Henry Adams clung to the idea of a ruling elite in American life

A biography of Henry Adams, a blue-blooded Bostonian descended from two presidents, explores his resistance to societal changes and industrialization.

Simon & Schuster
“The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams” by David S. Brown, Scribner, 464 pp.

Historian and memoirist Henry Adams never forgot the family gardener who, when Adams was a child, made him question his birthright with the stinging reproach, “You’ll be thinkin’ you’ll be President too!” Adams, a great-grandson of Founding Father and second president John Adams and a grandson of sixth president John Quincy Adams, never achieved the political prominence he at one time took for granted. In an excellent new biography, “The Last American Aristocrat: The Brilliant Life and Improbable Education of Henry Adams,” historian David S. Brown vividly conveys Adams’ altogether different accomplishments.

Adams recalled the gardener’s dig in his celebrated autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams.” In the book, in which he refers to himself in the third person, Adams assumes the ironic pose of a failure whose formal schooling (he received a traditional liberal Protestant education at Harvard, where he later taught briefly) left him woefully unprepared for the period of massive flux that followed. 

During his lifetime, Adams, a Boston Brahmin who lived from 1838 to 1918, saw the energy of an increasingly industrial and imperial nation flow westward, away from New England. What’s more, America’s ethnic demographics were changing – Adams pointedly identified that gardener as Irish – leaving ruling-class families feeling displaced. (Brown argues that this feeling in part drove his subject’s notorious anti-Semitism.) As the author observes, “Henry grew up with an increasingly restless, ethnically complex, and democratic nation that had moved beyond the purview of its former first families.”

After serving in London as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, the ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Civil War, Adams returned to the United States, where he became less a participant in politics than a keen observer as a journalist and social critic. In 1872 he married Marian “Clover” Hooper, also from an elite Boston family. Both “intelligent, occasionally caustic, and not a little snobbish,” according to Brown, they moved to Washington, where they became part of a close-knit band of friends, including, most notably, John Hay, who began his career as private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and ended it as Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of state. The friends, Brown writes, “spoke as a group believing itself in possession of all the history, all the fine prizes their nation might bestow, and yet they were also restive in their recognition that this patrician proprietorship appeared to be nearing its end.”

Adams dealt with this sense of decline by looking backward. He devoted a dozen years to writing the nine-volume masterwork “The History of the United States of America” covering the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. At a time when history was less a profession than a pursuit self-financed by aristocratic gentlemen, he used family connections to gain access to previously inaccessible archives in Europe. Somewhat neglected in his time and our own, the volumes are nevertheless highly regarded among historians today.

A Francophile with a home in Paris, Adams later immersed himself in medieval culture. His “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres,” a meditation on the famed French cathedrals, is also considered a classic. The book reflects his doubts, Brown writes, in “booming America’s ability to match the cultured achievements of feudal Europe.”

His skepticism of the narrative of American progress reached its fullest expression in “Education,” his best-known work. According to his wishes, the book, which he distributed among friends when it was written, wasn’t published until after his death; it won the Pulitzer Prize the following year and is widely considered among the best nonfiction books of the 20th century.

“The Education of Henry Adams,” which assesses its author’s life through the lens of modernity’s uncertainties, resists characterization as a traditional autobiography – not only because of its affected ironic pose but because of its evasive author’s omissions. Most notably, the book includes no mention of his 13-year marriage to Clover, who suffered from severe depression and committed suicide in 1885. Adams, devastated, rarely spoke of his wife thereafter, and he referred to his remaining years as his “posthumous life.”

Despite his subject’s caginess, Brown is able to bring Adams fully to life with the help of a trove of surviving letters. These offer Adams' smart, observant, and frequently catty impressions of public events and public figures and of matters more private, including his decades-long love for his unattainable friend Elizabeth Cameron, wife of Senator J. Donald Cameron, whom he met while he himself was married and continued to pine for after Clover’s death.

Throughout Adams’ life, and even after the loss of his wife, he retained a capacious interest in the world, immersing himself in the international expositions in Paris, Chicago, and St. Louis, and traveling widely, not only throughout Europe but to Japan, the South Pacific, Cuba, the American West, and Russia. Adding to the sense that Adams was everywhere and saw everything, he even had tickets – never to be used, of course – on the Titanic’s maiden return voyage to Europe.

Adams’ body of work alone makes him a significant literary figure. But Brown also argues for his subject’s importance as “a transitional figure, one bridging the chasm between ‘colonial’ and ‘modern.’” Indeed, for American history enthusiasts, Adams offers invaluable impressions of an extraordinary time of change; in turn, Brown has produced an indispensable study of the fascinating, tragic, and flawed figure who formed them.

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