My parents are retired academics, and the library of their small, cozy house, which is tucked away on a country hillside in Pennsylvania, is thick with the residua of a half century in the humanities. Among the many books nestled in these overcrowded shelves are a number of Modern Library hardcovers, some with their torn Art Deco paper jackets still clinging to them, some stripped to their gilt-lettered cloth binding, among them, or so I thought, an edition of Henry Adams’s celebrated posthumous autobiography—one of the founding documents of American literature.
I was back at my parents’ over the holiday, but when I looked for the book, it was mysteriously gone. The seed, however—as is so often the case with me, being one of visual association with a specific physical object—had been planted. So last month, confronted with the rare, welcome, and unexpected boon of a break in my assigned-reviewing book reading duties, I dutifully made my way to the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library—that most functional and least aesthetically pleasing of all New York City institutions—checked out the Houghton paperback edition with the foreword by Donald Hall, and dove into it that same night.
The Education of Henry Adams is an extraordinary book, maddening, alternately fascinating and tedious, just as often mordantly and unexpectedly funny, one that seems both ragingly pertinent to and impossibly distant from our own time. Written in a stream of perfectly balanced and musical prose, it is at times opaque; coming from a perspective of unimaginable privilege and prestige, it is dominated by themes of failure, exclusion, otherness, superannuation. Most of all, it provokes turbulent half-formed thoughts on history, politics, identity, privilege, and the meaning of the act of reading.
Adams’s book works against its readers’ expectations in a curious way. The book is saturated, from its title down, with a sense of ironic detachment and self-deprecation. The running joke of the book, of sorts, is that Adams continually fails at everything he turns his hand to: he speaks repeatedly of not being able to understand, of being left out of the conversation, of being excluded, of failing, of not being equal to the task at hand. The title is deeply ironic: the book could just as easily be called (pace Lauryn Hill) The Miseducation of Henry Adams, as his attempts to be prepared for the world at large are constantly failing him and leaving him bereft of purpose and capability. There is something amusingly hangdog about his affect—he’s like a 19th-century Kylo Ren, living with petulant ineffectuality in the long shadows of his forbears.
And it is hard to locate the book within contemporary attitudes towards privilege and entitlement. Adams feels very dead, very white, and very male; it is difficult to imagine an author who is more favored with wealth and status, who is more certifiably a member of the Anglo-Saxon patriarchy, whose story less well-suited to our current and deeply justified hunger for diversity and alterity in the narratives we choose to invest ourselves in. What relevance could this book possibly hold?
But Adams’s blunt awareness of the circumstances of his birth is disarming:
Probably no child, born in the year, held better cards than he. Whether life was an honest game of chance, or whether the cards were marked and forced, he could not refuse to play his excellent hand. He could never make the usual plea of irresponsibility. He accepted the situation as though he had been a party to it, and under the same circumstances would do it again, the more readily for knowing the exact values. To his life as a whole he was a consenting, contracting party and partner from the moment he was born to the moment he died. Only with that understanding—as a consciously assenting member in full partnership with the society of his age—had his education an interest to himself or to others.
He has struck a bargain with himself and with the readers: In exchange for the privilege he has born into, he agrees to look with an honest eye at the forces that made him so and how he fits into the narrative of American consciousness. He will place, as his first biographer Ernest Samuels put it, “the sustained intermingling of philosophy and personal experience in the service of a historical thesis.” Adams’s “education leads ineluctably to the conviction of his own ignorance, and his ignorance must educate us,” Donald Hall writes in his foreword. “We read Adams to remind us of our ignorance.” To use a shopworn metaphor, Adams is the man who fully understands that he was born standing on third base; “we started out ahead of everybody,” he wrote in his journals, of his cohort. It would be easy enough to see this as a form of self-absorption, of rationalization, but to me it sounds oddly heroic.
