Ideas & Events: Arts & Letters

By the time Henry Adams was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1919—for his groundbreaking autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams—four generations of Adamses had completed the sweeping arc of personal and intellectual development that John Adams foretold in 1780.

Where John and John Quincy Adams were brilliant politicians and statesmen who also happened to be gifted writers, Charles Francis Adams was a reluctant public servant whose great passions were literary in nature: He edited his grandparents’ papers and letters and built the Stone Library on the grounds of the family homestead. Charles’s sons, Henry and Brooks, completed the transition. They were, first and foremost, men of arts and letters who also retained a lifelong interest in politics and government. Brooks was a respected academic in his day and an intellectual sparring partner who helped Henry develop his ideas. However, Henry was the brother who made a lasting mark on American culture.

Henry Adams—Journalist, novelist, biographer

Following the Civil War, Henry’s political journalism appeared in respected periodicals such as The Nation and the North American Review, often focusing on corruption in government and big business. In 1880, he anonymously published the novel Democracy, which depicted a culture of corruption in the nation’s capital. The book set tongues wagging among Washington’s elite, who speculated over its authorship and guessed which characters were based on real-life figures. During the same period, Adams also published biographies of historical figures Albert Gallatin, John Randolph, and George Cabot Lodge.

Reflecting on history, recent and distant

Between 1889 and 1891, Henry Adams completed The History of the United States of America (1801 to 1817), nine volumes that analyzed important developments in U.S. democracy during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Called “a neglected masterpiece” by historian Garry Wills and still studied in other countries, it is one of the works most frequently requested by foreign visitors to the Stone Library at the Adams National Historical Park.

In 1904, Adams issued a private printing of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, which was later published by the American Institute of Architects. The book explores the unity of medieval society, as embodied in the great cathedrals of France. Addressed to his nieces and “nieces in wish,” this was no dry academic tome but a soaring meditation on history, religion, architecture, and spirituality. It begins, “The Archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower that crowned his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, standing on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth. … The Archangel stands for Church and State, and both militant.”

A life examined

Henry Adams’s fame as a writer rests largely on his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, which was completed in 1907, when he was nearing 70, and distributed to a small circle of friends. Published after Adams’s death in 1918, it was named one of the top 100 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.

The Education recounts the lifelong dilemma of a man who has been educated for one era but must make his way in another. Describing his birth in the shadow of the Massachusetts Statehouse, amid “a nest of associations so colonial,” Adams frames the central question of his life: “What could become of such a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the twentieth?”

He traces his sense of dislocation to the rise of technology and commerce, which were already taking hold in his youth. “He and his eighteenth-century, troglodytic Boston were suddenly cut apart … by the opening of the Boston and Albany Railroad; the appearance of the first Cunard steamers in the bay; and the telegraphic messages which carried from Baltimore to Washington the news that Henry Clay and James K. Polk were nominated for the Presidency. This was in May, 1844; he was six years old; his new world was ready for use, and only fragments of the old met his eyes.”

The new century

Writing in the third person, an innovation in the genre of autobiography, the aging Adams observes Adams the boy, the youth, and the mature man, only omitting the 20 years that spanned his marriage to Clover and his period of mourning after her death. The America he describes early in the twentieth century, epitomized by New York City, will seem familiar to readers today: awe-inspiring, unsettling, and a harbinger of things to come. “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable, nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid,” he wrote. “All New York was demanding new men, and all the new forces, condensed into corporations, were demanding a new type of man … for whom they were ready to pay millions at sight.”

The Education ends in 1905, with the death of Adams’s great friend John Hay. Another close friend, Clarence King, had died four years earlier, and so, wrote Adams, “It was time to go. The three friends had begun life together; and the last of the three (Adams) had no motive–no attraction–to carry it on after the others had gone. Education had ended for all three, and only beyond some remoter horizon could its values be fixed or renewed.”