signs of dislocation, and the orders of Lamsdorf and Witte were reversed when applied in Manchuria. Historians and students should have no sympathies or antipathies, but Adams had private reasons for wishing well to the Czar and his people [...] The personal friendliness of the Czar Alexander I, in 1810, saved the fortunes of J.Q. Adams, and opened him to the brilliant diplomatic career that ended in the White House. Even in his own effaced existence he had reasons, not altogether trivial, for gratitude to the Czar Alexander II, whose firm neutrality had saved him some terribly anxious days and nights in 1862 [...] The last and highest triumph of history would, to his mind, be the bringing of Russia into the Atlantic combine, and the just and fair allotment of the whole world among the regulated activities of the universe. At the rate of unification since 1840, this end should be possible within another sixty years; and, in foresight of that point, Adams could already finish - provisionally - his chart of international unity; but, for the moment, the gravest doubts and ignorance covered the whole field. No one - Czar or diplomat, Kaiser or Mikado - seemed to know anything [...] Perhaps Hay protected Cassini [Russian ambassador to the United States] for the very reason that Cassini could not disguise an emotion, and never failed to betray that, in setting the enormous bulk of Russian inertia to roll over China, he regretted infinitely that he should have to roll it over Hay too [...] His political philosophy, like that of all Russians, seemed fixed in the single idea that Russia must fatally roll - must, by her irresistible inertia, crush whatever stood in her way."

Finally, I rather enjoyed Adams's prescient discussions on the relationship between order and chaos, though the lack of philosophical rigor might be irksome to others. He cheekily described how with his book he was going to invert St. Augustine: where in Augustine's memoir he moved from chaos to unity, Adams was going to show the parallel progress of evolution of the human mind and his own from unity to chaos. Despite what he perceived as the seriousness of his situation in the modern world, Adams still does possess some wry-humor which he never hesitates to direct against himself in an act of confession not unlike St. Augustine:

"According to Helmholz, Ernst March, and Arthur Balfour, he [Adams] was henceforth to be a conscious ball of vibrating motions, traversed in every direction by infinite lines of rotation or vibration, rolling at the feet of the Virgin at Chartres or of M. Poincaré in an attic in Paris, a centre of supersensual chaos. The discovery did not distress him. A solitary man of sixty-five years or more, alone in a Gothic cathedral or a Paris apartment, need fret himself little about a few illusions more or less. He should have learned his lesson fifty years earlier; the times had long passed when a student could stop before chaos or order; he had no choice but to march with his world.

Nevertheless, he could not pretend that his mind felt flattered by this scientific outlook. Every fabulist has told how the human mind has always struggled like a frightened bird to escape the chaos which caged it; how--appearing suddenly and inexplicably out of some unknown and unimaginable void; passing half its known life in the mental chaos of sleep; victim even when awake, to its own ill-adjustment, to disease, to age, to external suggestion, to nature's compulsion; doubting its sensations, and, in the last resort, trusting only to instruments and averages - after sixty or seventy years of growing astonishment, the mind wakes to find itself looking blankly into the void of death. That it should profess itself pleased by this performance was all that the highest rules of good breeding could ask; but that it should actually be satisfied would prove that it existed only as idiocy."

And since I couldn't fit this in anywhere else, one of the most fascinating meetings in this book to me was when Adams met Charles Algernon Swinburne in Britain before his fame. I don't think I could picture two more different temperaments from almost exact contemporaries, or two people who lived in more different worlds. Best I could describe it is if Adams one day suddenly met John Lennon. Adams was an enlightened person for his time no doubt, but he was an unabashed elitist until the end and could not touch the insight into humanity of someone like a Henry James, and in the largest historical sense is perhaps always doomed to remain just "of his era" despite wanting always to see ahead of it. This contradiction is something he would have recognized and appreciated most of all.
Profile Image for Brendan.
36 reviews105 followers
September 27, 2007
Henry Adams was the original celebutante: famous for nothing other than being related to the two John Adams(es), he was in the unique position of having access to the upper crust of post-revolutionary America without having the burden of any kind of responsibility.

This book is a guided tour of 19th-Century America, told with surprising wit and self-awareness-- his description of Harvard as (and I'm paraphrasing, but only slightly) a place where rich children went to drink beer and call themselves lawyers is fantastic. It humanizes a period of history that is too often reduced to formality and statues and, more amazingly, provides a picture of life American history that's genuinely fun to read.
Profile Image for Manray9.
383 reviews101 followers
September 12, 2016
Nothing I could write would do justice to The Education of Henry Adams. Adams combines erudition, keen observation, wit and clear prose in creating the best example of the memoirist’s art.
Profile Image for Eric.
670 reviews110 followers
July 19, 2010
This is my second least favorite book thus far from the Lifetime Reading Plan. My least favorite being the Q'uran.

