Henry Adams (1838-1918)
Contributing Editor: Earl N. Harbert
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Explain Henry Adams's point of view as an outsider even when he writes about his own life. Note also his allusive, old-fashioned prose style, which is so different from that of (for example) Hemingway. Discuss Adams's lack of dependence on the economic rewards that his writings might bring, and his unusual authorial attitudes. Also important is an extended exploration of the meaning and usefulness of his key symbols.
In teaching Henry Adams, especially the entries included in The Heath Anthology, I have enjoyed the largest success when I emphasized the following five themes:
1. Although born into a tradition of elite political, social, and intellectual leadership, Henry Adams yet remained essentially an observer rather than a participant in the robust American life of the 1860- 1912 period. Writing in all literary forms, his point of view is that of an outsider--even when he tells about his own life (as the third-person narration in the Education demonstrates).
2. A writer by choice, tradition, and careful training, Adams's economic independence allowed him always to do the work of his choice; namely, to pursue a broadly cultural and historical study of the past and present (represented in the selections from Chartres and the Education).
3. As a pioneer in intellectual history, as well as an interested student of science, Henry Adams sought to measure the European twelfth century against the American late nineteenth and early twentieth century. His method concentrated on the vital principles that characterized both eras. Thus, the medieval virgin (religion) appears first in Chartres and later is compared and contrasted with the modern dynamo (the force of electric power), when the conjunction becomes explicit in Chapter 25 of the Education. The same symbolic progression Adams uses to suggest the path of his personal intellectual voyage to increased understanding.
4. Adams's poem defines this intellectual journey in a more personal and perhaps a more compelling form. In particular, it reveals the deference (or even skepticism) that prevents the author from accepting simplistic judgments on history, religion, and other topics that he discusses.
5. As Adams shows in the letter to James, at its best, the thought and writing of Henry Adams resist what he finds to be the narrow parochialism of American experience. Building on this belief, Adams attempts to move his readers toward some larger understanding--even at some artistic cost in didacticism and possible misinterpretation.
As a practical minimum preparation for any instructor, and as the next step for any interested student, I recommend a careful reading of the entire The Education of Henry Adams, edited by Ernest Samuels.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. Henry Adams's life of privilege, born into a family that had achieved three generations of elite political and intellectual leadership.
2. Henry Adams's displacement from that role in the U.S. from 1860 to 1918.
3. Henry Adams's life-long concern with finding in history (human experience) some key to understanding and useful application.
4. Henry Adams's reclusive, "anti-confessional" pose as author (versus moderns and post-moderns).
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Consider the definitions of autobiography and biography as matters of traditional literary form, but modified significantly in Henry Adams's work.
I raise the question of the initial audience for Adams's private printings of both works. Thus, questions of interpretation become relative to considerations of audience.