The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

Quite a few lists I’ve seen place this work by Henry Adams as one of the best autobiographies of the last century. These lists are correct. But there are no doubt better minds, and more learned writers, who have disected this book left and right in sundry ways. So, this review will look at the experience of reading The Education of Henry Adams.

By birth and temperament, along with the twists and contingencies of life, Adams sees history from a less familiar perspective. Generally, we are familiar with history in one of two ways. On the one hand, there are the great majority of us, who see and experience events through history, but at its lowest level and with somewhat of a detachment from the choices made. We are spectators only to a larger field of action. On the other hand, there are those comparatively few individuals who, in some way or another, do influence history: great minds, political leaders, and so forth. Adams is neither of these.

Rather, he is almost in both. On speaking terms with those in power, meeting some of the great minds, still he does not take a place in history with them. At least, not in ways other than writing. If history is like a great play or story, Adams shows us the plot from the view of a secondary player.

All the while, Adams looks for education, and tells us the story of what this education (such as it was) involved. In many ways, his education leads him to the place of Socrates, of being aware of one’s own ignorance.

Sitting in a sushi joint, I read as Adams discusses the Virgin and the Dynamo, about forces and powers, and trying to discover the lines force takes. The eighteenth century recedes for an eighteenth century man, as the chaos, the ambiguity, the energy of the twentieth dawns. What can one learn in an age of change, constant change, where a man born and breed to a dead age must face one without precedence?

And reading it, I see rain starting to pour down the window, obscuring the reflection of neon lights and cheap Japanese art. Is rain consistent? Since the time of Pterapis, one would think the rain remains the same. But Adams’ dilemma works on the reader. We knew what rain was in a dead age. But the rain that flows is no longer just matter, but matter in motion, that matter is motion, and motion is matter. A paradox about a simple thing as rain, which points the observer to….something. Some power. Some force. Something supersensual, something by its nature unknown and unknowable. For the one searching for education, even rain does not give solace.

Adams wrote as an old man trying to find an education in a world that changed like never before. Some generations have passed since then, no longer with the breeding of a dead age, but in a dangerously vibrant time, where motion and force take on the Virgin’s place, but only partially. One would think we’d have an idea of education, then. But we do not. Adams work still resonates today, for those who search for an education walk with him – the chaos of a new age to a man of a dead one is now the chaos of a new age to a people of it.

And so, with this book, we try to find an education, accidental, purposeful, or what have you. Perhaps, like Adams, we will never really find what we seek. But while searching, Adams serves as an excellent guide. Highly recommended.

1 Comment

  1. Good to see you reading “Henry Adams,” which I plan to reread again sometime in the next year or two (it was one of those books I rushed through in my twenties). I’d argue that legacy is just as important to understanding the book as wisdom. I think one of Adams’ points was how silly it was for humans to bandy about legacies when the world will dwarf them in a blink of an eye. I also think you’d dig John P. Marquand, Kevin, who used similar themes in his fiction.

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