Henry Adams was the grandson and great grandson of Presidents. Although a Bostonian, he inherited an eccentric outsider-dom from his famous forebears, and remained to the end of his life apart from the business community of that city. Adams has the disconcerting habit of speaking of himself in the third person like Jimmy from Seinfeld. "Henry Adams doesn't like this steak! Henry Adams wants you to send it back!"

As a part of the family of Founding Fathers, he stands between two centuries, the eighteenth and the twentieth. He wrote this book in 1904, and at age 66 he is still forward-looking, wondering what the twentieth century has in store. He was fly on the wall for the nineteeth.

After concentrating the narrative on his education, which includes Harvard, he concludes that the education one picks up accidentally is more valuable then what one received intentionally at even the most respected institutions. After that, the bulk of the heart of the book is spent on Charles Francis Adams' (Henry's dad's)tenure as American Minister in London during Civil War years, and Henry's tenure as his personal secretary (Nepotism? Naaaahh!)At first, the American minister is shunned by members of Parliament, as the predominant opinion was that the Union would not survive the Civil War. But C. F. Adams is persistent, circumstances improve, and the Minister attains victory in the Laird ironclad affair. Adams has little good to say about the character of English politicians in general, but ends up making a few very close friends.

When he reaches 1870, he suddenly skips twenty years. It just so happens that during this period was when he met and married his wife, who with Henry, and others, comprised the predominant intellectual salon in the U.S. This was also the period where Adams had his salad days as author and Harvard history professor. Seems to me this would have been prime material to include, but as he felt he wasn't being "educated" during that period, he skips it.

Unfortunately, the post 1890 years are anticlimactic. At the end of the book, he tries (IMO unsuccessfully) to articulate his "dynamic theory of history". In reading about this, I couldn't help but think of the closing chapters of Tolstoy's "War and Peace", where the great Count makes a more lucid case for a scientific approach to history. Like Tolstoy, Adams seems to imagine a future figure not unlike Isaac Asimov's Hari Selden, a "psychohistorian" who can use the science of history to predict future events.

Also unfortunately, Adams was a clear product of the Victorian Age. Those guys never told the real dirt on themselves. This would have been a good book in which to do so, as one is educated by his youthful maistakes and indiscretions. It's a shame, but one thing you never think when reading this book: "Oh Henry Adams! What kind of crazy shit are you gonna do next?"

The style of the book is mannered, curlicued, and sometimes opaque. For those who wonder why, this book is exactly why the world needed a Hemingway.
Profile Image for Andrew.
2,024 reviews728 followers
November 15, 2009
Perhaps, in another life, Henry Adams would have been a great thinker, one who, like Benjamin or Nietzsche, penetrated the myths of modern society and showed the world a glittering realm of possibility. There's a sense of the doom of modernity that wreaths his thoughts like a fog-- in line with T.S. Eliot, Thomas Carlyle, and other anti-moderns. It's a conservatism that, unlike that of Christians and free marketeers, at least deserves a certain sympathy. Pathetic, perhaps, but ultimately you feel bad for its practitioners, realizing that they're just damaged people-- like Mr. Adams, unhappy nostalgics looking for a way out of the alienating, discordant present.

He's kinda whiny, but I get the feeling I'd still enjoy a couple beers with him. And with his kinda cash, he'd be footing the bill.
Profile Image for Al.
412 reviews25 followers
March 5, 2021
This book can be considered an intellectual history of the 19th century since Adams is so critical of educational theory at that time. Adams took seriously his work as a teacher, noting that a teacher’s influence can extend far into the future. One chapter I found interesting, “The Height of Knowledge,” displays Adams’ views on how power corrupts men. It’s also an interesting window on the main thinkers and ideas of that era, as well as Adams’ opinions on the era and his observations on a multitude of subjects throughout the 19th century. Adams’ emphasis throughout the work is how formal education did little to benefit him; instead, he relied on self-education in the form of independent reading and experiences in travel and with friends and acquaintances. Another aspect of this book is how Adams engaged with the significant changes that were occurring, such as radio, x-rays, and the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution. Adams was clearly a pragmatist and a humanist, and signs of this are found throughout the book. Overall, an interesting read and an interesting window on how significant change in the 19th and 20th centuries was viewed.
Profile Image for Frank Stein.
990 reviews135 followers
May 24, 2020
When this book was published posthumously in 1918, it attracted rave reviews and a Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, it became one of those rare books that other people wrote books about, analyzing it and dissecting its intricacies. When this edition was published in 1999, modern library declared it the number one nonfiction book of the twentieth century. Imagine my surprise, then, when I read it and discovered that it does not deserves such plaudits. Rather, I can say with some confidence, and not just as a matter of taste, that it is not a good book.

