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The Education Of Henry Adams

I recently finished reading the  autobiographical work , The Education Of Henry Adams. It was a rather chewy tome (or tomes, since I own it in two volumes.)

Adams was part of America's first political dynasty. His great grandfather was President John Adams and his grandfather was John Quincy Adams. His father,  Charles Adams, was a congressman and Abraham Lincoln's ambassador to Great Britain.Henry Adams was , of course, a writer.

The "education" in the title of this book refers to formal education but more largely to his life experience and what he learned from it. He starts the record very early. In the first chapter he reports:

 "He found himself sitting on a yellow kitchen floor in strong sunlight. He was three years old when he took  this earliest  step in education; a lesson of color. "

Even though he artfully uses small details, he doesn't feel the need (as more modern autobiographers do) to tell us about every scrap of lint he removes from his navel. He was there  for some of the most important events in 19th century American history. Adams  was his father's assistant  when he was Lincoln's ambassador, trying to squelch intervention of Great Britain on behalf of the Confederacy. He worked as a journalist writing of the scandals of the Grant Administration. He was around for the Free Silver movement, and was damaged by the panic of 1893 that occurred around the same time. The assassination of two Presidents, Lincoln and McKinley, took place in his life time.

Adams was a talented writer. His writing can be beautifully ornate, as when he describes

"the overpowering beauty and sweetness of the Maryland autumn, almost unendurable for its strain on one who  had toned his life down to the November grays and browns of northern Europe.".

At other times he is pithy and clever, as when he asserts " Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit" or in one of his most famous remarks writes  " The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest.".

The book has been criticized for Adams insistent use of the third person. It does seem a bit contrived , and his detachment is so extreme that at times it is best described as fourth person.  For instance, I was struck by his description of " the gray-headed moth that had fluttered through many moth-administrations and had singed his wings more or less in them all".  It took me a minute to realize that the moth was Adams.

In a lot of places you can tell the book  was originally written in the 19th century for a private audience. Some of it can be difficult to follow if  you don't already know some 19th century American History.

But these are small flaws (if they are flaws at all.)  The book strikes an excellent balance between Adams' inner life and his observations of the world around him, and can at various times be philosophically rigorous or strikingly poignant without ever seeming like a hodgepodge.
This is a book that both requires and rewards effort. I would include it with  Essays Of Montaigne and The Brothers Karamazov on my  list of  great books that I actually think are great.

There are many engaging themes, interesting facts, and eloquent writing I have not discussed in this review. It is hard to do this book justice. If you are interested in exploring it further, or just plain reading it, it is available at bartleby.com