And so off he goes, through his youth in Massachusetts and his education at Harvard and then to the first great political experience of his life, that of being secretary to his father, the ambassador to England, during the Civil War. Adams’s account of long-forgotten details of England’s semi-neutrality in the conflict, of diplomatic infighting and deceit and maneuvering, can be slow going, but is also remarkably evocative of how treacherous the byways of transcontinental politics were—a role for which he was forever ill-suited.
Returning to the United States, he finds himself sidelined by the avaricious vulgarity of Ulysses S. Grant’s administration; Edward Halsey Foster pictures a “man of immense reserve and intelligence, living across from the White House and studying its occupants with little confidence in their abilities.” He reluctantly takes up a professorship at Harvard—“education, like politics, is a rough affair,” he observes—before going west with the legendary geologist and surveyor Clarence King. The end of Chapter Twenty finds Adams in a mountainside camp with King, where he concludes that “no more education was possible for either man.”
So, it is startling for a contemporary reader, or maybe even any reader, to turn the page and that find Chapter Twenty-One is titled “Twenty Years After,” and dated 1892. It begins with this stirring refrain:
Once more! this is the story of education, not of adventure! It is meant to help young menor such as have intelligence enough to seek help—but it is not meant to amuse them. What one did—or did not do—with one’s education, after getting it, need trouble the inquirer in no way; it is a personal matter only which would confuse him.
This extraordinary sentence, with its mixture of bravado, condescension, generosity, and evasiveness, marks one of the most drastic elisions in the history of American narrative, and one that can only be understood, of course, in context. What readers of Adams’s time and just after would have known was that the missing 20 years comprised the happiest of his life, those in which he met, courted, and married Marian “Clover” Hooper, with whom he lived a prosperous and highly social life in Washington, all of which ended abruptly with his wife’s unexpected suicide in 1885. Hall avers that Adams’s reticence “is clearly the product not of coldness but intolerable heat;” Foster makes the cryptic and highly unscholarly observation that “some have speculated that Adams’s distant, ironic nature contributed to his wife’s suicide, but there is no direct evidence of this.” Whatever the truth, it takes a special kind of man to write a 500-page autobiography without mentioning the suicide of his wife, and here again we find ourselves looking at Adams as from a great distance.
Having elided the central tragedy of his life from his history, he continues his account of his peregrinations across the United States and Europe, including three visits to World’s Fairs, those of 1893, 1900, and 1904, as well as to a series of European cathedrals, especially the one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, at Chartres, in France. Adams’s lifelong freedom from conventional social and financial obligations was socially isolating but also intellectually liberating. Adams was essentially an autodidact, and one detects in the patterns of his thinking both the autodidact’s characteristic strengths—catholicity of interest, a tendency toward synthesis—as well as weaknesses, the primary one being an idiosyncrasy that borders at times on cranky. (He reminds me at times of those super-intelligent loners who read, if such a thing were possible, too much, and who, ungrounded by intellectual contact with peers of any kind, spin off into elaborate conspiracy theories.)
In Adams’s case, he developed a conception of himself as a “conservative Christian anarchist”—whatever that means—and cooked up weird, quasi-feminist, slightly icky theories about gender and sex. He vouched that he “owed more to the American woman than to all the American men he ever heard of” and he “caught the trick of affirming that the woman was the superior,” although it turns out that woman “was the goddess because of her force; she was the animated dynamo; she was reproduction—the greatest and most mysterious of all energies.” His adoration of feminine iconography in early Christianity was somehow yoked to his idea that Christianity had ended. The result, in his formulation, was “an emptying of history,” as his biographer Edward Chalfant put it, “an emptiness so vast could be crushing. Having no one to turn to, he feared he might lapse into a senseless admiration of Jesus—senseless because belated.” His travels allowed him to pursue a growing fascination with both technology and with the history of religion, which gradually blossomed into a series of chapters about history and science. The most famous of these are “The Dynamo and the Virgin” and “A Dynamic Theory of History,” which form the basis of the book’s reputation as a foundational document in the philosophy of history.