Perhaps there is a certain type of reader, schooled in Emersonian flights of fancy, or latinate circumlocutions, that thrills to this sort of book, but I doubt they would thrill for long. It is filled with glittering generalities about "Force," "Mind," "Matter," "Thought," "Science," and so on, usually elaborated with sentences with over three (!) semicolons in them. What Adams is getting at in all these metaphysical maunderings is hard to tell, despite the maddening repetition of the book. It's something about the history of humanity being a struggle between man and nature, or between countervailing and "accelerating" forces, which the industrial world has merely bought to a climax, but which forces are already escaping our control. Or something like that. What this really means and why I should believe it, I haven't the foggiest. The fact that every observation or action is framed under the conceit of furthering "the student's (Adam's) education," is both tedious and tenuous.

The only interesting parts of the book, though they are snuck in between the speculations, are stories of Adams's actual life: of his being silently dragged to a Quincy, Massachusetts elementary school by his grandfather, former President John Quincy Adams; about traveling to Washington DC to work with his congressman father, Charles Francis Adams; to DC during the treason winter of 1860-61; and then as private secretary to his father when the latter was appointed Minister to the Court of St. James for the course of the Civil War.

Adams knew just about everybody of importance in the era, from Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to President Theodore Roosevelt, and his quick character sketches of these men (Palmerston's "passion for popularity," Roosevelt as "pure act") can be interesting. His time as professor of Medieval History at Harvard, a subject for which he admits he knew nothing and cared less when appointed, and his later career as a Washington socialite are less scintillating. His longtime friendship with Secretary of State John Hay, and noted geologist Clarence King add some pathos to the story, but they are only seen in glances. Mostly, this book is better left on the shelf of classics, where it can linger unread and un-missed.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
2,044 reviews166 followers
June 21, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Victoria Olsen.
Author 8 books7 followers
January 25, 2013
I slogged through a Kindle edition of this classic, dodging the typos, and struggled with what to make of it. It wasn't at all what I expected of an American patriarchal autobiography. It was relentlessly, even annoyingly, self-effacing and pessimistic. Chapter after chapter details what he didn't learn in Boston, in London, in Germany.... from the senators and ambassadors he grew up with. I couldn't figure him out until I finally decided that he was really talking to himself the whole time. He didn't seem to care much about his readers (despite his concern about educating the next generation of Americans for the 20th century, etc) and he didn't seem to care much about creating a narrative (the only through-line is chronology and the theme of Failed Educations). He can write beautifully so stretches of description and analysis kept me going to the end, but most of the paragraphs are frustratingly choppy. He'll write a short abstract sentence. Then another one. Then another. And you'll wonder..... what is he talking about?? Despite all this complaining, this book is like nothing else I've ever read. Now I'm interested in reading the new biography of his wife (who is never, not once, mentioned in the autobiography).
Profile Image for Roxanne Russell.
379 reviews24 followers
January 17, 2013
The "hallelujah" did escape, and loudly, from my lips when this read was finally done, but that reaction was only to the last quarter of the book or so. Otherwise, well worth the read.
As the book begins, he vividly and concretely describes his youth, and throughout his middle-aged years also, his ponderings are grounded in specific descriptions and prompts for reflection. Since he has two Presidential ancestors and is part of the Bostonian elite, his access to the most prominent figures of history during historically significant times makes for fascinating reading (e.g. he serves as the Ambassador to England's secretary during the Civil War).
However, as the book closes in on his later years, he starts to replace real life events with postulations about a dynamic theory of history that he has conjured out of his lifetime of humanistic study. At this point, the only life experiences we hear about are points of interest in traveling Europe and health updates about Secretary of State John Hay. The pontificating in this section of the book is laborious reading.
Bravo for his section on the power of women and the detrimental effect of Westernized de-sexing of women.
Profile Image for Robert.
Author 4 books1 follower
January 7, 2020
The Education of Henry Adams is rich in personal observations, filled with nineteenth-century US history. Even his mile walk to school at age 6 has historical interest, because the 77-year-old man who held his hand and walked with him was the sixth US president, John Quincy Adams, Henry’s grandfather.

For the record, Henry’s great-grandfather was the second US president, John Adams (signatory of the Declaration of Independence), then his grandfather John Quincy Adams the sixth president, and his father the US ambassador to England during the Civil War. His maternal grandfather Peter Chardon Brooks was one of the 100 wealthiest Americans, a merchant millionaire, which was rare in the 1700s and early 1800s.

