- Paperback: 538 pages
- Publisher: Nabu Press (January 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1141869330
- ISBN-13: 978-1141869336
- Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 1.1 x 9.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 106 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,274,947 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography
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Many great artists have had at least intermittent doubts about their own abilities. But The Education of Henry Adams is surely one of the few masterpieces to issue directly from a raging inferiority complex. The author, to be sure, had bigger shoes to fill than most of us. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were U.S. presidents. His father, a relative underachiever, scraped by as a member of Congress and ambassador to the Court of St. James. But young Henry, born in Boston in 1838, was destined for a walk-on role in his nation's history--and seemed alarmingly aware of the fact from the time he was an adolescent.
It gets worse. For the author could neither match his exalted ancestors nor dismiss them as dusty relics--he was an Adams, after all, formed from the same 18th-century clay. "The atmosphere of education in which he lived was colonial," we are told,
revolutionary, almost Cromwellian, as though he were steeped, from his greatest grandmother's birth, in the odor of political crime. Resistance to something was the law of New England nature; the boy looked out on the world with the instinct of resistance; for numberless generations his predecessors had viewed the world chiefly as a thing to be reformed, filled with evil forces to be abolished, and they saw no reason to suppose that they had wholly succeeded in the abolition; the duty was unchanged.Here, as always, Adams tells his story in a third-person voice that can seem almost extraplanetary in its detachment. Yet there's also an undercurrent of melancholy and amusement--and wonder at the specific details of what was already a lost world.
Continuing his uphill conquest of the learning curve, Adams attended Harvard, which didn't do much for him. ("The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught.") Then, after a beer-and-sausage-scented spell as a graduate student in Berlin, he followed his father to Washington, D.C., in 1860. There he might have remained--bogged down in "the same rude colony ... camped in the same forest, with the same unfinished Greek temples for workrooms, and sloughs for roads"--had not the Civil War sent Adams père et fils to London. Henry sat on the sidelines throughout the conflict, serving as his father's private secretary and anxiously negotiating the minefields of English society. He then returned home and commenced a long career as a journalist, historian, novelist, and peripheral participant in the political process--a kind of mouthpiece for what remained of the New England conscience.
He was not, by any measure but his own, a failure. And the proof of the pudding is The Education of Henry Adams itself, which remains among the oddest and most enlightening books in American literature. It contains thousands of memorable one-liners about politics, morality, culture, and transatlantic relations: "The American mind exasperated the European as a buzz-saw might exasperate a pine forest." There are astonishing glimpses of the high and mighty: "He saw a long, awkward figure; a plain, ploughed face; a mind, absent in part, and in part evidently worried by white kid gloves; features that expressed neither self-satisfaction nor any other familiar Americanism..." (That would be Abraham Lincoln; the "melancholy function" his Inaugural Ball.) But most of all, Adams's book is a brilliant account of how his own sensibility came to be. A literary landmark from the moment it first appeared, the Autobiography confers upon its author precisely that prize he felt had always eluded him: success. --James Marcus --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
Autobiographical work by Henry Adams that was privately printed in 1906 and published in 1918. Considered to be one of the most distinguished examples of the genre, the Education combines autobiography, bildungsroman, and critical evaluation of an age. Its chapter entitled "The Dynamo and the Virgin" contrasts the Virgin Mary, the unifying force acting on the European Middle Ages, with the dynamo, as representative of the forces of technology and industry acting upon civilization in the early 20th century. Adams marks the destruction of the human values that supported the achievements of his forebears and fears a future age driven by corruption and greed. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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For the record, Henry’s great-grandfather was the second US president, John Adams (signatory of the Declaration of Independence), then his grandfather John Quincy Adams the sixth president, and his father the US ambassador to England during the Civil War. His maternal grandfather Peter Chardon Brooks was one of the 100 wealthiest Americans, a merchant millionaire, which was rare in the 1700s and early 1800s.
Adams was alive twenty-two years before the Civil War, and from his earliest years was appalled at slavery and the retrograde violation of human dignity in the southern defense of slavery (100). He met presidents from, of course, his grandfather John Quincy, through Zachary Taylor, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and many more, through twentieth-century presidents McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. He died in 1918, the same year that World War I ended. It was a long way from the early American pioneer days of 1838 when he was born. When Adams was born, transportation and communication had not changed in 10,000 years. When he died he had seen the introduction of new transportation and communication that the twentieth century took for granted.
Henry served as assistant to the ambassador to England for eight years when he was fresh out of Harvard University. Returning to the US around 1869 he started a career he loved as a journalist. But his family, friends, and professors he respected, persuaded him to take the position of history professor at Harvard. He did it for seven years. One of his students was Henry Cabot Lodge.
Other than the friends he made during this period, he hated teaching and considered it a waste of seven years. He had little faith in standard teaching methods and outcomes. He valued the active mind and to “know how to learn” rather than the stuff that people spend most of their time studying (314). He believed in slower-paced learning to more fully and deeply absorb subjects as opposed to fast-paced surface learning.