For me the central brilliance of these two knotty excursae lies less in the particulars of their propositions and more in the brilliance and ambition of their scope. Adams understood better than any of his peers—and remarkably well for a man aged 72, not an age commonly associated with flexible receptiveness to unfamiliar technologies—that this new technology transformed not just work, and society, but thought. “The dynamo,” as the scholar Jennifer Lieberman puts it in an entrancing new book, “inspires Adams to write history in new ways. Its ‘force’ challenges him to think beyond his own parochial perspective—to reimagine history not as a series of human accomplishments, but as a larger drama involving systemically interconnected energies.” (Lieberman also makes the delightful observation that Adams’s hunger for the gloss of the new wears off quickly, just as it might for any 13-year-old with a new smartphone.) In The Education, as Samuels observed, “reality shimmers through a haze of symbols and analogies, and imagination makes all history a simultaneous emotion.”
As Adams broadens his thesis, he also casts his eye backwards, and he begins to feel himself dissolving into the past, into disembodied experience. He begins to wish for the negation of learning; “he saw his education as complete, and was sorry he had ever begun,” and expresses doubt about the fundamental communicability of the liberal project, noting that “words are slippery and thought is viscous.” He limns a profound understanding of the futility of assuming that progress is cumulative. “The attempt of the American of 1800 to educate the American of 1900” had
not often been surpassed for folly; and since 1800 the forces and their complications had increased a thousand times or more. 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’s conclusion, as John C. Orr puts it, emphasizes that “the mental paradigms one inherited [will always] lag behind technological and scientific developments;” in a world where the acceleration of knowledge and technology increases exponentially, the inner truth of education lies in recognizing its limits. We must know above all what it is that we do not know.
This conception strikes me as fundamentally humble, not just towards one’s peers or superiors, but towards the unknown future generations. So many current leaders, thinkers, and writers are absolutely sure of their own values and achievements; so many of them are absolutely certain of the superiority of their moral vision to that of their predecessors, and of the utility of their perceptions to posterity. Adams was relentless in his denial of this (after all) very human urge; he looks back on his own preconceptions of youth and concludes that anything he would try to say to future generations would be worse than useless. Underneath all of his elegant melancholy is an asperity that is unsparing of himself, that is ruthless towards sentimentality, cant, moral certitude, all of the pious superiorities that so often accompanied the 19th-century idea of progress. It’s a little frightening; the intensity of Adams’s world-historical skepticism approaches nihilism. This, I think, more than its somewhat convoluted theories or its value as a historical document, is the heart of The Education’s continued appeal. Its emotional valence is remarkably bracing to anyone who finds himself out of tune with the received notions of a culture.
This strange and beautiful journey of a book grows darker as its author gives way to the encroaching gloom of superannuation, almost to the violence of despair. He was deeply unmoored by the loss of the Titanic, on which he was scheduled to sail on its return voyage to London; Susan Hanssen writes that the “catastrophe seemed almost too neatly to demonstrate the truth of his warning against modern man’s belief that he could master and manipulate nature to create the kingdom of heaven on earth.” His mindset can be inferred from a wonderful letter that Henry James wrote to him in 1914, wherein the great novelist wrote that “I still find…consciousness interesting” and implored his friend, “cultivate it with me, dear Henry—that’s what I hope to make you do; to cultivate yours for all that it has in common with mine.” (It can’t be a good sign when Henry James is telling you to cheer up.) As it comes to a close, The Education strikes a note of discordance and entropy, with a dizzying view of a New York City descending into high-velocity chaos and madness:
The cylinder had exploded, and thrown great masses of stone and steam against the sky. The city had the air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control. Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable, and afraid.
That this vision feels so accurate does not mean that the world we inhabit is the same as Adams’s—much that he held dear now seems retrograde and exclusionary, and much of what he disdained has been rendered triumphant. But reading this despairing, sardonic, sometimes difficult book allows to see both things, what we have gained and what we have lost; it shows us how to attend to the details of our own educational journeys, whatever they may be.