Adams was alive twenty-two years before the Civil War, and from his earliest years was appalled at slavery and the retrograde violation of human dignity in the southern defense of slavery (100). He met presidents from, of course, his grandfather John Quincy, through Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and many more, through twentieth-century presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. He died in 1918, the same year that World War I ended. It was a long way from the early American pioneer days of 1838 when he was born. When Adams was born, transportation and communication had not changed in 10,000 years. When he died he had seen the introduction of new transportation and communication that the twentieth century took for granted.

Henry served as assistant to the ambassador to England for eight years when he was fresh out of Harvard University. Returning to the US around 1869 he started a career he loved as a journalist. But his family, friends, and professors he respected, persuaded him to take the position of history professor at Harvard. He did it for seven years. One of his students was Henry Cabot Lodge.

Other than the friends he made during this period, he hated teaching and considered it a waste of seven years. He had little faith in standard teaching methods and outcomes. He valued the active mind and to “know how to learn” rather than the stuff that people spend most of their time studying (314). He believed in slower-paced learning to more fully and deeply absorb subjects as opposed to fast-paced surface learning.

On the other hand, he felt a little guilty after Harvard had greeted him as an adult with open arms: “Yet nothing in the vanity of life struck him as more humiliating than that Harvard College, which he had persistently criticized, abused, abandoned, and neglected, should alone have offered him a dollar, an office, an encouragement, or a kindness” (305).

He returned to his writing career, which over his lifetime included novels, the eight-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, historical and legal essays, the two books I’ve reviewed, and many others. He was one of America’s most esteemed historians though he spent his life with a sense of personal failure and a low estimation of his own education.

His lifelong pursuit was to extrapolate and understand the trajectory of human evolution, socially, politically, industrially, scientifically, theologically, and technologically. One of his comments on human evolutionary development sounds very modern. As history students know, Ulysses S. Grant had been a great general, but was corrupt as president. Speaking of Grant, Adams cuts to the chase: “He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. … That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called…the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. … Darwinists ought to conclude that America was reverting to the stone age” (266).

The Education is rife with insightful commentary on the world spinning around him, sometimes moving too fast to comprehend, sometimes moving incomprehensively backwards. He saw paradigm-shift inventions from telegraph and trains, to telephone and automobiles (he even bought a car in his later years), steam then electricity, inventions like photography, then film and the early Hollywood silent films, finally airplanes and the discovery of radium and radiation.

Adams traveled more than most Americans in the nineteenth century. He spent many years throughout Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and the Caribbean. He was an early observer of the merging of Western Cultures, noting “Hamburg was almost as American as St. Louis” (414).

The Education has hidden treasures, offhand observations that end up being the most memorable. For example, he notes the affectation of eccentric behaviors in people considered highly eccentric. Eccentricity itself becomes a convention. He observes that “a mind really eccentric never betrayed it. True eccentricity was a tone—a shade—a nuance—and the finer the tone, the truer the eccentricity” (370).

Adams’ final thoughts show his disappointment: “He saw his education complete, and was sorry he ever began it” (458). He abhorred the ever-worsening “persistently fiendish treatment of man by man;…the perpetual symbolism of a higher law, and the perpetual relapse to a lower one” and principals of freedom deteriorating into principals of power and the “despotism of artificial order” (458), referring to the rise of corporate dominance over society. He particularly disliked the growing influence of corporate power: “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy…They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot” (500).

