The Education of Henry Adams

Henry_Adams_seated_at_desk_in_dark_coat,_writing,_photograph_by_Marian_Hooper_Adams,_1883What one knows is, in youth, of little moment;
they know enough, who know how to learn.”

The reader is subject to serial passions. One series is a fascination with the Adams family. After reading about John Adams, Abigail Adams, John and Abigail’s marriage, John Quincy Adams — the reader took up The Education of Henry Adams.  This was not her first attempt, but she was determined to see it through to the end. It took great determination; at the end of Disc 16, she let out a whoop of relief.

Henry Adams was a lifetime learner, an attribute that caused a small measure of affinity between the reader and the subject of the book. (The reader shall be named Lifetime Learner Carol, or LLC.) Adams scorned his formal education in Quincy and at Harvard College, claiming he learned more through travel, studies abroad, friends and mentors. He called this learning “an accidental education.”

Some parts interested LLC: the view of the War Between the States from England; his perspective on Henry Cabot Lodge and Teddy Roosevelt; his opinion of politics, the extensive travels. Other parts,  e.g. conflict between Lord Palmerston and Earl Russell, were snoozers. LLC lacked the mental agility to follow the philosophy of the Unity and the Multiplicity. How a man who was a Darwinian for fun, inclined towards anarchy, became enamored with the Virgin Mary…that confused LLC. The distance in thought between John Adams and his great-grandson Henry Adams — more confusion.

Henry Adams omits twenty years of his education, the most painful span of his life. In those decades he married his wife Clover; twelve years later she, in a bout of depression, committed suicide. Some are aghast that Adams does not mention his wife, but LLC believes the omission is consistent the clinical tone of the book.

Adams closes the book, writing about 1905, “For the first time in fifteen hundred years a true Roman pax was in sight…”  Tragically, the twentieth century was the least peaceful period of history.

One element is memorable: Henry Adams writes his autobiography in the third person. LLC decided to mimic Henry in this review. If one wants to glean the pithy quotes, one does not need to read 505 pages or listen to 16 discs; look here or here or here.

LLC finds that one book completed yields two books to finish: Henry Adams’ Mont Saint-Michel and Chartres (and then it is good-bye Henry!) and David McCullough’s The Greater Journey, Americans in Paris (but McCullough is always a hello!).


(photograph of her husband taken by Marian “Clover” Hooper Adams, 1883)