On the other hand, he felt a little guilty after Harvard had greeted him as an adult with open arms: “Yet nothing in the vanity of life struck him as more humiliating than that Harvard College, which he had persistently criticized, abused, abandoned, and neglected, should alone have offered him a dollar, an office, an encouragement, or a kindness” (305).
He returned to his writing career, which over his lifetime included novels, the eight-volume History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, historical and legal essays, the two books I’ve reviewed, and many others. He was one of America’s most esteemed historians though he spent his life with a sense of personal failure and a low estimation of his own education.
His lifelong pursuit was to extrapolate and understand the trajectory of human evolution, socially, politically, industrially, scientifically, theologically, and technologically. One of his comments on human evolutionary development sounds very modern. As history students know, Ulysses S. Grant had been a great general, but was corrupt as president. Speaking of Grant, Adams cuts to the chase: “He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. … That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, a man like Grant should be called…the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. … Darwinists ought to conclude that America was reverting to the stone age” (266).
The Education is rife with insightful commentary on the world spinning around him, sometimes moving too fast to comprehend, sometimes moving incomprehensively backwards. He saw paradigm-shift inventions from telegraph and trains, to telephone and automobiles (he even bought a car in his later years), steam then electricity, inventions like photography, then film and the early Hollywood silent films, finally airplanes and the discovery of radium and radiation.
Adams traveled more than most Americans in the nineteenth century. He spent many years throughout Europe, Russia, Asia, Africa, the Pacific islands and the Caribbean. He was an early observer of the merging of Western Cultures, noting “Hamburg was almost as American as St. Louis” (414).
The Education has hidden treasures, offhand observations that end up being the most memorable. For example, he notes the affectation of eccentric behaviors in people considered highly eccentric. Eccentricity itself becomes a convention. He observes that “a mind really eccentric never betrayed it. True eccentricity was a tone—a shade—a nuance—and the finer the tone, the truer the eccentricity” (370).
Adams’ final thoughts show his disappointment: “He saw his education complete, and was sorry he ever began it” (458). He abhorred the ever-worsening “persistently fiendish treatment of man by man;…the perpetual symbolism of a higher law, and the perpetual relapse to a lower one” and principals of freedom deteriorating into principals of power and the “despotism of artificial order” (458), referring to the rise of corporate dominance over society. He particularly disliked the growing influence of corporate power: “The Trusts and Corporations stood for the larger part of the new power that had been created since 1840, and were obnoxious because of their vigorous and unscrupulous energy…They tore society to pieces and trampled it under foot” (500).
Adams had good friends who met tragic fates, his wife committed suicide at a young age, and as he grew older, found himself “A solitary man of sixty-five years or more, alone in a Gothic cathedral or a Paris apartment…” (460). So this is The Education of Henry Adams. You may wonder why I liked it so much, and recommend it. The book is a retrospective provided by one of our most observant students of life, with access to the most interesting places and people in their most interesting times. The book itself is a fascinating education for anyone who reads it.
Author of Call of the Active Mind
An eighteenth century man's disposition dealing with a nineteenth century reality, this book is a road map for trends and developments not only on a personal level but on a national and international political level. What were antebellum attitudes like in the Unitarian Church of Boston, Massachusetts, the nation as a whole you have it here. Too complex yet interesting are his views on otherness i.e.North-South, Mass-Virginia, Washington-New York-New England, England- France-Germany (Germany had still not become united at the time span of much of this book) educational theories before Dewey got his hands on it, etc. etc. etc.
Even his asides as to what his feelings, emotions and observations about the members of the US Senate, Risorgimento Italy, Garabaldi, Rome (pre-tourism flood) are food for thought and of course education French style, German style, New England style (do not forget he saw the different cultural boundaries in America) are not only prescient but almost prophetic (the shift in the English - French- German - American - alliances). Truly he was an American De Tocqueville.
A profound experience, this is still one of the great books of American literature.
As to the contents -- this is widely known as a difficult book to read, and I agree wholeheartedly. Takes real commitment to slog through it. (Very difficult to believe it won a Pulitzer!) But it has its rewards. The book covers a fascinating range of US history, from before the Civil War into the early years of the 20th century under President Roosevelt. Henry knew and writes of an incredible array of people from politics, the arts, and society. And his travels took him to Paris. London, the South Pacific, the Rockies, and throughout Europe.
The vocabulary and constant references to historical figures, events, mythology and literature almost demand constant side trips to look up the references. So reading it on a Kindle might be easier because you have access to the definitions and so on directly from the device. I spoent a lot of time on Wikipedia and other sites while I was trying to read this!
Little was said about the role that Elizabeth Sherman Cameron played in his "education". His description of the British involvement in the American Civil war was enlightening.