Adams had good friends who met tragic fates, his wife committed suicide at a young age, and as he grew older, found himself “A solitary man of sixty-five years or more, alone in a Gothic cathedral or a Paris apartment…” (460). So this is The Education of Henry Adams. You may wonder why I liked it so much, and recommend it. The book is a retrospective provided by one of our most observant students of life, with access to the most interesting places and people in their most interesting times. The book itself is a fascinating education for anyone who reads it.
Profile Image for Ron.
Author 1 book141 followers
July 27, 2020
“Life is a narrow valley, and the roads run close together.”
Fascinating and sad. An anomalous document: an autobiography written in the third person by a grandson and great-grandson of American presidents; Henry Adams. Written late in life these are Adams’s reflections on his lifelong search for truth and meaning.
“He never thought to ask himself or his father how to deal with the moral problem that deduced George Washington from the sum of all wickedness. In practice, such trifles as contradictions in principle are easily set aside; the faculty of ignoring them makes the practical man; but any attempt to deal with them seriously as education is fatal.”
Written over a century ago of his experiences as much as a half century before that. A life distilled, as much as can be, during that life. His name gave him access few would enjoy; his apparent wealth gave him freedom to travel the world (trips to Europe were annual); his openness invited the confidence of great authorities; his quietness drew out secrets.
Adams did not write to be published; it shows. Dense prose. Long, boring passages of introspection. Constant references to works unfamiliar in this century. Constant foreign language phrases, untranslated. Hard to imagine a young modern reader wading through it all. Older readers will nod and sigh in sympathy. (Reading an electronic version facilitates reference linkage.)
“Better take sides first, and reason about it for the rest of life.”
A primary source for American history and politics in the latter half of the nineteenth century, usually a void between the Civil War and World War One. Adams was a participant and a confidant of power players. He supped with presidents; he interviewed leaders of science, art, philosophic communities.
He never mentions his wife or his married life, choosing to skip those decades as when he lived as opposed to was educated. Her loss and the manner of her lose obviously impacted him greatly.
Having decided early that he had no religious impulse, Adams looks elsewhere for the truth. He started with the admission that he knew nothing, and that all his schooling taught him noting. He looks in geology, biology, physics, art, literature, architecture, and of course history. “Of course” because he was a professor of history at Harvard.
“The clouds that gather round the setting sun do not always take a sober coloring from eyes that have kept watch on mortality; or, at least, the sobriety is sometimes scarcely sad. One walks with one’s friends squarely up to the portal of life, and bids good-bye with a smile.”
He even returns to seeking truth in religion, though the specter of this child of Puritans apparently reducing Christianity to the Mary cult is mystifying. He seems not to be even aware that Christianity is anything other than Gothic cathedrals, stained glass windows, and organizations.
“With out waiting further experiment—as he took for granted that arsenic poisoned—the rule that a friend in power is a friend lost.”
Uncovers the dark underbelly of power politics in his day. Watergate resembles a church picnic compared to the lies and deceptions practiced by the British government on behalf of the Confederacy. National leaders were just as clueless and wrong-headed as today.
“The attempt of the American of 1900 to educate the American of 2000, must be even blinder than that of the Congressman of 1800, except so far as he had learned his ignorance.”
Adams clearly got a lot right. The increase of power, with internal combustion replacing external, and electricity and even the atom; the globalization of politics; the urge toward women’s rights and racial equality were all clear to him on 1905. That he totally misunderstood women, race, or life should be no surprise. He admitted as much. He lived to see the world war which swept away all he found familiar.
“Perhaps some day—say 1938, their centenary—they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their own lives made clear in the light of the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.”
In the end, Adams thinks he succeeds, though any modern reader will blush at his errors. He throws out the atom with the ether, he mistakes historicism for history, and he lets his hopes drown his knowledge.
“Boys never see a conclusion; only on the edge of the grave can man conclude anything.”
127 reviews13 followers
February 8, 2020
This is one of those books that kept showing up on lists, but I never had any desire to read. I always found it was described in ways that I didn't quite know how to categorize based on my pre-existing knowledge of a type of book - was it biography, history, philosophy? How was it entirely about his education - it seemed important, but did I want to read a book about that? It was tough to tell and so I read other stuff.

Finally, I decided to read it and I am going to admit it's pretty different, man. Almost entirely in a good way.

Henry Adams (yeah, that Adams) is a generally humble, 19th century dude from an 18th century mega-family who sorta wanders through the Boston, Harvard, London, Germany, Washington DC of the 1800s and early 1900s. The book is about 75% personal biography and then ends with a sort of metaphysical speculation on how it all fits together and may very well make more sense than I was able to make of it. I'll come back to the second part at the end.

But let's start with the first part, which is really quite great and unlike anything else I've read.

He reflects on small experiences throughout his life, providing a contemporary sounding narrative of just what a trip it was for anyone to live through a period where most people were farmers in a young country which then had a civil war, industrialized, had railroads pop up everywhere, and then capped it off with a fundamentally changed understanding of the physical and chemical universe. Adams takes these changes on not as some grand attempt to describe an epoch, but rather as a painstaking effort to understand little things in his life, why he chose to do what he did, why others did what they did, how he could or couldn't understand a particular behavior or another.

So let me give you an example of how this is really a story about his education.

In one section, he provides a 50 page analysis of a series of conversations between a handful of English politicians during a diplomatic negotiation with the US during the Civil War in which he was present. He provides a complete explanation of what he thought was going on at the time, what he thought he knew and didn't know, what other people told him was going on, and then he relies on various source material that came out over the next fifty years to conclude what actually happened, what could or couldn't be known, and what it ultimately means for the role of a diplomat. It's striking, humble stuff and it's through this sort of story telling that Adams leads you to believe he really can show you the universe in a grain of sand of his particular experience, if he just polishes the sand long enough and looks at it from enough sides. It's also in these experiences that the book really does provide a unique form of education.

