It is difficult to know where to begin and, on the face of it, impossible to do justice to one of the underappreciated masterpieces of American letters, The Education of Henry Adams. Sweeping across the nineteenth century from 1838 to 1905, The Education presents Henry Adams, who writes of himself in the third person, as a wry, slightly foolish, even feckless steam-age Socrates—knowing he knows nothing, agog at how little anyone else does, wondering at the massive transformations buckling and warping his world, from Darwinian evolution to railroads to the Civil War to Cunard ships.
The book breaks neatly in two, as Adams saw his life. The first twenty chapters give us young Adams, from his birth to his thirty-third year, when he took up a professorship at Harvard. We get his youth among the Adams clan, his schooling at Harvard, his grim years “studying” in Germany, his service as personal secretary during the Civil War to his father, then ambassador to England, and his return to America after.
The greater part of the first half concerns his time in London and his political and social education there. Adams’s irony is so deep and his humor so deft that it’s difficult at times to know exactly what he means by education—the word is variously used to mean background and status, disillusionment, sophistication, privilege, the grounding of first principles, or sometimes mere habit. There seems in these earlier chapters a recurring tension between “education” as such and experience, which provides its lessons, and constantly thwarts assimilation and unification. What’s more, truth itself is up for grabs: Adams is as much a perspectivalist as that other Henry, James, or Nietzsche even.
At one point Adams, while working for his father in London, asks Thurlow Weed if he thought “no politician could be trusted.” Weed replied that he never advised a young man to begin by thinking so.
This lesson, at the time, translated itself to Adams in a moral sense, as though Mr. Weed had said: “Youth needs illusions!” As he grew older he rather thought that Mr. Weed looked on it as a question of how the game should be played. Young men most needed experience. They could not play well if they trusted to a general rule. Every card had relative value. Principles had better be left aside; values were enough.
One of the great joys of The Education is that Adams’s perspectivalism—presented as the consistent failure of his education to establish reliable lessons—gives him a light touch with the complex character portraits he draws of various figures, mostly political, from Ulysses S. Grant to Charles Sumner to his friend John Hay, whose death dominates the book’s close.
The first half ends with chapters titled “Chaos” and “Failure,” which with typically gracious and dark irony tell of his finally beginning a career, as a history professor at Harvard and editor of the North American Review. The second half begins with “Twenty Years Later,” picking up in 1892, leaving unaddressed his career, his major literary and historical works (excepting, of course, The Education, and Mont-St. Michel), his marriage and widowhood, and what may have been his fullest years, in Washington. It was there, from 1877 to 1885, where he, his wife Clover, John Hay and his wife, Clara, and Clarence King formed the “Five of Hearts,” a close circle of constant friendship and discussion.
His wife’s suicide in 1885, though not written of in The Education, hangs over the last half of the book like November gloom. In the last fifteen chapters Adams remains as engaged with the world, wry, sharp, and thoughtful as in the first twenty, but his lightness dissipates, and the irony with which he had looked on his youth with mirth turns bitter. Yet as the shadows around his own life deepen and gather, the world before him grows ever more spectacular and insane, and we get a remarkably clear-sighted attempt to grapple with the power and meaning of the technological and scientific transformations we so blithely today call “modernity.”
At times horrified, at times enthusiastic, always curious and even enthralled, Adams reckons with a world he knows he cannot compass, trying to bring order to chaos, unity to multiplicity, comparing what he calls The Virgin and The Dynamo (two modes of force, that of feminine spirituality and that of mechanical capitalism), desperate to understand the science of his day, stretching his mind to grasp mortality and infinity in radium, evolution, empire, and the pteraspis. His own world, as strange as it seemed, was passing—yet of what was to come he could only guess. Gibbon’s Decline and Fall echoes constantly through The Education, but Adams’s story is one of birth as well as decline, and it is in attempting to limn the inchoate form of the future that Adams is most striking. His medieval sense of awe, his perspectivalism, and his eighteenth-century sensibility make him as perceptive a prophet as he is a historian.
A historian who asked only to learn enough to be as futile as Langley or Kelvin, made rapid progress… and mixed himself up in the tangle of ideas until he achieved a sort of Paradise of ignorance vastly consoling to his fatigued senses. He wrapped himself in vibrations and rays which were new, and he would have hugged Marconi and Branly had he met them, as he hugged the dynamo; while he lost his arithmetic in trying to figure out the equation between the discoveries and the economies of force. The economies, like the discoveries, were absolute, supersensual, occult; incapable of expression in horse-power. What mathematical equivalent could he suggest as the value of a Branly coherer? Frozen air, or the electric furnace, had some scale of measurement, no doubt, if somebody could invent a thermometer adequate to the purpose; but X-rays had played no part whatever in men’s consciousness, and the atom itself had figured only as a fiction of thought. In these seven years man had translated himself into a new universe which had no common scale of measurement with the old. He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his senses, perhaps even imperceptible to his sense, but perceptible to each other, and to some known ray at the end of the scale. Langley seemed prepared for anything, even for an indeterminable number of universes interfused—physics stark mad in metaphysics.
So we remain—in a world where scientists have just announced that some neutrinos go faster than light, which means backwards in time, which means causality as we know it is incoherent—where I post this in New Jersey to be read instantly in the Ukraine and Indonesia, where the United States runs a global military-commercial empire on guard against China, where international stock markets heave and shudder with the inherent contradictions of capitalism, where worldwide industrialization has bent the very weather out of joint, where lunatics run for President against a desperate, hollow technocrat, where chaos darkens every horizon…
We have no more right to be grim than Adams, however, who faced the death of his wife, his friends, and his world with stoicism. The Education itself is a testament to his spirit. I have hardly done justice to this incredible and humane book, unless I have convinced someone to read it. In the end, I can do no better than to finish where Adams does, who in 1905 looked into the future with guarded hope:
Perhaps some day—say 1938, their centenary—they might be allowed to return together for a holiday, to see the mistakes of their successors; and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder.