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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Henry Adams

At his birth Henry Brooks Adams, the grandson and great-grandson of American presidents, entered a privileged world. Along with his political name he also inherited a special responsibility: to bear witness, through writing, to the complexity of life. Today Adams owes his popular reputation to a single record of that kind, The Education of Henry Adams, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1919. Yet over a long and productive career as a writer, he also produced a substantial body of essays, biographies, novels, letters, and histories, which largely reward our attention.

Adams's earliest publications, dating from his undergraduate years at Harvard University, from 1854 to 1858, pointed directions for his later work. As he wrote of men, architecture, and books, the young Adams testified to the high seriousness of his concern for human experience as a field of lifelong investigation. Yet he knew his preparation to be incomplete. After graduation and a tour of Europe first he settled in Germany, where he mastered German historical method, the most rigorous type of scholarship available at the time. Then, at the behest of his father, Charles Francis Adams, elected to Congress in 1860, Henry moved to Washington to serve as a private secretary (and as a secret correspondent for the Boston Daily Advertiser). In 1861 Henry went to London, spending the years of the Civil War there while his father served as President Lincoln's Minister to the Court of St. James's. From this diplomatic outpost the son wrote letters, dispatches, and essays, honing his thoughts on politics, history, science, and English and American culture—in writings that display the intellectual skills of a critic.

Back in Washington after the war, Adams enlisted his literary talents in the service of political reform, writing essays and reviews in support of such causes as the establishment of the federal civil service system. But the disillusionment caused by the administration of President Ulysses Grant and the growing corruption of American politics quickly foreclosed Adams's personal interest in political service. In 1870 he returned to Boston and Harvard, to begin a joint career as a teacher of history and editor of the prestigious North American Review. By 1872 he had married Marian "Clover" Hooper, whose suicide in 1885 Adams would come to regard as the end of his life in the world. During the 1870s, he also introduced German historical techniques, including the use of original documentary sources and the seminar method, into graduate studies at Harvard.

Adams's own research focused on the medieval period in Europe and on medieval women in various early civilizations. This special interest led him, in December 1876, to deliver a seminal public address on "The Primitive Rights of Women." Later, he would investigate the situation of contemporary American women in two novels, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884). Neither book proposed a solution to the practical problems of being a woman in nineteenth-century America, but both were sympathetic in recognizing how their lack of control over circumstance handicapped women and reduced their effectiveness in human activities. Already, Adams was approaching his far more ambitious theory of feminine force—the important hypothesis developed in his two most celebrated works, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams. In both, Adams drew upon his long study of ancient and modern, "primitive" and "civilized" societies, to conclude that, on the basis of all historical evidence, womenrather than men-represented both the highest standard of moral behavior and the greatest source of human energy. In the figure of the Virgin, for example, woman had exercised her power by inspiring the building of a great cathedral at Chartres. In his own time, however, Adams saw the force of the Virgin superseded by new scientific forces, symbolized by the modern dynamo. History, in Adams's view, traced the path between the two.

Long before he fixed on the technology of the dynamo and the scientific laws that explained its operation as a way of interpreting human history, Adams had considered the possibilities of a more conventional history—as a narrative of events that emphasized the roles played by great men. His classic nine-volume History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1888-1891) used Germanic scholarly methods to examine American life from 1800 to 1816. It failed, however, to locate any convenient key in the American past that could be used predictivelyto lay out an American future. Increasingly as he grew older, and as the closing chapters of The Education reveal, Adams sought to find such a key, in history, literature, science, and personal experience. But he never succeeded, at least to his own satisfaction.

Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (which was privately printed in 1904 and published in 1913) was less an attempt to write conventional history than a compelling invitation to sample the joys of medieval life, including medieval architecture, in which the Virgin is a unifying force. As autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (privately printed in 1907 and published in 1918 after the author's death) is also unconventional—in its use of the third person point of view and its complete silence about Adams's wife and married life. The Education tells Adams's story as both unique and representative. As a member of a presidential family his experience was special. But as a man living at a time when the eighteenth-century qualities of civic virtue and service (which had made the Adams name) no longer seem useful, a time that offered the individual only marginal control over the impersonal forces at work in the world, Adams treats his failure as typical. Modern science and technology have brought unforeseen results, and Adams, lacking sufficient explanation, has been reduced to the same diminutive role played by the nineteenth-century woman. Unless his readers, alive in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, can learn to educate themselves more efficiently, Adams argues, their later experience will be no better than his.

Earl N. Harbert
Independent scholar/editor

In the Heath Anthology
from Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres
      Chapter VI: "The Virgin of Chartres" (1904)
from The Education of Henry Adams
      Chapter XXV: "The Dynamo and the Virgin" (1907)

Other Works
The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879)
Democracy: An American Novel (anon.) (1880)
John Randolph (1882)
Esther: A Novel (1884)
History of the United States of America During the Administration of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1884)
Historical Essays (1891)

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The Education of Henry Adams: A Hypertext
Complete digitized version of the text.

A Chronology of Henry Adams's Life
A detailed history of his travels and literary accomplishments.

Perspectives in American Literature: A Research and Reference Guide
Gives primary and secondary bibliographies.

Secondary Sources

Edward Chalfant, Both Sides of the Ocean: A Biography of Henry Adams: His First Life, 1838-1862, 1982

Edward Chalfant, Better in Darkness: His Second Life, 1962-1891, 1994

Edward Chalfant, Improvement of the World: His Last Life, 1891-1918 (forthcoming)

David Contosta, ed., Henry Adams and His World, 1993

William Dusinberre, Henry Adams: The Myth of Failure, 1980

Earl. N. Harbert, The Force So Much Closer Home: Henry Adams and the Adams Family, 1982

Earl N. Harbert, ed., Critical Essays on Henry Adams, 1981

Henry Adams: A Reference Guide, 1978

Ernest Samuels, The Young Henry Adams, 1948

William H. Jordy, Henry Adams: Scientific Historian, 1952

J.C. Levenson, The Mind and Art of Henry Adams, 1957

Robert Mane, Henry Adams on the Road to Chartres, 1971

Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams: the Middle Years, 1958

Ernest Samuels, Henry Adams: The Major Phase, 1964

Vern Wagner, The Suspension of Henry Adams, 1969