Now the second part. I like to imagine Henry Adams finished the hard work of writing his life's biography, analyzed countless episodes from all angles. Then he pauses and thinks about what it all means in totality. He just starts rambling in a stream of consciousness, probably lights up a joint and then really gets going. After like four hours, feeling pretty sure he'd just presented a unified human knowledge to cap his life's experience, he looks up at his secretary and says "did you get that" and the secretary looking at him like "well, yes... but..." and him saying "great, we got it!" and then heading off to pub, or whatever. That's probably not how it happened, but that's how I chose to imagine it and let me tell you it makes the last part of this book much more readable.

Amazing book, four stars!
Profile Image for Lisajean.
222 reviews41 followers
April 9, 2018
A third-person autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams is unlike anything I've ever read before. Adams does not come across as especially insightful or even particularly likeable, but I found myself compelled to keep reading. It's a fascinating picture of our country at the turn of the 20th century.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
605 reviews15 followers
February 10, 2019
Library Biography #32!

I have so many emotions and thoughts about this book.

First, props to my reading group that actually inspired me to get through this book!!

The Education of Henry Adams is not a quick read. I found it to be like nothing else I have read before. I had to be fully submerged and engaged with the text to get the most out of it. I couldn't get distracted or be in a noisy, distracting environment (usually not an issue for me) to comprehend what Henry Adams was trying to convey.

I rated this a 3 star because I know I didn't get everything I could have out of this book. Let me put it this way, I know very little about 1800's politics to follow. Adams does have little glowing tidbits along the way that I could relate to and admire.

Honestly, Henry Adams deserves more from the American people. He deserves to be heard! He made many remarks about the times in which he lived, that still ring true today! Potential nerdy heartthrob!
Profile Image for Steve.
380 reviews1 follower
December 29, 2022
I read The Education of Henry Adams some twenty-five or thirty years ago. I don’t remember one shred; I vaguely recall that being an experience of words in, words out, with nothing retained. My reaction listening to the audiobook of this volume was entirely different, as if a visitor were recounting a magnificent story. No, my father and grandfather were not presidents, however, thanks to this recording, I’ve at least some notion for how it feels as a child to consider that all your friends must be descendants of a president because you are descended from two.

Henry Adams was the great-grandson of John Adams and the grandson of John Quincy Adams. His father, Charles Frances Adams Sr., was a politician who also served as American ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Civil War. In short, Henry Adams was born into rare privilege of the Quincy and Boston subvarieties.

Because The Education of Henry Adams is frequently cited as a great work, it deserves to be measured against a high critical bar. Mr. Adams is a very talented writer who was conscious of both his good fortune and his shortcomings. I felt he wanted to leave a historical marker through his writing as significant as the ones left by Leibnitz, Newton, Watt, Fulton, Darwin or Maxwell. He even figured that since he sat at the steps of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, he, too, might be destined to the greatness accorded to Edward Gibbon. Mr. Adams may be pleased to know that today our citizens are as unfamiliar with him as they are of the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Despite its charm and its keen, witty observations, this volume is unfortunately lopsided, describing an antiseptic, stoic life. As in much written history, the focus is on the elite, a tale of the one-percenters, here and abroad. Mr. Adams retested the adage that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know; and he, being an Adams, knew plenty of important persons. He did affirm that we are always learning, up to the end of our lives, yes. We learn that when the Cabot Lodge’s ask you to join them on a grand tour of Europe, say yes; when the president of your college asks you, unsolicited, to join the history department as assistant professor, say yes; when your father, the ambassador to the United Kingdom, asks you to join him as personal secretary in London, say yes – even better if by so doing you honorably avoid participating in a civil war where death by bullet or typhus might be had.

But I think Mr. Adams had a whole lot more to share with us that is left unsaid. My criticism is for what he held back. I was curious about the wealth that permitted Mr. Adams’ patrician lifestyle. He does not discuss his financial wellbeing; not once does he dwell on the shares, consols and property investments that facilitate his wanderings. More importantly, I think he had much to tell us about a thirteen-year marriage, without children, that ended in his wife’s suicide. Nor does he dwell on his personal, intimate relationships with women generally. What did he consider his greatest mistakes, his greatest regrets? I suspect he chose to write in a distant third-person voice because it was then easier to distance himself from the pains life presented along the way, some perhaps uncomfortably shameful; we’ll never know.

