An Improbable Education

January Bookmarks
Henry Adams seated at desk (Marian Hooper Adams, 1883, courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society/Wikimedia Commons)

What a time to be reading the historian and critic Henry Adams. Just last week, a Trumpist rioter was shot and killed in the Capitol. How could this happen, media talking heads opined; sacred ground has been desecrated, senators proclaimed. But Capitol Hill isn’t a stranger to violence, and Henry Adams, scion of one of America’s great political dynasties (John Adams was his great-grandfather, John Quincy Adams his grandfather), knew it.

As a child, Henry Adams worshipped family friend and anti-slavery senator, Charles Sumner. When Adams was eleven, he hung around the Massachusetts General Court gallery so as to be the first to hear that Sumner had won a seat in the Senate: “Slipping under the arms of the bystanders,” he writes in his memoir, The Education of Henry Adams, “he ran home as hard as he could, and burst into the dining-room where Mr. Sumner was seated at table with the family. He enjoyed the glory of telling Sumner that he was elected; it was probably the proudest moment in the life of either.”

In 1856, five years after his electoral triumph, Sumner denounced the Kansas-Nebraska Act specifically and slave powers more generally on the floor of Congress. On May 22, Sumner was sitting at his desk in the Senate. Once the chamber cleared, Preston Brooks, a pro-slavery representative from South Carolina, walked up to the Massachusetts senator, declared that his state had been libeled, and promptly beat Sumner bloody with a cane. It’s worth remembering that the Capitol isn’t a church; it’s a site of power. And, as Adams writes, “Power is poison.”

Over the last year, we’ve been given the curse of living in interesting times. As related in David S. Brown’s new biography, The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams (Scribner, $30, 464 pp.), Henry Adams knew what that was like. He lived through the Civil War (during which his father was ambassador to Britain and Adams was his secretary); he lived through the industrialization and financialization of the American economy (“The world, after 1865,” he writes in The Education, “became a bankers’ world”); he knew Ulysses S. Grant (“The type was pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to the cave-dwellers”) and was frenemies with Theodore Roosevelt (“Roosevelt, more than any other man living within the range of notoriety, showed the singular primitive quality that belongs to ultimate matter—the quality that medieval theology assigned to God—he was pure act”). In an essay considering the winter of 1860–61, he stretches syntax (no American wrote better long sentences than Adams did) to describe the creep, creep, creep of secession:

It was every day clearer that the danger was not imagined; that the flood of disunion feeling was advancing at fearful speed towards Washington, and threatened to overwhelm Virginia and even Maryland. And as State after State set up the standard of rebellion, and treason proclaimed itself in the Capitol and White House itself; when crowded galleries broke into violent applause over disunion speeches, and the whole city was expecting an outbreak from day to day; as it became more and more evident that the credit of the Government was tottering; its army and navy useless or nearly so; its whole frame and action hampered, weakened, broken wherever practicable, and the traitors still at its head; as all this gradually forced itself upon the minds of the leading Republicans, and they began to see the danger they ran, and to feel the tangling knots of that great net in which they were snared, they opened their eyes to their hazardous position and began to stretch their hands about them for some firm support.

The buffoonery of President Trump and the cosplay-like nature of those who stormed the Capitol have blinded many to the real danger we’re living through. Do we feel the tangling knots of that great net in which we’ve been snared? Maybe we’re starting to open our eyes.


Published in 1918, The Education of Henry Adams is a work of great irony and imaginative power, a modernist masterpiece that, like all modernist masterpieces, pressurizes experience into lasting form. In The Education, Adams is interested in many things—history, architecture, theology, gender—but he also knows that these interests don’t matter a jot until stylized, aestheticized, made meaningful: “The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modelling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best. The form is never arbitrary, but is a sort of growth like crystallization.”

“The Education of Henry Adams” is a work of great irony and imaginative power.

Adams wrote The Education in the third person, a distancing effect that plays to Adams’s “scruple of mind,” as the great critic R. P. Blackmur puts it. Adams was scrupulous toward himself (“in all probability, whatever he did would be more or less a mistake”), and he was scrupulous toward others. Of the late-in-life decline of his one-time hero Charles Sumner, he writes, “Not that Sumner was more aggressively egoistic than other Senators—Conkling, for instance—but that with him the disease had affected the whole mind; it was chronic and absolute.” This scrupulosity is of a distinctively New England cast, fitting for someone raised in Boston and Quincy—“the stoniest glacial and tidal drift known in any Puritan land.” At times, The Education of Henry Adams reads like a confession, albeit one that forever ironizes its own admissions. (Adams was attracted to, even if he couldn’t believe in, Catholicism; his 1907 Mont Saint Michel and Chartres wonderfully and idiosyncratically explores medieval Catholic aesthetics and theology.) Adams saw himself and others at a remove. He was friends with Henry James, and I suspect he identified with the heroine of James’s What Maisie Knew: “She was to feel henceforth as if she were flattening her nose upon the hard window-pane of the sweet-shop of knowledge.”

