Some years ago, a friend said he could not understand the ongoing popular interest in John Adams and his descendants. Of that prominent American family, he said, “They were all smart, but sick.” Brilliance and eccentricity (if not madness) do seem to pair together, and many of the Adams men were no exception.
Such patterns fascinated Henry Adams in particular, and his perspicacity and eccentricity are on full display in his eloquent autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams. During Adams’ lifetime, he circulated that book privately amongst a few friends, and in 1918, months after Adams’ death, it was published commercially and won a Pulitzer Prize. It is still in print, and a first-time reader is advised to keep in mind that Adams wrote his memoirs in the third person.
Born in Boston in 1838, Henry Adams was the grandson of one American president and great-grandson of another. Put another way, his paternal grandfather was John Quincy Adams, whose father was John Adams. Henry Adams always felt the weight of having two great men staring, most likely glaring, down at him from his family tree.
For all its well-deserved acclaim, The Education of Henry Adams remains a strange book. Purportedly offering a general template for young men seeking an education, it focused on an unusual man’s education. For Adams, education was something only occasionally occurring within a classroom. All the same, it seems morbidly self-absorbed to go looking upon life, or even looking back on life, as occasions for idiosyncratic education.
Meanwhile, Adams had an Enlightenment fixation for finding natural laws that govern the universe, society, and humanity itself. Scientific laws and philosophical rumination on them seem to have been perpetual grist for his mental mill. Adams saw himself inheriting the eighteenth-century outlook of his presidential ancestors, but like nearly all North Atlantic intellectuals of his day, he was thrown off his paces by the theories of Charles Darwin. From reading Darwin, Adams developed his own concepts of social decline.
Near the end of Chapter 29 stands a typical passage of opaque cogitation: “By that path of newest science, one saw no unity ahead—nothing but a dissolving mind—and the historian felt himself driven back on thought as one continuous Force, without Race, Sex, School, Country, or Church. This has been always the fate of rigorous thinkers, and . . . [t]heir method made what progress the science of history knew, which was little enough, but they did at last fix the law that, if history ever meant to correct the errors she made in detail, she must agree on a scale for the whole.” By way of clarification, Adams merely added more fog: “Every local historian might defy this law till history ended, but its necessity would be the same for man as for space or time or force, and without it the historian would always remain a child in science.” Right.
When writing about President Ulysses Grant, for whom he had voted, Adams said that Grant’s advisors “could never follow a mental process to his thought,” so that “they were not sure that he did think.” Grant was a man of few words and held basic principles of right and wrong, and to Adams, “the type was pre-intellectual, archaic, and would have seemed so even to cave-dwellers.” As Adams thought about what men like Grant thought about thinking, he concluded, “The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.” Whether the existence of Grant upset evolutionary theory, it baffled Adams.
During Grant’s presidency, the president of Adams’ alma mater, Harvard, asked Adams to accept a new professorship, teaching Medieval History. In the chapter describing his time as a professor, Adams coined one of his most memorable epigrams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” It is worth recalling that he entitled that chapter “Failure,” because his approach to teaching sought methods beyond lecturing: “Barred from philosophy and bored by facts, he wanted to teach his students something not wholly useless.” He found it could not be done.
Such discursive ironies help inform a reader that Adams was presenting not so much a thorough narrative as a series of reflections on scenes from his life. He recounted that his friend John Hay had written a multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln around the same time that Adams had published a multi-volume history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. “Between them,” Adams wrote of Hay and himself, “they had written nearly all the American history there was to write.” Adams noted almost as an aside, “The intermediate period needed intermediate treatment; the gap between James Madison and Abraham Lincoln could not be judicially filled by either of them.” Adams neglected to mention that the gap in question included the presidency of Adams’ grandfather.
By far the most remarkable gap in The Education of Henry Adams comes from skipping over the twenty years from 1871 to 1891. Those two decades contained the thirteen years of Adams’ married life. In June, 1872, he married Marian Hooper, known to all as Clover; she was witty and well-read and a gifted photographer. As was the case with Henry’s younger brother, Brooks, and his wife, Evelyn, Henry and Clover had no children.
For reasons now unknown, in December, 1885, Clover Adams committed suicide. Although earlier in his Education Adams wrote poignantly of his grief over the death of his sister, and later he wrote approvingly about the virtues of nineteenth-century American women, such as embodied in Mrs. Henry Cabot Lodge, Adams never wrote about his wife. It becomes part of a reader’s education, to learn from such an articulate gentleman when to keep silent.
The saga of this Adams family has inspired numerous studies. Among them are Paul C. Nagel’s Descent from Glory (1983) and Richard Brookhiser’s America’s First Dynasty (2002). In 1976, a miniseries on PBS and its accompanying book, The Adams Chronicles, depicted Henry Adams, but as though affirming Adams’ sense of ongoing social declension, that television dramatization’s production values paled beside those of a theatrical film from 1950, The Magnificent Yankee. In the latter, about Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Adams appeared as an erudite yet pessimistic neighbor with a knack for dropping in at inopportune moments. It may well be the most accurate sketch we have of him.