When I was in graduate school, a wise instructor left us with some important words on the last day of his class as he had likely done each year for decades. “Now I want you all to put your pens down,” he said. “When you get married and things get difficult – and marriages do get difficult – and someone gets the idea to have a child . . . get a dog.” Now that was an education – one I ignored, naturally. I wish Henry Adams lent us words as significant. We really could benefit from truth, more especially if we took heed.
Profile Image for Jon Frankel.
Author 8 books22 followers
January 5, 2015
Henry Adams’ The Education of Henry Adams is intellectual autobiography told in a slightly mocking, gently ironic third person. Henry Adams is never off the page. He anatomizes himself with the same acuity, but greater clarity, than the other Henry, Mr. James, analyzes his characters. Adams was born in 1838 and bears witness to the industrial, scientific, cultural, and intellectual revolutions of the 19th century. He is aware that he shares a womb with the future, even as his instinct draws him to the past, the medieval past of the High Middle Ages, of Dante, and Aquinas, of the cathedrals of Chartres and Mont St. Michel. A provincial boy, he grows into a true cosmopolitan, traveling the world, teaching at Harvard for 7 years, writing about art and politics, and presiding over a legendary Washington DC salon. He wrote a multivolume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations. He knew everyone. As a very young man he accompanied his father, a congressman, and son of John Quincy Adams, to the court in London, as personal secretary. Their job was to prevent England from entering the civil war on the side of the south. His closest friends were John Hay, who served presidents from Lincoln to Roosevelt, and Henry Cabot Lodge, senator from Massachusetts, cousin of American philosopher Charles Pierce. In The Education the scientific revolution, especially Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also in theoretical physics, provokes a spiritual crisis that Adams resolves into a theory of history. I have never encountered a more fascinating, ruminative mind in action. Adams ponders, is troubled by, and works out the complex philosophical/spiritual/ethical challenge of emerging modernism with the mind of an average person, and this is what is so exhilarating. His very modesty allows you to share his puzzlement. And the thing is, he seems to love the sensation of alienation, he enjoys the antiquation of a world he grew up in (the 18th century is his world in many ways, not the 19th). He gently weaves a thesis out of chaos and perceived order. His mind is deeply, intractably dialectical. He seems to have absorbed Marx. He anticipates Freud. Chaos Theory and Quantum Mechanics would not have surprised him at all. Post-modern skepticism is already in his mental framework. It is no wonder that the great historian of American politics, Walter Lefebre, assigned this book to all of his first year graduate students.

This book makes it to number one on all the greatest hits of nonfiction lists. There’s a reason for it. It is totally brilliant from beginning to end, and it is one of the few books I wish had kept going and going and going.
Profile Image for Frederick.
Author 7 books43 followers
August 11, 2013
I'll augment my review later, but I'll give my first impression of this book now, having finished reading it yesterday. Adams's life, in itself, is interesting. He seems to have been a man of good grace, kindness and ability. (He was extremely well-placed, being the direct descendent of both Presidents Adams.) As the book progresses, more and more of the education he claims not to have shows, until, by the end, he almost seems to be throwing educational firecrackers at the reader. I learned THIS. Bang! I learned THIS! Bang! THIS! Crash! THIS! Boom! So, I sense that the story really is about a fellow who served people around him with great humility for most of his life, who finally got to say what he really thought of being the constant servant. I am being a bit unfair. Adams shows, by the end of the book, that he has a tremendous understanding of physics. (He was among the first to witness a demonstration of the X-ray.) This autobiography, published nine years before Joyce's PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, builds the same way that great novel does. This makes me wonder if Joyce read THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS. [Probably not until AFTER the publication of PORTRAIT, inasmuch as Adams' book was only available in a privately printed edition as of 1906. It was published commercially in 1918, shortly after Adams' death. He won a Pulitzer posthumously. So Joyce would have been aware of him before ULYSSES. But would he have liked him?] Adams is really saying, "I have lived!" But I can't help wondering if he really thought his knowledge of physics was a sign of his gift, or the fact that, throughout his adult life, Presidents and senators called upon him to act as advisor or diplomat. He seems to think this political capacity of his is trivial. Or does he? It is a sly book, with a tone of clarity, but I can't really tell if he believed his own theory of force. I sense he thought building his theory was his life-work. He periodically drew attention to other scientists, which reinforces my concept of him as a diplomat. I'm not sure he would have called himself a scientist, of course. He seems to have preferred to call himself an historian. But if he was an historian, why is his thrust one of theory?
Profile Image for Mommalibrarian.
741 reviews46 followers
September 3, 2017
Henry Adams was the fly on the wall for many years. His self-report is that he never had any power, his actions had no effect and he never really understood anything. I don't know how true any of that was but he was still complaining at the end. The book made me want to know a lot more about the 'fly-over' parts of US history. I am now certain that we have had several absolutely horrible presidents and survived. You will have to read the book to see who Adams put in that category.