One of the sweets that Adams looked at—with longing, with disdain, with curiosity, with persistence—was political power. Despite his pedigree, Adams never ran for office. Indeed, many pages of his memoir show him worrying over what the hell to do with his life. (Some might say too many pages. Try being an Adams; you’ll worry, too.) One of the jokes of The Education of Henry Adams, though like many jokes it’s also deadly serious, is what a failure Adams has found himself to be. He was a secretary to a diplomat but never a diplomat himself; he was friends to politicians but never had access to the levers of power; he was a history professor at Harvard who gave it up after seven years. (In addition to The Education, Adams was an editor, two-time novelist, and world-class historian. His nine-volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations is often compared to Edward Gibbon’s six-volume The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.) Concerning his childhood, he writes, “Thus, at the outset, he was condemned to failure more or less complete in the life awaiting him, but not more so than his companions.” Concerning his attempt to learn German: “The German university had seemed a failure, but the German high school was something very near an indictable nuisance.” Summing things up: “Henry Adams had failed to acquire any useful education; he should at least have acquired social experience. Curiously enough, he failed here also.”

But Adams’s various self-described failures enabled, were the precondition for, the triumph that is The Education of Henry Adams. His proximate distance from power allowed him to see it most clearly, and The Education is, through and through, an analysis of power: how it’s gained, how it’s wielded, what compromises it demands, what corruptions it entails. As Republican lickspittles cower and pander to Trump, it’s striking to come across these lines: “The amusement of making Presidents has keen fascination for idle American hands, but these black arts have the old drawback of all deviltry; one must serve the spirit one evokes, even though the service were perdition to body and soul.”


You might ask, why write a biography of Adams when Adams wrote The Education? But Adams’s book is more about a sensibility than it is about a life—or, to put it another way, it reveals how, for the serious artist (and that’s what Adams was, at his core), the sensibility is the life. Large sections of Adams’s life go untreated in The Education, most famously the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, in 1885 and the twenty years that came after it. So there’s room for a more straightforward, chronological treatment, and that’s what David S. Brown offers in The Last American Aristocrat.

The old American world was slipping away, Brown argues, and Adams’s resentment at this fact is the skeleton key to both his life and work.

Brown finds Adams of interest primarily as a type: he is “a transitional figure, one bridging the chasm between the ‘colonial’ and ‘modern.’” Adams was born in 1838 into American political aristocracy; he died in March of 1918, right before the end of World War I. As Adams himself wondered, “What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?” Brown finds Adams, again and again, lamenting much that is modern (industry; financial speculation; mass democracy) and wishing for much that is past or passing (a mandarin class running the government and shaping the culture). Brown reads The Education as “the story of a man overtaken by the speed, flux, and versatility of the modern world.” Indeed, he reads almost everything—and he has an excellent command of Adams’s writing, from polemical essays to casual letters—through this prism. The old American world was slipping away, Brown argues, and Adams’s resentment at this fact is the skeleton key to both his life and work. Adams’s novel Democracy “offers a negative progress report of sorts on the republic’s ragged development”; his advocacy for civil-service reform was self-interest by another name, since in “a meritocracy,” “the beneficiary of Adams privilege, Brooks wealth, and a Harvard education” would do quite well; his support for political independents was really “an opportunity to revive the political influence of the old patrician elite” by playing Democrats against Republicans; he hated bankers because they were taking the power that rightly belonged to the Adamses of the world.

Some of this is true enough: though Adams didn’t grasp after power, that’s not to say that he didn’t want it. Adams had a tendency to sneer at modernity and the masses, but Brown’s sneering at Adams’s sneering can get tiresome. Banking interests were, and are, often corrupt, and pointing this out doesn’t necessarily indicate class aggrievement. Brown rightly castigates Adams’s regular use of anti-Semitic tropes when talking about out-of-control finance capitalism; he just as rightly points to Adams’s wary response to Reconstruction. Adams was more than just a fading aristocrat cursing against the dying day, though. Too often Brown misses this.

There’s an even bigger blind spot in The Last American Aristocrat: we don’t get much sense for Adams as a prose stylist. Brown, like many, compares Adams to Edward Gibbon. But this comparison works not because of methodological similarity or philosophical affinity. It works because of shared writerly brilliance. Gibbon wrote better sentences than any English historian had before; Adams wrote better sentences than any American historian has since. Blackmur, who remains Adams’s best critic, wrote, “If there is a paradox here, or an irony hard to digest, it is not in the life experienced or the failure won, but in the forms through which they are conceived, in the very duplicity of language itself, in the necessarily equivocal character, earned by long use, of every significant word.” There’s a reason that Louis Zukofsky wrote his master’s thesis on Adams and that Blackmur, the most literary of mid-century America’s literary critics, loved Adams as he did. It’s for the rhythm and music (“Society being immortal, could put on immortality at will. Adams being mortal, felt only the mortality”), for the symbols that concretize and amplify meaning, as in this image of the inner self: “His artificial balance was acquired habit. He was an acrobat, with a dwarf on his back, crossing a chasm on a slack-rope, and commonly breaking his neck.”

Many historians can help us better understand what we’re living through right now. No one else can make us see a French Gothic cathedral so clearly:

The peril of the heavy tower, of the restless vault, of the vagrant buttress; the uncertainty of logic, the inequalities of the syllogism, the irregularities of the mental mirror,—all these haunting nightmares of the Church are expressed as strongly by the Gothic cathedral as though it had been the cry of human suffering, and as no emotion had ever been expressed before or is likely to find expression again. The delight of its aspirations is flung up to the sky. The pathos of its self-distrust and anguish of doubt, is buried in the earth as its last secret. You can read out of it whatever else pleases your youth and confidence; to me, this is all.

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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