Interesting tidbits:
- "slave-power [money interest in] overshadowed all the great Boston interests [morality]"
-"Average human nature is very coarse, and its ideals must necessarily be average. The world never loved perfect poise. What the world does love is commonly absence of poise, for it has to be amused." [Obama and Trump]
- "no one took Harvard College seriously. All went there because their friends went there, and the College was their ideal of social self-respect."
- "college drinking was not of lasting negative impact but.. the habit of looking at life as a social relation - an affair of society - did no good. It cultivated a weakness which needed no cultivation."
- In Britain during the Civil War, sentiment was that the US Federal government would fail and Jefferson Davis would make a nation. At this time Britain had already abolished slavery but was dependent on southern sources of cotton for its mills. The British public found Lincoln a laughable figure.
- the creation of railroads "required all the new machinery to be created - capital, banks, mines, furnaces, shops, power-houses, technical knowledge, mechanical , population, together with steady remodeling of social and political habits, ideas, and institutions to fit the new scale and suit the new conditions." [as tumultuous as the process of computer to AI]
- a US Senator pushed for a suit against Britain for aiding the south. He maintained that the British support extended the civil war by two years, cost the US $2.125B and thought we should get Canada as compensation.
- "morality is a private and costly luxury"

This is a very dense book and if you follow up on every curious side story it will take you forever to read.
Profile Image for Sher.
536 reviews3 followers
December 22, 2018
The Education of Henry Adams is an exploration of politics and culture in the mid-19th C through early 20th C. The voice is third person, which is odd for an autobiography. The narrative traces Adams' time through the Civil War period when he was in England as a private secretary for his father who was a diplomat. Various American presidents come under Adams's scrutiny Lincoln, Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt to name a few. The book doesn't get a five star from me for its clarity, because I found much to question in this book such as why doesn't he ever mention his wife, and why does he portray himself as such a failure, and what does he mean by "education." through each decade of his life? The conflicts between traditional morality and the past generations of Jefferson and Adams and the forces of science and technology are key to being included on his journey into the modern age. Literary critics call this work a unique melding of autobiography, coming of age, and social commentary, and I found it so. It's a work to be read if you are interested in 19th C American Intellectual history.
Profile Image for James Henderson.
2,044 reviews166 followers
March 11, 2009
The memoir of a man and a family, Henry Adams was the son of a diplomat/ politician, grandson of a president and the great-grandson of another. The Adams family had produced leaders for the country since its founding and Henry Adams was heir to that leadership. In his Education he produced one of the best autobiographies ever written, chronicling the rapid change of the last half of the nineteenth century while sharing personal experiences with his father, at Harvard, Washington and elsewhere. I highly recommend this narrative for all readers interested in good writing and the history of the United States.
Profile Image for Matt.
430 reviews
June 19, 2017
3 out of 5 stars for the Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams.

Please note:// There are light spoilers so I marked my review accordingly.

I found this definition of education online:

• the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university

• the theory and practice of teaching

• the body of knowledge acquired while being educated

• an enlightening experience

This definition is probably the way most people would define education, and is the way I would define it myself. Adams challenges this classical definition of education by changing what most people would consider to be a noun (a person, place, or thing) into a verb (action). In this autobiography, I believe his goal was to illustrate to his readers that education is an action or a life long pursuit, not something that simply "is". Adams treated his personal education as a fluid, ever-changing, and dynamic force that was always yearning for renewal. A difficulty I had with his theory of education was that he never seemed happy or content throughout his life - he was ALWAYS searching for something, and I personally believe that at some point(s) one has to take life as it is, or as it comes, and one shouldn't exhaust him/herself constantly pursuing education/knowledge like Adams did in his life.

Did this book open my mind to seeing education in a new light? My answer to that is maybe it did a little bit. Adams raises some interesting points in this book and it is interesting throughout. He gets a little heavy handed for me in some parts. He definitely lived an eventful life, though. Henry Adams is the grandson of John Quincy Adams and the great grandson of John Adams. Imagine being descendant to two former presidents! Adams served as personal secretary to his father Charles Francis Adams who served as ambassador to England during the Civil War. The U.S. sent an Adams to England for 3 generations- John brokered the peace with England to end the American Revolution, his son, John Quincy settled with England to end the War of 1812. Charles Francis Adams deftly kept England out of direct interference in the American Civil War, for which he should be highly commended. After serving as secretary, Henry became a journalist for a while, then taught history at Harvard, then became (more or less) a freelance U.S. historian writing "History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison" , among other similar historical works. His life spanned from 1838-1918, so he lived through the American Civil War, saw the turn of the 20th century and even lived through World War I. His life and times were indeed eventful, to say the least.

I was personally more interested in reading this autobiography to learn about the Adams family descendants to find out what happened to the family after John Adams and John Quincy Adams. The politics appear to have ceased with Henry Adams. I believed he rebelled against his legacy, which may (or may not) have been his biggest mistake he made during his life. He seemed to blaze his own trail, and for that reason, if nothing else, I would recommend this book for other readers to see how he went about it.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
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